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China loses its top-speed mojo after 'bullet train' mishap

China’s ambitious, muscular rollout of high-visibility infrastructure projects – the fastest train, the tallest building, and the longest bridge, and so on – and the speed at which they get done have always inspired shock and awe in overseas audiences, and a sense of pride among Chinese people.

Visitors from overseas are often driven to rapture by China’s infrastructural might, even if some of them are based on superficial observations during flying visits to China’s showcase cities. On occasion, they are often called out by commentators who have spent rather more time in China, and have a deeper appreciation of the nuances of the imbalances in the China infrastructure story.

But a string of recent mishaps involving China’s showpiece high-speed ‘bullet trains’, including a monstrous one in eastern China on Saturday in which at least 40 people were killed, may give pause to the Chinese impulse to build the fastest, the biggest, the tallest, and so on.

China bullet train mishap

A string of recent mishaps involving China’s showpiece high-speed ‘bullet trains’, including a monstrous one in eastern China on Saturday in which at least 40 people were killed, may give pause to the Chinese impulse to build the fastest, the biggest, the tallest, and so on. Aly Song/Reuters

The accident is the most serious outcome of a series of technical malfunctions that have plagued China’s high-speed rail project, including the Beijing-Shanghai service that was inaugurated recently to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the founding of China’s Communist Party.

Taken together, the malfunctions and the accident are feeding a sense of self-doubt, which is rare in China’s “build first, ask questions later” culture, in which high-visibility infrastructure projects are projected as shining symbols of state power, and any criticism of them at a conceptual stage is ignored or overruled.

Saturday’s freak accident occurred when a high-speed train lost power after being hit by lightning, and was then rear-ended by another bullet train. Official Chinese media reported that after the power failure, the electronic safety system designed to warn trains of stalled rakes on the tracks up ahead was rendered useless.

The accident comes on top of several other niggling incidents in which the Beijing-Shanghai service was stalled owing to power outage, also following thunderstorms, causing immense discomfort to passengers and delaying their high-speed journey.

China’s high-speed rail project has in recent months been mired in all kinds of trouble: former Railway Minister Liu Zhijun was sacked in February on charges of corruption. The economic viability of the project, undertaken with huge debts, has been called into question.

Additionally, following criticism that China had copied the high-speed rail technology from Japan’s famed Shinkansen railway, a Chinese Railway Ministry ridiculed such accusations, saying the Chinese technology was far superior to the Japanese. (Curiously, after Saturday’s accident, railway officials moved quickly to claim a joint venture association with Japanese entities.) Shinkansen has no record of fatalities in nearly 50 years; likewise, France’s TGV high-speed rail project too has an accident-free record.

But the biggest concern is that safety standards may have been compromised in the hurried expansion of the high-speed rail network.

Chinese netizens have also been enraged by the lack of transparency, and by the government’s ‘guidelines’ for media coverage of the accident, which appear to disincentivise observational reporting. Rumours that government officials were underplaying the death toll in the accident, and had in fact quickly buried a few train rakes, presumably with more bodies in them, are swirling on the Sina Weibo platform, China’s version of Twitter.

It isn’t just the railway project. A recently unveiled bridge in eastern China faced criticism that safety had been compromised in the rush to inaugurate it ahead of the recent 90th anniversary of the party’s founding.

All this has prompted a measure of introspection over the breakneck pace of project implementation without adequate emphasis on safety. Zhao Jian, a Beijing university professor, told Bloomberg news agency that the problem was that China “is building too quickly” and lacked “adequately trained — and experienced – workforce.”

Railway ministry officials, however, appear not to be keen to slam the brakes on the high-speed project, and a spokesman said the technology was advanced and qualified. An editorial in the official Global Times newspaper went further, arguing that the high-speed railway network had contributed to economic growth and should not therefore be abandoned. “Reflections upon the severe accident should lead to safer, not slower, railway transportation,” it argued.

Nevertheless, despite these brave words, the high-speed railway project is now a “political hot potato”, reasons China media analyst David Bandurski. And as leaders jockey for political positions in preparation for the change of leadership in 2012,”no one is ready to come to the defence of the embattled … project.”

The officials’ push to keep up top speed is also encountering pushback from Chinese netizens. In just 24 hours following the mishap, net users posted nearly four million messages on Sina Weibo. The results of a straw poll on the microblogging platform indicated that nearly 98 percent of respondents felt the accident was “man-made”. And that nearly 93 percent of them were very dissatisfied with the government’s response to the accident.

In other words, the Chinese authorities’ decision to press ahead with vanity projects at top speed could put the government on a collision course with Chinese people who appear to have momentarily lost their pride in being the fastest.