When a student asked Sigmund Freud about the meaning of his cigar-smoking habit, the Austrian psychoanalyst is said to have replied: “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” By the same token, sometimes a train crash is just a train crash. But the recent high-speed rail accident in China is not one of those.
China’s high-speed rail network, built in less than a decade, is the world’s longest. Its trains were supposed to travel at speeds that would put Japanese technology to shame. Instead, the crash has exposed hubris, incompetence and corruption in a single, tragic crunching of metal. Perhaps not since Tiananmen Square more than 20 years ago has the Communist party looked so naked in the face of public contempt.
The train crash is different in at least two respects. First, high-speed rail was explicitly a national project. The leadership took great pride in China’s ability to “digest” and “improve on” foreign technology. Officials had already laid out ambitious plans to sell the Chinese system to Malaysia, Brazil, the UK and the US.
The national endorsement has made it difficult to pin the problems on local officials. Even before the fatal crash, the government sacked the rail minister on suspicion of corruption. A subsequent decision to lower the maximum speed from 350km per hour to 300km was a tacit admission of dangerous technological over-reach. We don’t yet know the reason for the crash. But pushing the system beyond its technical capacity and cutting corners to free up slush money are plausible factors.
Second, many of the crash victims must have come from China’s new wealthy elites given the, much-criticised, high price of tickets. When school buildings collapsed in Sichuan in the 2008 earthquake, the victims tended to be the children of poorer families. Melamine-tainted baby formula affected a broader cross-section of people. But wealthy urbanites would have had the knowledge and money to buy foreign formula if they chose. That made it slightly easier to quash the story, particularly in an Olympic year when the country was in celebratory mood – or else!
Partly because the victims of this tragedy are members of the new middle class, it has been impossible to keep a lid on the story.
Good insights: Beijing directly responsible for the crisis and victims are middle class.