Buses are often said to arrive in twos or threes, normally after a long wait for frustrated passengers.
But in China recently, it is bus accidents that seem to be arriving in a sudden burst, with scores of school children hurt in some high-profile crashes.
Two weeks ago, a school van with nine seats – but crammed with 62 children – crashed head-on into a coal truck in western Gansu province.
Authorities said the school bus had undergone unauthorised modifications and that the kindergarten had removed all the seats in order to squeeze more children in. The driver, who also died in the accident, was speeding in foggy weather.
Then last Saturday, a dozen primary school students were hurt when their school bus overturned in Dandong city in northeastern Liaoning, leaving a total of 35 people injured, the Dandong Morning Post reported.
Both crashes have caught the public’s attention. The Liaoning accident was the second-most searched for item on Baidu this Monday, while the Gansu crash has consistently ranked among the most searched topics since the accident happened on November 16.
It’s an open secret that Chinese children are often crammed aboard buses for their journeys to school, with rural areas known for especially unsafe transportation in poorly- maintained vans and trucks.
Professor Yuan Guilin of the Institute for Rural Education and Rural Development told Caijing that statistics over the last year suggest a total of 22 school bus crashes, claiming the lives of 41 students and injuring more than 130.
The latest tragedies prompted a swell of commentary on the internet and in the press calling for an overhaul of the school transportation system. Further investigation revealed that there are a total of 180 million students in public schools, but only 285,000 school buses in operation to transport them. Of those, just 29,000 vehicles met required standards, according to reports compiled before the most recent incidents.
The problem is that most schools cannot afford to buy new vehicles. A kindergarten executive in Nanchang, Jiangxi province, told the People’s Daily that most schools opt to rent the vehicles they use, with many choosing cheaper vehicles not suited to carrying children.
“In the US, money for school buses comes from many places: school districts, state governments and the federal government,” says Guo Xiamei, an education scholar from Ohio State University.
“In China, local governments’ financial situations vary a lot and some have heavy debts. But as the experiences of countries abroad show, government support is indispensable toward establishing a sound school-bus system.”
As often the case when an emotive issue grabs public attention, Premier Wen Jiabao also intervened this week, pledging to improve safety and provide more school buses.
“In recent days, a series of big accidents involving school buses has led to bitter hatred among the people. These accidents have also made me uneasy,” he announced. “School bus safety must become a focal point of every region and every government department.”
But public frustration then took a turn for the worse when netizens discovered that China had donated 23 school buses to Macedonia only last Friday.
The website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs even offered pictures of the three new coaches, decorated with Chinese and Macedonian flags.
Many netizens were furious, complaining that authorities were ignoring the plight of Chinese schoolchildren but offering assistance to a country whose nationals appeared to enjoy a higher standard of living than those in China.
One blogger called Newsbro produced a series of charts suggesting that Macedonian purchasing power per capita was 1.5 times that of the Chinese. Perhaps most gallingly, it was also suggested that Macedonia had many more buses per person (129 per 1,000 people, versus 27 per 1,000 in China).
“We are worth less than those foreigners,” another weibo user concluded and Zhang Ming, a professor at Renmin University of China, seemed to agree: “Don’t cram more than 60 of our own children into a van, while donating school buses to European countries. Is that internationalism or just vanity?”
New Weekly also described the news of the gift to Macedonia as something that “makes you dare not believe your own eyes”.
Still, the debate on safer school buses in China signals an opportunity for Navistar, one of the largest school bus manufacturers. The US firm has been in talks with domestic automaker Anhui Jianghuai Automobile to start a joint venture in China, and is now trying to speed up the government approval process.
Yutong Group, a Chinese bus manufacturer, is also preparing for a spike in demand. “We have been studying the school bus market for some time and now we will speed up the process,” the company told China Business News.
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