Other than occurring within a day of each other on Friday-Saturday, nothing much links the killing of just under 100 people in Norway by a wacko on the rampage and the deaths of over 40 high-speed train passengers in China’s latest infrastructure disaster. One interesting contrast, however, is in the reaction of rumour-mills to the events. Essentially, the slaughter in Norway has so far led to no remotely plausible conspiracy theories, other than obvious police suspicions about the killer having links with fellow extremists; the Wenzhou rail crash, on the other hand, has prompted a plethora of fascinating and even sinister public conjecture.
Anders Behring Breivik of Oslo: wearer of such creepo costumes as a Ruritanian uniform with medals, writer of a 1,500-page Unabomber-derived tract, avowed ‘Christian’, tanning salon frequenter and – just when you thought Freemasonry couldn’t get any less cool – member of his local inadequate bores’ lodge. He is straight out of central casting, living with his mother, apparently falling deeper and deeper into that unhinged state these people end up being led by paranoia, obsessiveness, narcissism and all the rest.
You would have thought Norway would have SWAT teams with helicopters and a halfway decent system to check people who buy fertilizer by the ton, but apparently they don’t, or not enough. Other than that, there is little to point fingers at. You can’t blame the government, churches or the Freemasons for someone going nuts. It would be impossible to say whether the tipping point that turned Breivik into a mass-killer was provided by something external and tangible, like European countries’ failed policy of tolerating barbarous and anti-Western attitudes among attention-seeking members of Muslim communities, and people will be too polite to ask anyway.
The high-speed train crash in China is clearly the fault of officialdom. The authorities in Beijing reacted in a predictable manner by simultaneously blaming lightning and firing several rail officials. Their hands probably tied by the over-hyping of high-speed rail projects as a mark of the country’s progress, they didn’t try to cover up the scale of the accident, allowing extensive TV and other media coverage, emphasizing of course the heroic rescue work, selfless and generous assistance from local citizens and the deep concern of the nation’s leaders.
Much of the public chatter is more bitter and cynical. For years, it has been clear that public works projects are riddled with corruption, and the result is that innocent people get killed – thousands of children crushed beneath collapsed schools in the Szechuan earthquake being a major example. It is easier to jail people who complain about it than it is to stamp out the graft, though the head of the railways ministry was fired a few months ago because so much of the huge high-speed rail budget had gone missing.
Officials have since reduced the speeds of bullet-trains. One explanation was that this enables lower ticket prices so the glossy network will not serve just a relatively rich elite. This suggests, at best, that the high-tech project is misguided and aimed at prestige rather than solving real transport bottlenecks. It is widely accepted, however, that the trains have to run more slowly because, thanks to the diversion of resources into corrupt hands, the tracks are too poorly built to handle the trains at their advertised speeds.
For people with a taste for mystery, one of the interesting things about the rail disaster is the role of the mechanical excavators digging just yards away from where the trains collided on the bridge, sending several carriages crashing to the ground below. So far, no-one seems to have suggested they are preparing mass graves, but it seems they are burying wreckage. One theory is that this is to conceal evidence of faulty manufacturing or operation; another – much more fun – is that they are trying to hide evidence of technology stolen from overseas firms.
Those of us with nasty suspicious minds will see confirmation of the latter in the clumsy-sounding official claim that the trains have “national level” technology, which must be kept safe from, presumably, covetous foreign eyes seeking to steal China’s advanced railway know-how. Maybe to find out how not to build high-speed rail.