Boss Rail: How the Wenzhou Crash Exposed Corruption in China (Updated)

In the New Yorker, Evan Osnos has written an in-depth exploration of the July 2011 train crash in Wenzhou, which killed 40 people and generated online outrage over the government’s handling of the tragedy. Osnos pieces together the events leading up to the accident, from the perspective of passengers on the train, the engineer running the failed signaling system, and Ministry of Railways officials. In showing how systematic failures led to rampant corruption which in turn led to the deadly crash, Osnos demonstrates how China’s widely-acclaimed high-speed rail system is, “an ecosystem almost perfectly hospitable to corruption—opaque, unsupervised, and overflowing with cash”:

The Wenzhou crash killed forty people and injured a hundred and ninety-two. For reasons both practical and symbolic, the government was desperate to get trains running again, and within twenty-four hours it declared the line back in business. The Department of Propaganda ordered editors to give the crash as little attention as possible. “Do not question, do not elaborate,” it warned, on an internal notice. When newspapers came out the next morning, China’s first high-speed train wreck was not on the front page.

But, instead of moving on, the public wanted to know what had happened, and why. This was not a bus plunging off a road in a provincial outpost; it was dozens of men and women dying on one of the nation’s proudest achievements—in a newly wired age, when passengers had cell phones and witnesses and critics finally had the tools to humiliate the propagandists.

People demanded to know why a two-year-old survivor was found in the wreckage after rescuers had called off the search. A railway spokesman said it was “a miracle.” Critics jeered, calling his explanation an “insult to the intelligence of the Chinese people.” At one point, the authorities dug a hole and buried part of the ruined train, saying they needed firm ground for recovery efforts. When reporters accused them of trying to thwart an investigation, a hapless spokesman replied, “Whether or not you believe it, I believe it,” a phrase that took flight on the Internet as an emblem of the government’s vanishing credibility. (The train was exhumed. The spokesman was relieved of his duties and was last seen working in Poland.)

Within days, the state-owned company that produced the signal box apologized for mistakes in its design. But to many in China the focus on a single broken part overlooked the likely role of a deeper problem underlying China’s rise: a pervasive corruption and moral disregard that had already led to milk tainted by chemicals reaching the market, and shoddy bridges and highways built hastily in order to meet political targets. A host on state television, Qiu Qiming, became the unlikely voice of the moment when he broke away from his script to ask, on the air, “Can we drink a glass of milk that is safe? Can we stay in an apartment that will not fall apart? Can we travel roads in our cities that will not collapse?

Osnos’ report is full of previously unreported details and is well worth reading in its entirety. See also a recent article in National Geographic by Ian Johnson (via CDT) about China’s high-speed rail system. Read more about the Wenzhou train crash, former Minister of Railways Liu Zhijun and about corruption in China, via CDT.

Update: Charlie Rose interviews Osnos about his article, the significance of the Wenzhou train crash, corruption in China, and the upcoming leadership transition.