Aly Song / Reuters
Rescuers carry out rescue operations after two carriages from a bullet train derailed and fell off a bridge in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province.
By NBC News' Ed Flanagan
BEIJING – In the wake of China’s high speed rail collision that killed 40 and injured 191, the Chinese railway ministry is publicly under fire from some unexpected directions – and surprisingly, the China's Communist Party is not censoring the outspoken criticism.
A post yesterday on the popular Chinese blog, Shanghaiist, described unconfirmed reports of a tense confrontation between railway ministry officials and representatives of the local Wenzhou municipal government hours after the collision. In the account, the debate between the two parties over the handling of the rescue and recovery efforts eventually got heated and led to a tense standoff.
Railway officials were allegedly planning to cut the rescue effort short and were demanding to bury the destroyed train carriages underground. They argued that they needed to remove the remainder of the two trains off the track so that they could put the line back into service.
But Wenzhou party officials allegedly argued fiercely against curtailing the search and rescue efforts and dispatched local police to the area to arrest anyone that attempted to bury any of the train cars.
The Wenzhou government’s stand has been hailed by netizens, Their efforts extended the search effort and allowed for the eventual rescue of Xiang Weiyi, a two-year-old baby who was found in one of the carriages 21 hours after the deadly collision and hours after the railway ministry had claimed there were no signs of life in the trains.
Railway officials eventually got their way, too and a train carriage was buried. But the buried train car wasn’t just any carriage; it was the front car of train D301, the train that collided into the rear of the stationary train and a potentially important piece of evidence in piecing together what had happened.
A ministry spokesman, Wang Yongping, later explained that the train car was buried simply to make room for the rescue effort and rather defiantly said that, “This was the explanation offered. Whether you believe it or not, I certainly do.”
Chinese citizens though were not so trusting of the railway ministry’s intentions behind the burial. Online, criticism of the move was swift and resoundingly negative towards the ministry.
An online poll on Sina Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, posed the question to netizens:
“Which reason do you believe for why the train was buried?”
98% responded with the answer: “Destruction of evidence.”
Likely cowed by the intense negative publicity that has enveloped the accident (a story unto itself) and growing accusations of a cover up, the railway ministry was forced to dig up the front carriage just one day after burying it.
Ng Han Guan / AP
Chinese men use metal detectors to search for buried parts of a high-speed train crash to sell the parts for money at the crash site in Wenzhou, southeastern China's Zhejiang province on Friday.
Unfamiliar position for powerful ministry
The hasty recovery of the damaged carriage was a rare reversal for a ministry that historically has been one of the most powerful and autonomous governmental organizations in China.
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the Communist Party has relied on its expansive railway network to be the lifeline that connects the nation.
China’s nearly 48,000 miles of rail track are used every day to move the country’s commercial output to its coast for export, to position military units around the country and to move China’s migrant population to work, including the 230 million rail passengers who traveled during the Chinese New Year holidays this year alone.
With so much riding on the railways, China’s leaders over the years wisely invested in train infrastructure and even went so far as to designate it as its own ministry, separate from the country’s transportation ministry which regulates road, air and water transportation.
Over the decades, the railways ministry has consolidated its power and succeeded in resisting moves to incorporate railway management under the transportation ministry. It was also largely successful in resisting liberalizing political reforms and privatizing efforts that many industries underwent during the last 20 years.
With approximately 2.5 million employees now spread out over 18 railway bureaus and companies, the rail ministry has been able to control every aspect of management from planning and financing to construction and operation with little outside interference.
In 2009 the ministry got a huge windfall when China’s high-speed rail program, already one of the largest and most ambitious in the world at the time, received a $100 billion injection of funds from the Chinese government. The money was part of a multi-prong stimulus package that was designed to kick-off construction work through capital projects around China.
With marching orders to complete the new high speed rail system by 2012 instead of 2020, the railway ministry went on a hiring binge – bringing in 110,000 employees for the recently completed Beijing-Shanghai line.
However, with the injection of so much money came whispers of corruption and graft. Then in February, the minister for railways, Liu Zhijun, and his family came under investigation for embezzlement.
More ominously though, Liu’s arrest led to a closer investigation of the ministry’s books, which revealed Liu’s building frenzy had run up $271 billion in debt. It was a staggering revelation that combined with the railway’s ridership – predominantly low paid migrant workers and middle-class employees – led the World Bank to issue a report warning that any “shortfall in ridership or yield, can quickly create financial stress.”
Betrayed trust, broken pact
Then came the Wenzhou train collision. The public, already stung by revelations of systemic corruption within the railway ministry, now face the distinct possibility that the multi-billion dollar prestige project is defective as well.
So the images beamed from Wenzhou of railway ministry workers cutting up and burying potentially critical evidence for an investigation was viewed by many as a cavalier, if not a cynical cover up by ministry officials.
Whereas in the past government mistakes such as SARS or substandard school buildings in Sichuan could be quietly, but firmly brushed under the proverbial rug, the sustained sense of outrage over this incident appears to suggest that era is gradually coming to an end.
The vehement, largely uncensored criticism that the traditional state-sponsored press and upstart social media today are heaping on the railway ministry marks a shift for the Communist Party – actually allowing its people to vent their frustration.
With the collision of these trains and the ham-handed response by the railway ministry this week, the unspoken social pact that the Party has made with the people to create the environment for economic prosperity in exchange for restricted social freedoms was broken.
That is not to say that the damage from this incident cannot be healed, but it will require time and a patience that the Communist Party has not always factored into its equation for maintaining power.
Qiu Qiming, the host of the news show, “24 Hours,” probably summed up that sentiment and the hopes of many Chinese citizens best when he said, “China, please slow down. If you're too fast, you may leave the souls of your people behind."