Deadly accident exposes government fault lines

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 August, 2011, 12:00am


The fatal train crash in Wenzhou last month has exposed divisions in the central government over the mainland's costly and controversial development of high-speed rail, analysts say.

But the collision of two high-speed trains, which killed 40 people and injured nearly 200, has also been a chance for Beijing to clip the wings of a transport behemoth.

Before and after the crash, different government departments made apparently unco-ordinated statements over high-speed rail - unusual for a government that puts a high priority on centralised control over public announcements.

First, on June 13, Deputy Railways Minister Hu Yadong said his ministry's decision to cut the speed of high-speed trains was to improve 'operating efficiency', and not out of concern about safety or quality standards.

But eight days later, in an interview with the 21st Century Business Herald, Zhou Yimin, a former deputy chief engineer of the Ministry of Railways, said the ministry had overstated the safety of high-speed trains and covered up operational incidents.

Zhou said the bullet trains had been plagued by problems.

The ministry's chief engineer, He Huawu, rejected Zhou's claims on June 27 in an interview with Xinhua, saying the high-speed trains were fast, comfortable and safe.

Nevertheless, on June 30, the day before the launch of the flagship Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway, Premier Wen Jiabao used his opportunity as guest of honour at a ceremony for the world's longest and costliest high-speed rail line to warn that maintaining safety on the high-speed network remained a formidable challenge.

But He was adamant. Caixin Century magazine reported that on July 23, the day of the crash, the chief engineer said: 'The safety of China's high-speed trains can be trusted.'

The crash forced He and Hu to eat their words, and confirmed the fears both of Wen and Zhou.

Wen visited the crash site on July 28 and pledged to find the cause of the disaster through an open and transparent investigation that would be 'accountable to the people'.

But a day later, the propaganda authorities banned negative reporting of the crash by mainland media.

In an unusual display of defiance, the website of the People's Daily carried an interview the following day in which a former education ministry spokesman, Wang Xuming, criticised the Ministry of Railways for being less than transparent about the accident.

Richard di Bona, who runs a Hong Kong transport consultancy, said the central government was divided over the crash. 'There are parts of the Chinese authorities who genuinely want to get to the heart of the problem. There are others that see it as a challenge to state power,' he said.

Zheng Tianxiang, a transport professor at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, said the crash had revealed disagreement over high-speed rail.

'Different parts of the government have different views on high-speed rail,' Zheng said.

University of Illinois professor Kao Chung-tsung, who is also an adviser to the US state of California's high-speed rail project, said that instead of censoring news, China needed to be open to the international community about the disaster if it wanted to export its high-speed rail systems.

Kao said China hoped to export high-speed trains to the US, Britain, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, Laos and Thailand, but it would need to prove their safety in a scientific way.

'The scientific world is going to look at China's data. China cannot sugar-coat it. The Chinese authorities cannot do it the way they do in China, saying loudly how safe Chinese high-speed rail is,' he said.

'China has to do a thorough study ... otherwise the world will not know if China has really improved.'

Kao said he often met officials of the Chinese consortium hoping to win the tender for the US$45 billion California high-speed rail project.

'I keep telling them to be careful about quality because many of my friends in France, the US and Germany have this concern over the quality of Chinese high-speed rail,' he said.

The Chinese consortium includes the Shanghai Railway Bureau (where three officials were sacked over the crash) and CSR Corp, a state-owned rolling-stock manufacturer that made the two trains that collided.

Zheng said that a key reason for the poor safety record of Chinese railways was the monopoly power of the ministry, which had no independent supervision.

Previously, the ministry took a tough line against attempts by the central government to reform it, and Beijing found it difficult to impose its will on the organisation, thanks to its quasi-military history, he said.

The ministry has its own import-export department that is not answerable to the Ministry of Commerce, according to a US venture capitalist.

Prior to the sacking of Liu Zhijun as railways minister for suspected corruption in February, the ministry had its own police force, but that disappeared after his dismissal, sources close to the ministry said.

Zheng said the ministry exercised control over plans by local authorities such as the Guangdong provincial government to build their own railways, demanding a controlling stake in these rail projects.

During the global financial crisis in 2008, the ministry had a strong hold on the central government by managing the development of high-speed rail, a major part of the central government's 4 trillion yuan (HK$4.54 trillion at the time) stimulus to counter the crisis, he said.

'The accident enabled the central government to assert more control over the Ministry of Railways and reform the ministry,' he said.

The ministry now knows it has to soften its resistance to reform because it realises the people are angry over the crash, Zheng said.

'Bad can be turned to good. The accident is a good opportunity to reform the Ministry of Railways,' he said.