Rail accident reveals nation's tensions, contradictions

Coverage of a high-speed rail disaster in China reveals the country's tensions, Steve Kelman observes.

When I arrived in China about 10 days ago, there was a fair amount of complaining in the English-language press about delays and breakdowns in the just-opened high-speed rail between Shanghai and Beijing (a distance somewhat longer than between Boston and Richmond).

It was also a topic that Chinese people brought up spontaneously in discussions in both cities. My own initial reaction when I heard all this chatter was that these were likely just startup difficulties that plague any new system. I have written a teaching case on the Taiwan high-speed rail, and so I know it initially had had similar problems, soon overcome.
 
But over the weekend a major accident occurred on the Shanghai-Beijing high-speed rail that killed 39 people, and injured almost 200, including two Americans. (Here is the link to the story in the New York Times)  One train stopped on a trestle after lightning struck it, and another train hit it from behind, causing several of the cars to plunge into the river below. There was some failure in the warning equipment (or in the human reaction) that is supposed to warn the engineer that there is a stopped train ahead. This raises the question of the quality of safety standards for these trains, which have been built very quickly in a country characterized by pretty high levels of corruption.
 
It has been fascinating watching the story unfold here, though my Chinese is so poor that I have only a vague idea of what has been on local TV. The story indicates both the big social tensions, and also the contradictions, that characterize Chinese society today.
 
Following hot on the heals of grumbling about the train delays and cancellations, the accident seems to have unleashed a storm of popular anger at the government, in a context of resentment over issues such as high housing prices, corruption, and food safety. The anger finds expression in the Chinese equivalents to Twitter called Weibo. (Or in English, “microblogs. Twitter is blocked in China, but the local alternatives are wildly popular.)

On Monday morning the Weibo world was abuzz with a story that when President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in the nearby city of Wenzhou to comfort the injured, they were put up at a very fancy local hotel and that the existing guests were moved out so the government bigwigs could move in. A Chinese friend of mine told me that when she posted the story, which she had read in Weibo, within an hour 100 other people had re-posted her story. There were also links to articles in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times posted on Weibo. The government makes periodic attempts to block words on the Weibo, but this is technically difficult because if a word is blocked, users can start using other Chinese characters that are homonyms to the blocked words. When I asked my friend whether she thought the government would try to block Weibo discussion of the accident, she deadpanned, "If they did, there would be a revolution."
 
It has been fascinating observing local media coverage of the accident. Any American who assumes that the accident has just been covered up would be completely mistaken. This has been the lead story in the English-language, government-owned China Daily for two days, with a story in Monday's paper on the front page continuing to a whole interior page, including drawings and photos. Even more significantly, I watched a Ministry of Railroads press conference this morning on CCTV, the government-run television network  -- this ministry runs the state-owned, high-speed rail system -- and the tone with the journalists seemed almost confrontational. I couldn't understand very much of what was being said (perhaps a Chinese reader who watched this could fill blog readers in on this), but it seemed like the journalists were almost shouting questions at the press spokesman.
 
The Chinese media is really hard for an outsider really to understand, because in some ways it seems quite open about the country's problems, even in editorials, but there are clearly lines that it doesn't go over. I got an interesting insight on this from a professor at a conference I was at, when I commented that it seemed as if the Chinese professors speaking were quite critical of many features of government policy. "There is a lot of freedom in China in discussing problems," he said, "The limitation involves what solutions you can suggest. You cannot say, 'We have these terrible problems, and the solution is to get rid of the Communist Party.'"  An interesting observation about a very interesting country.

NEXT STORY: US-CERT director resigns

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