China Power

China’s Train Crash Mystery

A crash on the high-speed Beijing to Shanghai line has major implications for public perceptions over corruption.

A deadly train collision on a Chinese high-speed rail line Saturday, with the death toll currently at 35, has reopened questions about corruption and safety oversights in the rapidly growing network. Coming only a few weeks after the new Beijing-Shanghai line opened on the Communist Party’s 90th birthday, the accident creates a difficult situation for Chinese leaders, with a major corruption scandal now becoming a national tragedy.

A stalled train was rear-ended by another train, knocking three carriages off of a bridge and demolishing two. The accident was caused by at least two failures: the first train losing power, which official statements have attributed to a lightning strike, and then the second train failing to stop. Trains have been stopping on the tracks frequently in the past few weeks, with the Beijing-Shanghai line halting for hours three times in the month it has been in service. Railway officials have blamed power failures – including the one that led to Saturday’s fatal accident – on lightning strikes, but the Beijing-Shanghai line has stopped at least once in dry weather.

Still unexplained, the crash is a major embarrassment for the Communist Party.  Leaders have placed a lot of chips on the expanding high-speed rail network, rushing the completion of the Beijing-Shanghai line in order to open it during celebrations for the 90th anniversary of the Party's founding.  The Chinese High-Speed Railway company has been seen as a national champion, seeking contracts to build similar lines overseas. These ambitions will be set back considerably by the accident.

But it has also become a symbol of corruption, with the arrest last year of the chief of the railways ministry, who is accused of embezzling millions of dollars’ worth of high-speed rail funds. The high-speed rail system has been accused of using shoddy materials and running trains faster than their planned top speed.  The railways ministry has also become mired in debt, owing about 1.3 trillion RMB, or $201 billion, by the end of 2009.

With reports of corruption in the railway companies long in public view, it has proven impossible to stop online discussions from drawing connections between poor governance and the disaster.  Suspicions have focussed on a train car that was buried within hours after the crash. Netizens have argued that it was buried to destroy evidence – and some seem to believe that it contained bodies in order to reduce the official death count. So far, official responses that it was done to safeguard Chinese technical secrets have persuaded few.  An informal poll on the Sina microblog service has found that less than 2 percent of about 63,000 respondents credited official explanations.

The accident, drawing together public outrage about corruption with a widespread perception that the government does little to protect the safety of its people, has the potential to force a renewed focus on good governance among party leaders.  Three senior rail officials in Shanghai have already been fired.