The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
China’s High-Speed Rail Boom Has Echoes of Great Leap Forward

For those who know their Chinese history, Evan Osnos’s essay on the July 23 high speed rail crash that killed forty people outside Wenzhou, which appears in this week’s New Yorker, will bring to mind scary echoes of the Great Leap Forward:

[China's Minister of Railways] Liu [Zhijun] bet everything on high-speed railways. To preëmpt inflation in the cost of land and labor and materials, he preached haste above all. “We must seize the opportunity, build more railways, and build them fast,” he told a conference in 2009. Liu’s ambitions and Chinese authoritarianism were a volatile combination. The ministry was its own regulator, virtually unsupervised, and the Minister and his aides had no tolerance for dissenting voices. . . .

The obsession with speed was all-encompassing. The system was growing so fast that almost everything a supplier produced found a buyer, regardless of quality. According to investigators, the signal that failed in the Wenzhou crash was developed over six months, beginning in June, 2007, by the state-owned China Railway Signal and Communication Corporation. The company had a staff of some thirteen hundred engineers, but it was overwhelmed by demands on its time, and crash investigators discovered that those in charge of the signal performed only a “lax” inspection, which “failed to discover grave flaws and major hidden dangers.” The office in charge was “chaotic,” a place where “files went missing.” Nevertheless, the signal passed inspection in 2008 and was installed across the country. When the industry gave out awards for new technology that year, the signal took first prize. But an engineer inside the company subsequently told me that he was not surprised to discover that the job had been rushed.

There were other suspicious factors as well. In April, 2010, the chairman of Japan Central Railway, Yoshiyuki Kasai . . . pointed out that China was operating the trains at speeds twenty-five per cent faster than those permitted in Japan. “Pushing it that close to the limit is something we would absolutely never do,” he told the London Financial Times.

In the last days before the crash, the rush to build the railways added a final, lethal factor to the mix. In June, the government had staged the début of the most prominent line yet—Beijing to Shanghai—to coincide with the ninetieth anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. A full year had been slashed from the construction schedule, and the first weeks of the run were marred by delays and power failures. According to a manager in the ministry, high-speed-rail staff were warned that further delays would affect the size of their bonuses. On the night of July 23, 2011, when trains began to stack up, dispatchers and maintenance staff raced to repair the faulty signal and ignored the simplest solution: stop the trains and regain the signal. Wang Mengshu, a scholar in the Chinese Academy of Engineering who was deputy chief of the committee investigating the crash, told me, “The maintenance people weren’t familiar enough with their jobs, and they didn’t want to stop the train. They didn’t dare.”

If this story were about irrigation projects and featured a different cast of characters it could have been published back in 1952. It has serious and scary echoes of the Great Leap Forward: the shoddy workmanship of huge construction projects, top officials pressuring lesser officials to get things done faster than humanly possible, workers cutting corners and using unsatisfactory materials to meet tight deadlines, pervasive bribery and ballooning budgets, leading to destruction and tragedy.

There is one important difference between the July 23 rail crash and comparable disasters during the Great Leap Forward: the role played by the Chinese public in compelling Beijing to investigate the tragedy. Widespread anger about a blatant cover-up led officials to fire those responsible, slow trains to more reasonable speeds, issue new safety precautions, and review the entire high-speed rail network. The public outcry was so strong that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was forced to visit the site, where he vowed to continue the investigation and crack down on corruption.

Despite the post-crash review, problems remain. Osnos points out that some of the railways officials who were fired or sentenced to jail were just scapegoats. Many more remain at their posts. And it’s not just the railways: corrupt officials are lodged in every Chinese industry and bureaucracy.

Slowly but surely, especially as a result of the Bo Xilai scandal, the Chinese public is growing more aware of scandals and cover-ups, more vocal, more critical of top officials, and as a result holding officials responsible for their actions. It’s a promising trend, and hopefully it will gradually come to prevent disasters like the July 23 rail crash.

Published on October 16, 2012 5:00 pm