The train crash in Wenzhou has been at the front and centre of news in China this week and understandably so. The implications stemming from this incident are profound. Before we take a look at that however, there’s an old clip I’d like to share with you. Does anyone else remember that Simpsons episode about the monorail?
I don’t mean to be insensitive about the tragedy that has unfolded in China and my apologies if the posting of an upbeat song offends anyone, but the parallels between that episode and the Wenzhou train crash are striking. Essentially, the town of Springfield found itself with excess quantities of cash. A traveling salesman comes to town, offering to build a flashy monorail that will make the city look impressive. The down-to-earth mother of the family, Marge, plaintively asks “but main street’s still all cracked and broken” to which her son replies “sorry, mom, the mob has spoken”. The parallels are pretty obvious, but in this case, I rather suspect the “mob” isn’t all that keen for the flashy new rail project.
The episode predictably ends with a destroyed train line, but in that case, the passengers narrowly avoided death.
I’m firmly in the camp of those who believe that a high-speed rail project isn’t what China really needs, instead believing that the far-less-glamorous standard train lines would be less expensive and would do more to solve the real issue with trains in China, which is the massive overcrowding caused by poorer rural migrants who can’t afford expensive train tickets. (To stretch the Simpsons analogy, the ‘cracked and broken main street’ as it were).
It seems to me that the entire incident has been more about promoting China’s image as a world power, coupled with ambitions of selling high-speed-rail lines overseas.
Fat chance of that now. Shares in Bombadier, the Canadian-joint-venture-train-manufacturer, have predictably plunged.
So the first repercussion we can assume, is that unless China is totally transparent on the issue and no more malfunctions occur, their ambitions to export trains are dead in the water. Given that there were a number of power-failure incidents in the lead up to this accident, possibly due to the fact that there was a concerted effort to rush the construction of the train lines and complete them ahead of schedule, this is going to be a tall order especially considering some of the details emerging in the blogosphere.
Chinageeks has done a great job of covering the developments that have occurred so far, and three things have underscored the fact that the instinct of the Chinese authorities is to censor and cover up problems. The first, are the directives from the ministry of culture directing the media on how to cover the issue. As usual, it stipulates that the media just report the basic facts, with little analysis or wider coverage. (The reactions to this are among the most noteworthy developments here, but more on that in a moment).
The second, is what appears to be censored footage of the incident, concealing something falling from the train, which many believe is a body. The third, is represented by attempts by authorities to literally bury the train wreck. Although they said it was to protect technological secrets, a vast majority believes it was an attempt to cover up evidence.
These attempts to pour water on the issue have resulted in quite the opposite. This incident represents the most comprehensive rejection of demands to censor reports I have ever seen. The Chinese media have been all over the issue. Posts on Weibo have been putting together their own body count and the Global Times even contacted the local morgue to get their own body count. It’s been a media frenzy.
Skilled censorship means choosing your battles wisely. Some inept official, somewhere in the Ministry of Culture, made a bad choice here, but in his (and it’s usually a ‘he’) defence, he was playing it by the book (if there is ‘a book’ for this, I’d really like to read that, it might help make sense of some really weird censorship pronouncements).
This total rejection of censorship demands strikes me as one of the most important developments here, but it was inevitable. No country, not even China, can make such a big song and dance about their advanced rail project, then call foul when people are paying so much attention to its catastrophes. Three heads have already rolled at the rail ministry, but the real question is whether the hard questions are going to be asked over the decisions which made this rail project a priority in the first place.