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Deadly train crash in China provokes outrage

By Adrienne Mong and Bo Gu

BEIJING--It's the kind of disaster that provokes deep sorrow, anger, and the shaking of heads.

Barely a month after China launched its much-vaunted Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail link, two so-called bullet trains collided near the eastern city of Wenzhou, south of Shanghai, killing dozens of people and injuring hundreds more.

The trains that crashed are technically not part of the high-speed rail network that China has been aggressively building out across the country, but they are said to be the first generation of high-speed technology adopted by the Chinese.

Philippe Lopez / AFP - Getty Images

Chen Shengqiao, who lost his 12-year-old daughter Chen Yijie in the train accident, is helped by relatives as he cries after identifying her body at a crematorium in the town of Shuangyu on July 25.

It’s still unclear what exactly happened, but most reports say lightning struck a train travelling from Hangzhou to Fuzhou.  The train lost power and stalled on the tracks.  A second train travelling in the same direction then hit the first train from behind, causing two cars from the first train and four cars from the second to derail.  Two of the cars fell off the bridge, leaving a third dangling in the air

Although many people were horrified by the tragedy and the dramatic pictures, anger quickly set in.

“We are all passengers”

Widespread dissatisfaction and complaints were already brewing online days after the launch of the new Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail link.  In at least three separate suspensions of service just after its opening, several new trains were delayed due to poor weather, leaving passengers stuck on trains for hours without air conditioning after the power was shut down.

Saturday’s collision only fuelled simmering anger.  Very soon after the crash, Chinese Internet users found a link to a 2007 interview quoting He Huawu, a chief engineer from the Railways Ministry, “Our high speed train will not collide, because of our safety design.”  Zhang Shuguang, another chief engineer who appeared in the same 2007 report, was just suspended this year as part of a corruption investigation.

“This is a big slap on your own face,” said one new comment on the article. 

“Thunder makes two trains collide.  A truck drives past a bridge, then the bridge collapses.  You get kidney stones by drinking milk.  None of us is exempted.  Today’s China is a train running in the thunderstorm, and we are not outsiders.  We are all passengers,” said one Chinese comment on Twitter.

Burying the train car that crashed into the first train triggered another wave of anger.  Michael Anti, a well-known blogger and news critic, said on his Twitter page, “I have never seen this.  Yesterday, the train was derailed, today the compartments are buried.  Every time there is a plane or train crash, the debris is usually collected and checked to find the cause.  Is the Ministry of Railways going nuts?”

His remarks were re-Tweeted many times over, with more people expressing shock and demanding to know why the car was buried.  In response, a Ministry spokesman, Wang Yongping, explained Monday morning that the crash site’s geography was the reason for the burial, that mud under the bridge made it difficult to retrieve the train car.

But Chinese netizens were angry, too, at the disrespect shown to the dead and injured.  “Can’t you just gather the passengers’ belongings and wait for their relatives to collect them instead of just burying them?  There may be clothes they bought together, pictures they took when they travelled together.  In the cell phones, there may be text messages they didn’t want to delete, video to record their lives, or even the last words they said before they died!” said another Internet user on Sina Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter.


A wrecked passenger carriage is lifted off the bridge on July 24.

The cost of speed

The crash also reinforced scepticism about recent Chinese claims that the country is producing the best rail technology.

Two days before Saturday’s crash, the state-run People’s Daily newspaper rebutted criticism of the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail link crowing about its superior technology.

A Chinese Railways Ministry spokesman went even further, claiming his country’s high-speed rail technology was far better than that of Japan’s bullet trains or shinkansen.

In the aftermath of the crash, some Chinese reports suggested an about-face, pointedly saying the trains involved in the collision were not of original Chinese design but the result of joint ventures with Japanese and Canadian rail companies.

In Japan, where the shinkansen network has run for 47 years with a near-perfect safety record, local newspapers leapt into the fray.

“The fear that [the] Chinese high-speed rail system may be dangerous has become a reality,” said the Asahi Shimbun.  “The essential technology was not something they themselves had developed over many years, but instead collected from various countries which some pointed out was susceptible to causing troubles.”

While many Chinese reacted cynically—one person on Twitter swore never to fly on any Chinese-built planes—the rest of the world would be justified in worrying, too.

As our colleague, Ed Flanagan, has pointed out, this is the same country that has built a bridge that was just shipped off to Oakland to be used in an earthquake-prone region. 

With additional reporting from Arata Yamamoto in Tokyo.