Friday, August 19, 2011

Rail disaster a mirror of Chinese flaws

Aug 18, 2011
By Ching Cheong

LAST week, the Chinese authorities suspended all new railway construction projects. Although it has been nearly a month since the high-speed rail collision in China, the repercussions will reverberate for some time to come. Investigations are ongoing to find out its causes.

The rail disaster may have resulted from technical flaws, but it also highlights some basic flaws in China's socialist system. Three points come to mind:
  •     Its software capability lags far behind that of its hardware.
  •     The Great Leap Forward mode of development guarantees disastrous results.
  •     Corruption is the root cause of most of the country's problems.
After more than 30 years of dizzying development, the Chinese still do not possess the software needed to match or keep pace with high-tech hardware. Think grandiose hotels with smelly toilets.

According to Caixin magazine, the July23 rail disaster near the city of Wenzhou could have been prevented if all three key lines of defence had not failed all at once.

The first line of defence was the signalling system, which became faulty after lightning struck. The control centre - the second line of defence - instructed the first train to slow down but somehow not the second, which was hurtling forward at about 250kmh.

When it was less than 25km away from the first - 25km being the minimum safety distance - its automatic train protection (ATP) system failed to do its job of halting the train to avert a collision.

Caixin concluded that a combination of human and technical errors resulted in the crash which killed 40 people and injured dozens more.

A deeper explanation for this hardware-software divide can be found in a particular trait of the Chinese people.

Intellectual and educator Hu Shi wrote about this trait in a satirical essay, in which he lamented that the Chinese people do not aspire to excellence because they are happy with mediocrity. Their motto: All is fine as long as things are chabuduo (more or less the same).

In the satire, aptly named The Chronicle Of Mr Cha Buduo, the easy-going title character went through life without fussing about details or results. After his death, the people held him up as a model of morality and virtue and many sought to be like him.

'This is the reason China is quickly being transformed into a country that the rest of the world will soon call 'the nation of lazybones',' concluded the essay, which was written nearly 90 years ago.

This chabuduo mentality could explain the gap between hardware and software.

China's high-speed rail best exemplifies the Great Leap Forward, or very rapid, mode of development.

Since 2003, the country has built 8,358km of high-speed rail tracks, with another 17,000km under construction.

In 2008, officials proudly announced that China took six years to accomplish what developed countries needed 30 years to do. They boasted that a high-speed rail driver could be trained in 10 days compared with at least three months in Germany.

The Hangzhou-Wenzhou line, on which the deadly crash occurred, was meant to be operational only by next year, but the date was brought forward to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) this year.

Some say safety and technical standards may have been compromised as a result. This is plausible, especially with the ATP system, a Chinese technological innovation which railway officials had insisted would prevent any collision.

Yet after the disaster, Beijing University of Communication Professor Wang Mengsu, a senior adviser to the Railways Ministry, admitted to Caixin Net that the ATP system was not yet fully operational.

Two days later on July 26, he told Xinmin Zhoukan that the ATP system remained a theoretical possibility and the train driver was the key figure in handling an emergency and averting a crash.

Clearly, the need to best developed nations in terms of construction speed and rail technology led Chinese officials to overlook safety at the people's expense.

So why does China, which paid dearly for Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward experiment, still adhere to this development model? There are two possible explanations: nationalism and socialism.

To most Chinese, Mao's call in 1958 to 'surpass the British and catch up with the United States' remains a strong rallying point for a nation which had been subjugated by Western powers for more than a century.

To the ruling CCP, the great leap in high-speed rail development proved the strength of socialism - and by the same token, its own legitimacy - in being able to devote the entire nation's efforts to one single cause and succeed.

Finally, corruption pervades many levels of Chinese society and government.

Even before the July 23 mishap, at least one rail engineer went on record to say he would never take the high-speed rail because corruption had made the whole network unsafe.

The arrests of former railways minister Liu Zhijun and deputy chief engineer Zhang Shuguang have also lent credence to such fears. Liu and Zhang were once called the Father and the No. 1 Engineer of China's high-speed rail respectively. Liu is said to have pocketed 2.5 per cent of every transacted deal while Zhang allegedly has millions stashed away in the US, where his family lives.

In its Aug 3 editorial, the official Huanqiu Shibao mockingly referred to China's rail sector as a museum of all the problems in the country. In the same way, the July 23 crash mirrored the problems inherent in the Chinese socialist system.

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