Chinese skeptical of explanation for high-speed rail crash

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 26, 2011 

BEIJING — Public criticism grew Tuesday in China over the government's explanation for the weekend crash of two high-speed trains that killed at least 39 people and injured more than 190.

The brewing dissatisfaction offered a rare challenge to China's reputation for being able to build massive infrastructure at a rapid clip.

The high-speed rail system is planned to reach some 10,000 miles by 2020, and spending reportedly has reached $100 billion a year — a grand project meant to convey the nation's rise as a regional and world power.

Instead, after the accident Saturday, when one train rear-ended another, the government was forced to announce a full investigation and then on Tuesday to unveil a two-month, nationwide safety review of its railways.

Those measures did little to silence discontent, however. Some Chinese who are following the situation expressed doubts about the official explanation for the accident, that a freak lightning strike caused the lead train to stall, setting up a following train to plow into it. Others have asked: Even if that was the case, why wasn't the second train signaled to stop?

Beyond the specifics of the crash Saturday night in the coastal province of Zhejiang, there are broader concerns about corruption and mismanagement that have come to plague the Chinese Railways Ministry. Its former head, Liu Zhijun, was removed from his job in February after accusations that he'd taken kickbacks of more than $122 million.

Suspicions that the bullet trains are at times unreliable were buttressed Tuesday when state media confirmed that more than 20 trains running on the brand-new Beijing to Shanghai route were delayed Monday because of power failures.

The Chinese government's immediate response to Saturday's train accident appears to have been a familiar one: directives to domestic news media setting narrow boundaries for what can be reported.

"Do not investigate the causes of the accident; use information released from authorities," was one of the instructions for Chinese reporters, according to China Digital Times, a website that regularly publishes similar dictates that it says have been leaked.

Another directive admonished that "reporting of the accident is to use 'in the face of great tragedy, there's great love' as the major theme. Do not question. Do not elaborate."

Chinese Internet users weren't similarly constrained.

An unscientific online survey on Weibo, a Chinese micro-blogging service, received 52,447 votes for the crash being the result of human failure — presumably through incompetence or faulty equipment, oversight or use — versus just 648 that favored a force-of-nature explanation. The tally was as of Tuesday afternoon.

Chinese Web users also expressed outrage at photographs that showed parts of the damaged trains being torn apart and buried at the site, a step they worried would preclude a detailed investigation.

"The claimed reason of lightning and thunder is complete nonsense," said one Weibo user who identified himself as Zhou Hansong from Heilongjiang province, in the north of China.

Another poster, who didn't give his or her name, said, "I don't believe what the Party says," referring to China's Communist Party.

A story Tuesday in English-language state media, which most Chinese don't read, noted that reassurances by a railways spokesman "seemed to have little effect on the public's shattered confidence."

The China Daily quoted one passenger, Lei Fulong, who was about to travel by bullet train: "I will look out for the emergency exits and the safety hammer when I get on."

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