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New China High Speed Rail Fail Exposes Rifts

Rail stocks dropped in China overnight on word  that a 1,000 foot section of rail line in Hubei province collapsed after heavy rains. Reports in the Chinese media were contradictory; the official news agency Xinhua reported the collapse, but government websites, local reports and some officials denied that anything was going on.

Reports of the crash were discussed on the active Chinese microblogging scene. (Microblog sites have strict length limits — like Twitter’s 140 characters. With the Chinese writing system, you can say more in 140 characters than in English; a Chinese tweet can be a paragraph in English.)

According to the BBC the railway company is disputing reports of a collapse, claiming that the disruption “[I]s part of the process to rectify quality problems spotted on the embankment in pre-launch tests.”  The denial isn’t getting much credence in China.

Via Meadia has no eyes on the scene in Hubei; we don’t know if this was a massive embankment collapse brought on by shoddy construction or a normally scheduled maintenance event. But we do know that the gulf between rulers and ruled in China continues to grow; that corruption is leaching the trust out of Chinese society, and that grandiose national projects like high speed rail are being cut back or postponed as the country comes to grip with difficult new economic and social realities.

Several years ago when I visited Shanghai, an excited local drove me out to see and admire the city’s shiny new international airport. On my most recent visit last fall, people wanted to grouse about the crash on the high speed rail line to Beijing and what they believed was a government cover up.

Meanwhile, even as reports of shoddy construction and corruption continue to emerge, China has drastically cut back its spending on high speed rail: from 700 billion yuan two years ago to 460 billion last year and 400 billion in 2012.

Main takeaway: China is changing, and not in ways that make it easier to govern.

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  • Silverfiddle

    I’m waiting for Tom Friedman to write a thoughtful piece comparing this to the Jonestown flood, and maintaining that while that disaster was caused by callous disregard by robber barons, this latest Chinese mishap was a more enlightened and centrally-planned disaster, lamenting the fact that our uncoordinated government cannot sponsor such public-private disasters.

  • Jim.

    I’m not sure China is changing all that much.

    One of the main takeaways from my courses in Chinese history back in college was the theory of the dynastic cycle.

    Dynasties would rise and fall based on the “mandate of heaven”, or a general sense of how useful or corrupt the regime was. One of the major, or perhaps the major, contributing factor to this perception is the balance between conspicuous consumption among the governing classes (how much they were lining their own pockets) and the effectiveness of public works (flood control in particular.)

    A collapse of a 1000-foot section of train track would fall pretty clearly under the “public works aren’t effective” heading. I’m not sure where lies and cover-ups fall in terms of classic Chinese virtue, but I’m pretty sure that isn’t good either.

    Minor takeaway — China isn’t easy to govern, and never has been.

    Major takeaway — things don’t change as much as fashionable modern thought would have you believe.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    China is headed to the same place as Japan is now in (depression) and for the very same reasons. China however lacks a number of advantages that Japan enjoys and so the Chinese depression is going to be much worse. China lacks the flexibility of Democracy to change political directions, as well as the legitimacy and anti-corruption properties it conveys. The Rule of Law is given only lip service in China, and political prisoners are common. China also lacks any internationally recognized industrial leaders, like Japan’s Sony, or Toyota. Finally, the problems with China’s high speed rail, empty cities, and empty skyscrapers, are only symptoms of much deeper fundamental problems in Chinese culture, which they refuse to acknowledge and address.

  • Corlyss

    “[I]s part of the process to rectify quality problems spotted on the embankment in pre-launch tests.”

    That’s a great way to test the roadbed: let’s build a rail system on it and see if it collapses! If it doesn’t good for us! If it does, well, we know it’s not firm enough! Gotta love that hands-on real-time testing technique. Almost sounds French.

  • justaguy

    China is getting grey before it is getting rich.

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