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Off the Rails in China

By Tim Chan

On the night of July 23rd, two Chinese bullet trains collided on the Yongwen Line near the city of Wenzhou, in Zhejiang province. Train D301 from Beijing crashed directly into train D3115 from Hangzhou . Six cars were derailed; three cars from the Beijing train flipped and plunged over a bridge, and one car was left hanging precariously over the bridge’s edge. Two cars from the Hangzhou train were badly damaged. Each packed car held 100 passengers.

According to the Chinese state-controlled media, lightning caused the signal lights to malfunction on the railroad, causing the wrong signals to flash to the D301 train, leading to the fatal crash. The official number of fatalities was 40, with more than 200 people injured.

Then something new happened—at least for China. Chinese microblogs not only broke the news of the accident but also burst into criticism of the government as the official reports came in. Chinese microblogs, which function in much the same manner as Twitter, are gradually providing Chinese citizens a way to participate, even if indirectly, in Chinese politics.

After the accident, bloggers, in some 26 million posts, poked holes in almost everything the government said: the cause of the accident, the actual number of fatalities, and the rescue process. It is one of the first times that the Chinese people united their voices, and in a joint effort, pressured the government to deal more effectively with a disaster. While the government still has a modicum of control over Chinese people’s online activities in mainland China—Facebook and Twitter, for example, are both banned—Chinese domestic microblogs are still much more difficult to control than newspapers or magazines.

On microblogs like Sina Weibo, few believed that lightning was the primary cause of the tragedy. Bloggers blamed the staff in charge of directing the railway transportation. University students who majored in railway transportation analyzed the signal system and concluded that there was no way lightning could interrupt the system. Many citizens argued that the staff on the first train (D3115) could have contacted the directing center after the train was stopped to alert the oncoming train (D301). Moreover, recent reports from nearby power stations show the power lines were all working normally when the accident happened. The general consensus on Weibo was that while there was lightning when the accident happened, it was human error that was responsible for the crash.

Additionally, after an accident in which six fully-seated cars were heavily damaged (three of which fell off of a bridge more than 65 feet high), the low official fatality number was a point of contention. It is simply inconceivable that only 40 people died. After the Chinese government low-balled casualty rates during SARS, the Sichuan earthquake, and various mine accidents, the Chinese people are rightfully suspicious of official numbers. This time, however, with the rise of social networks and microblogs, there has been a consistent voice online demanding the real number of casualties as well as the names of the victims. While it is impossible to prove, a few bloggers who claim to be volunteers in Wenzhou hospitals posted on Weibo that the number of fatalities had long ago surpassed 100.

The part of the accident that angered the Chinese people the most was the rescue process. After the crash, the railways ministry stated that their number one priority was to rescue the passengers stuck in the train, but their actions did not match their words. On the 24th of June, after claiming that there were no signs of life in the suspended car, the rescue team pulled the car down from the bridge. Miraculously, several hours after the car fell to the ground, a three-year-old girl was found alive in the car’s ruins. This news spurred another wave of discussion and criticism on the Internet. Many were shocked at the discovery of another survivor after the car plummeted from the bridge. People were outraged at the rescue team, and they suspected there may have been more people who could have survived had the car not been pulled down from the bridge. According to bloggers who claimed to live near the bridge, on June 25th, before the corpses were handed over to families and the survivors had all been accounted for, the remains of the cars were destroyed and buried on the spot, and the Chinese Railways High-speed (CRH) service on the Yongwen Line resumed. Many Chinese citizens were once again furious, questioning the purpose of destroying and burying the remains. It looked like the railways ministry put the priority on getting the CRH running again, and not on accounting for survivors or figuring out the true cause of the accident. 

As tragic as this was, accidents do happen, and they are not unfamiliar in China, which is rapidly expanding and modernizing its infrastructure. However, the response to this particular accident, especially on Weibo, has never been seen before. As the aftermath of the accident showed, microblogs provide an outlet through which the Chinese people can collectively question their government. Weibo does self-censor content, blocking certain keywords, but it nonetheless provides a platform where key information is able to spread quickly and easily.

In the end, China recalled 54 trains, suspended the approval of new high-speed rail lines, and slowed the speed of the trains by 20 percent. It is a small step towards progress in a country where journalists and human rights activists are still regularly detained, but it is an important one. By reacting to the 26 million posts on Weibo, the Chinese Communist Party responded directly to the voice of the people.


Tim Chan is a China-based journalist.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user roberthuffstutter]

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