Reading into China’s rail crash



In 2009, economist Zhao Jian returned to Beijing from a study tour of the Indian railways, and wrote that China should learn from India’s example and expand freight rail network instead of pouring mega millions in bullet trains.

Days after his piece was published, the former railway minister Liu Zhijun, sacked for corruption this year and nicknamed Great Leap Liu for his orders to design trains topping 350 kmph, summoned Zhao’s boss at the Beijing Jiaotong (transportation) University. He defended his colleague’s right to express his views, but some days later he reportedly told Zhao “if you write things like this, it will affect the ability of the university to get [research] topic [grants from the government].”

A translation of this slice of the inside story of the world’s fastest, longest and most secretive expansion of high-speed rail is available here.

The writers, however, asked more questions than investigating the answers. “As a major strategic national infrastructure project whose budget surpassed that of even the Three Gorges Dam project, how was it that there was no need to put it to a vote within the National People’s Congress? Even further, why was it that information about this project, with direct concern for the national welfare and the people’s livelihood, and expending massive resources drawn from taxpayer monies, could not be made public during the decision-making process and we subjected to public discussion? Why is it that even such basic figures as seat occupancy rates for the high-speed rail have remained a secret, so that even researchers in this area cannot access this information?”

An HT interview with Zhao Jian, published in my Friday column, is available here. Zhao told me that even research scholars advising the railway ministry have no information of what is going on inside it. We met six days after a high-speed train smashed into another train that was stalled by lightning and blackout in east China, killing 40 and injuring 190.

The propaganda machinery ordered the Chinese media to focus on “stories that are extremely moving, like people donating blood and taxi drivers refusing to accept fares” and “great love in the face of great tragedy.”

The state-run Chinese media and millions of micro-blogging netizens hit back against the propaganda – for a week – tweeting faster than the censors could delete. They raised many angry questions – why did lightning stall a high-speed train, why did the signal systems fail to warn the approaching train, why did staff in the control room fail to stop the collision, why were trains on the route resumed so soon, why were lawyers reportedly told not to accept compensation cases, why were carriages buried on the spot and later retrieved, why is the railway ministry gunning for bullet trains despite low occupancy and high ticket prices?

A Chinese media specialist, whose own posts were censored and deleted this week, said the media’s outspokenness may be temporary. The state controls on the media will get ‘tighter and tighter,’ he said.

China’s urban miracle is planned behind a great impenetrable wall by a leadership guarded from public scrutiny. During the last week the media and netizens tried to break free from the state grip and brought sustained pressure on railway authorities to correct some of the bungled investigations and double compensation for the victims’ families.

While the Chinese chase speed, India is painfully slow and insensitive in modernising a creaking, over-crowded network that transports a Mumbai-sized population per day. The muzzle is now back on the Chinese media with fresh orders to report only positive and official versions on the accident. But the media’s temporary burst of free speech and public sensitivity to the accident is worth noting. In India, we need to keep the railway ministry under the microscope and demand answers to some of the same questions clamouring across China, without waiting for the next tragedy on the tracks.

The Foreign Policy blog quotes journalist Lloyd Lofthouse’s comparison of the death toll on the railway tracks in the US, India and China in 2007. Out of the 177 rail accidents during that period, 20% occurred in the United States, 15% occurred in India, and only 4% occurred in China. “But the death toll in India was far greater.”

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  • Anonymous

    Now the question is “Is Sujata Anandan Corrupt?”.

    [Reply]

    Sjupra Reply:

    Paid news is legal! She is not what you imply. though She is the authorized spokesperson of the corrupt,i mean the political class.

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  • Abu Ahmed

    Casteism in India is spread and well-entrenched like TB – it will never be eradicated. What Congress has done is to exploit it in its fight against other Hindu parties. For any Hindu, what difference would it make if the Congress or the BJP or the BSP or the SP wins the election – apart from caste loyalties and personal gain? The BJP roots for the Banias, the SP for the OBCs and the BSP for the Dalits. Its only the Congress which can represent all Hindus – and the minorities – despite its myriad short-comings and soft Hindutva outlook. Only Mayawati could launch a very serious challenge to the Congress at the national level in the 2014 polls.

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  • Kushal

    No, I don’t keep a diary, Abhiroop. I guess the blog works in that way. I’ve been writing it for some years now.

    And welcome back to this space. Where are you now? Still in rural India?

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  • Kushal

    Hmm, I’ve done that in actual book reviews on HT’s books page, Vignesh. But mostly, if a book really, REALLY annoys me, I don’t bother reading it to the bitter end unless I’m doing a book review or a feature story for which I have no choice but to finish the book. Life’s too short to spend on doing things you don’t like. If, by chapter four, I realise I’m not going to like the book, I stop and read something I will like.

    [Reply]

  • Veeraswamiv

    Does it matter, who we get as President? A post with no power, with all trim and perquisites and good retirement benefit, who ever gets it will be lucky for life. Why we should bother?

    [Reply]

  • anil

    Congress will no doubt will choose some one with corruption baggage in the background so all they can stay in the league and if necessary strings can be pulled to fall in line in “bad” times.

    [Reply]

  • Anonymous

    The qualification requirement for Indian President as desired by Congress-
    1. Should be extremely loyal to Sonia Gandhi and the dynasty.
    2. Should have experience in polishing shoes, doing menial jobs, cooking in Nehru-Gandhi household.
    3. Should be corrupt.
    4. Must lack spine.
    5. Must be ready to act as rubber stamp for Sonia Gandhi and her clan.
    6. Should flout constitution at the direction of Congress high command.
    7. Should have drab personality.
    8. Should not be a mass leader.
    9. Should read speeched like zomby.
    10. Must NOT be loyal to India or its constitution.

    Almost all the congressmen/women qualify for this job. We have no dearth of president material in India.

    [Reply]

  • Gt12563

    Please UPA do not chose another lady like Prithbha Patil who has no personality we already have one Sardarj find some one intelligent and has good personality.

    [Reply]

  • Anonymous

    Abhishek Manu Singhvi is an outstanding legal mind and smart. The Congress party should consider him as their candidate.

    [Reply]

  • http://dealstop.co.uk Larry

    Vir Sanghvi will never admit it but APJ Abdul Kalaam was certainly one of India’s best presidents. It was unfortunate that Vir went into a tirade against Kalaam in his Counterpoint columns when there was talk o a second term for him. At that time I was surprised at Vir’s obstinacy towards Kalaam, but it all fell in place when Radia tapes happened.

    [Reply]

  • Niranjan Desai

    This woman even do not qualify as a housemaid in Rashtrapati Bhavan. Period.

    [Reply]

  • http://MakeCash10.com/ christina smith

    as Diane replied I am inspired that a mother able to get paid $4688 in 4 weeks on the internet. did you read this link


    (Click On mY name For the Link)

    [Reply]

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/QWYJGHF4LP6ZVNEH7CRMJ5D7RM manikyam

    Neither man president nor lady president has no weight at all, and useless almost, except making solid philosophical statements and going round the world at the cost of poor man’s paise; I have seen most of them made worthy statements after they got off the sticky chair.

    [Reply]

  • http://www.youbihar.com/ Shalu Sharma

    Presidents are hand picked for their loyalty to the party president. The post should be scrapped and an elected person should be appointed. As a matter of fact, India should move towards a presidential type of system.

    [Reply]

  • Anonymous

    Former President Giani Zail SIngh declared as HOme Minister that he was willing to clean the untensils in Mrs Gandhi’s house. He was promptly nominated to become the president.

    Pratibha Devi has actually cooked meals for Mrs Gandhi and SOnia and taken care of bartans (as per Indian Express reports) and she became the president.

    So please dont discount kitchen services to teh royal family as a quaification for becoming the President.

    [Reply]

  • Radhaben Modi

    I would recommend Dr. Mallika Sarabhai for the post of the President of India… BUT… is the Congress Party willing to accept a truly honest person as Mallika ???

    [Reply]

  • Sid sridhar

    Well said vir Sanghvi. I am a Canadian of Indian origin. There was a time in the Seventies, when Indians were not easily accepted and we had to try to pretend we were from Singapore or South Africa. The same happened to people from China, who pretended to be Japanese!The new successful India/China has changed all this. Inside India too, globalization is taking place and it is wonderful to see people from Manipur working in Chennai! India is changing fast and is coming to terms with its growth story. The buzz word is ‘inclusive growth’ and this will include people of the Northeast. Internet will make sure that Tamils visit beautiful parts of Shillong etal and the people there will not be able to stop it. Wake up India! You are being followed by other nations as a role model!!

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    Anonymous Reply:

    Agree. Also I studied in a Regional Engg College (now NITs) where we had a large number of students from the North-East and they were all universally loved. I guess the more people get to know each other the more the barriers fall. And the converse is also true

    [Reply]

  • Samuel Pachuau

    Great, Mr Sanghvi, a well written article. Being a ‘Non-Mainlander’ Indian, I agree with your interpretation of the fact that ‘Time’ will finally integrate us all as ‘One Indian’. But what I’m worried about now is the moral alienation we, North Easterners continually face with the mainlanders. When we have started moving with the mainstream Indians and work with ‘them’ in all areas, our physical proximity with each other has not necessarily brought a psychological integration. I remember once I was on a college trip to Agra and were visiting the Taj. I bought the ‘Indian’ ticket and stood in line to pass the gate, with my ‘Indian’ friends. While I was standing in queue, a policeman came and asked me where I’m from. Apparently he thought that I knowlingly/unknowlingly bought the cheap ‘Indian’ ticket and try to fool around (when in fact, I was a ‘Foreigner’, haha). I felt bad to be seen as ‘Other’ but then I remembered a saying someone told me many years back. She told me ‘We’re Indians, by Chance!’

    [Reply]

  • Fact

    A good article from Vir Singhvi. No pseudo secularism and Modi bashing too. Keep it up and we might accept you post Radia.

    [Reply]

  • AshishC

    Dear Kima,
    if it is any consolation, I was once dining at an eatery in Khan Market witha friend from Hong Kong (a Chinese) on a visit to Delhi. We were being served by a waiter who was obviously from North East. The moment my friend saw him, his eyes lit up; he beckoned him close and broke into Cantonese. The waiter’s face was quite a sight :)
    This anecdote apart, I applaud you for speaking out about the shameful behaviour of our fellow Indians. Someday, hopefully, we will grow up.

    [Reply]

  • Abdul Mohammed

    Samujjal’s allegations are not justified, because Ajmal tried to polarise or score much later, already riot has happened and 4 lakh people displaced. Samujjal is angry because Ajmal does not shout “Bangladeshi go back ..”. You can savely call it a Bodo-Muslim clash, because both the native and migrant muslims are equally affected. Native muslims speak Goalpariya (Rajbanshi language) and locally called “Ujani”, while migrants speak Mymensingiya or Bangali dialect and locally known as “Bhatia”. But upper Assam assamese people term both the “Ujanis” and “Bhatias” as Miya or Bangladeshi. People like Samujjal calls Ajmal or AIUDF as Bangladeshi agents. But muslims are equally angry with present state of affairs, govt’s weak approach, communal force like Bajrang’s bandth call and support, use of automatic arms in riots, media bias. So people saw spontaneous reaction on the AAMSU (28 Aug) bandth day.

    [Reply]

  • Plumbline

    For true reconciliation between people can happen within their hearts, they must first be reconciled to God………
    ………2 Corinthians 5:17-21…….17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. 18 Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. 20 Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. 21 For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

    [Reply]

  • http://www.facebook.com/amitbhatia80 Amit Bhatia

    Obama has done himself no good but criticizing the video and then killing of American diplomat. This has become big election issue that he is a weak president who is into appeasing muslims. he should have first have send strong signal by talking tough about killing of US diplomat and then criticize the video but he did the opposite.

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  • The Shaft

    Khamenei is not Khomeini, Zia. Netanyahu is doing his best to arm-twist Obama into attacking Iran’s nuclear-whatever; arranged to kill the US envoy in Benghazi and mock at Obama’s foreign policy gains in the M.E. by the easiest ploy possible – insult the prophet and get the lumpen elements on the street. However, Obama the under-dog fighter will not allow a criminal like Netanyahu to beat him at this game.

    [Reply]

  • Foulitics

    Zia’s Islamic brothers are rioting and murdering all across the world over a very silly movie and no mention of that by the “Muslim affairs” correspondent.

    [Reply]

  • Plumbline

    Political correctness means you cannot speak the truth, or you can’t get elected……..you have to talk grey, not black and white………..

    ………Revelation 19:15……..Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.

    [Reply]