When a high-speed train ran into the back of another near the city of Wenzhou on July 23 last year, killing 40 and injuring 172, China watchers marvelled that the local media was being allowed to cover the tragedy. The freedom was short-lived. Within a few days the government was giving orders to tone down the negative coverage. When the anniversary of the accident came around this Monday newspapers were given firm instructions again to ignore it.
“We wanted to cover it but there is nothing we can do because the local government and the Railways Ministry do not want the accident to be revisited,” journalists in Wenzhou told Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper. They also reported that a local official told them that “the accident is something we want to forget”.
No official memorial was held and people who tried to visit the site of the accident were even harassed. A popular blogger called Li Chengpeng (who is ‘followed’ by 5.7 million netizens on weibo) visited the site early on Monday morning. On Monday he was followed in a different sense: this time by men in a black van. “We were just there to remember and to lay a white flower for the deceased,” Li said, before posting a photo of the scene online and calling for people to mark the anniversary.
But that was tricky too. Several neizens reported that their posts were removed, including Wang Wei, an executive with Mergers China, who had called on the government to make its report into the accident public, as it promised.
“I demanded that the high-speed rail system be suspended pending an investigation, that legal proceedings replace administrative proceedings, and that outside organisations investigate and audit all high-speed rail tofu [i.e. shoddy] engineering projects. This is a basic demand of civil society and the information age, but it has been dropped into a dark and bottomless pit. Can such a huge price in human lives be forgotten?” Wang said later on a Hong Kong-based website.
Despite the restrictions, Sina Weibo recorded over seven million Wenzhou-related posts by the end of the day on Monday, even if many were short messages of condolence accompanied by a digital candle in memory of the dead.
“Monday is the one-year anniversary of the Wenzhou train crash. There’s no memorial service, no reviews, no responsibilities, only the sadness from people who lost their family and the shameful silence from people who are responsible,” lamented one user.
Others spoke of how they still feared travelling on bullet trains, something that Xinhua tried to address in one of the few anniversary articles to appear in the domestic media. Entitled “High-speed rail slows down in the name of safety,” the article reminded readers that “in response to the fatal accident, the ministry slowed work on new lines, conducted nationwide safety checks and ordered trains to cut speeds.”
Safer than buses, faster than cars and more convenient than planes, high-speed rail is still the best way to travel, Xinhua said. It also suggested that train passenger numbers are back to pre-Wenzhou levels, after dropping off significantly after the crash. Statistics on the Ministry of Railways website show that passenger numbers for the first six months of this year exceeded those in the same period last year, rising 3.4% to 918 million journeys (this statistic includes slower trains, so is not an ideal measure of confidence in the bullet train fleet).
Although Xinhua would have Chinese citizens believe that the ministry has scaled back on high-speed rail chiefly out of safety concerns, there are other reasons for the slowdown too. The railway ministry’s debts now exceed 60% of its assets, crimping its ability to finance new construction. In May the ministry announced it would be building 2,322km of new high-speed rail this year (still a huge amount compared to other countries) down from an already-revised figure of 3,500km in March. It is now looking for private investors to help it complete its projects. But prospective investors have been cautious as existing lines are not making any profits, according to Wang Mengshu, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering.
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