The estimated death toll from the wacko rampage in Norway is revised downwards from 93 to 76; that of the Wenzhou high-speed train crash is raised from the low to the high 30s. If we were awarding points for crisis management skills, it would be a different trend.
A quick look at China’s English-language state media suggests that the Ministry of Railways is seriously short of friends; stodgy propaganda sheet China Daily proclaims ‘Hasty burial of wreckage sparks suspicion’, while the feisty, nationalistic Global Times says that ‘Anger mounts at lack of answers on train crash’. With pro-government coverage like this, who needs bloggers and tweeters claiming that the true number of dead might be over 100?
As with Szechuan schools, tainted baby milk powder and all our other favourite Mainland mayhem, some sort of official clampdown will presumably take place before long to erase the scandal from the news pages in favour of heart-warming tales of heroism and world-beating, native technical achievements. Malcontents still creating a public fuss about what happened to loved ones in the crash, and any lawyers brave enough to help them, will be paid off, put under house arrest or jailed. Life will return to sweet, harmonious normality until the next time.
Meanwhile, the uproar is out in the open and the bizarreness is mounting up, with the whole world looking on in bemusement at the sight of what should be accident investigators digging a big hole, putting key parts of wreckage in and filling it in. The quick burial of the front car of the train that rear-ended another was, according to an official, “because the environment of the scene is very complicated. There is soggy ground underneath.” In a story full of interesting quotes, Asahi Shimbun reports that workers at the site did go to the trouble of obscuring rail operator CRH’s logo and the Hexie or ‘harmony’ brand name of the line from the carriages. And they pulled a little girl out alive, even if 21 hours later. Oh, and there’s that little detail about a body or two falling from a carriage as it was hoisted into its trench. Thanks to such efficiency, no doubt, the authorities had the line back in service yesterday morning.
Officials, recently boasting about the wonders of Chinese technology, are now implying that foreign components played a role in the disaster. They also blame lightning. The Japanese, who have operated high-speed rail for around half a century, have never had a fatality – but maybe Chinese lightning is faster and higher-voltage and particularly perilous on soggy ground.
Loss of human lives means nothing to China’s leaders. But after all the vainglory surrounding the high-speed rail projects, the loss of face does, especially at a time when public opinion is becoming less tolerant of official misdoings and the government is becoming increasingly defensive, nervous and hostile towards institutional reform. And this is going to cost money. China’s high-speed rail network was supposed be an advertisement for the best-value modern train technology on the fast-growing world market; these trains were supposed to become a major export. Bang goes that idea.
The South China Morning Post’s Tom Holland proposes that the Hong Kong government now scrap its pointless HK$67 billion (going on HK$97 billion) largely underground, low-speed stretch of high-speed rail linking us via sunny Shenzhen to an obscure suburb of Guangzhou we don’t want to go to at a ticket price many of us would balk at paying. Nice idea; sadly, it would take more – much more – to dissuade Hong Kong’s psychopathic planners and their buddies in the construction and engineering sector from pouring tons of our cash down the toilet. Short of an invasion of train-eating monsters from planet Mars, it’ll go ahead.