After China train crash, it's not just rail safety that worries Chinese
Last week's China train crash, which killed some 40 people, has reinforced a sense of unease with the pace of the nation's development.
The chat aboard China's G21 bullet train began with talk about the recent crash of two high-speed trains that killed at least 40 people in eastern China, but soon the bureaucrat in a pink polo shirt was discussing the Chinese government.Skip to next paragraph
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"I think the government emphasizes visible things: When they build a new city, the city looks amazing, but when there's a storm, there are problems with flooding," said the man, whose surname is Wang but whose first name is being withheld to avoid getting him in trouble. "The city is visible, but the sewage system is not."
Was he nervous, then, about being on the bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai? Mr. Wang, who works at a government finance department, gave it a moment's thought and answered that the "accident horrified people, but they don't have a better choice than the train."
More than anything, the aftermath of the high-speed train wreck last month in Zhejiang province has come to underline the fact that for all of China's enormous economic growth, the nation is still overseen by an opaque, authoritarian regime frequently plagued by corruption. It's a system that relies in large part on the promise of material progress for its people, with the threat of heavy-handed tactics for those who step out of line.
During the past nine days, that approach has seemed especially off-balance.
In trying to explain, or not explain, the events that caused one train to rear-end another on July 23, officials ordered the media to censor reports on the accident, made announcements that strained credulity and then blamed a confusing jumble of factors including lightning, badly designed equipment and poorly trained workers.
Interviews with passengers on the trip between Beijing and Shanghai over the weekend suggested that in addition to worries about rail safety, the incident has for some reinforced a sense of unease with the pace of the nation's development.
No one spoke about a seismic shift that would threaten the government's hold on power, but most obviously had spent time thinking about the implications of the wreck.
"I think it's an issue of national credibility," said one passenger, who asked that only his last name, Lin, be used. "Other countries took 100 or 200 years to develop to this level. We took 10 or 20 years, so there are bound to be problems."
Like many others on the train, Mr. Lin, in a pressed aqua polo shirt and khaki slacks, had the look of the relatively affluent, the sort of man who's benefited from China's financial rise.
At the end of the day, said Lin, a real estate investor, "I have to believe the government because I cannot walk to where I'm going."
The subject of train infrastructure was a sensitive one even before the accident. While Beijing's plans to lay down 10,000 miles of track for high-speed trains by 2020 has wowed Western observers, the initiative is viewed with a mix of emotions in China.
The high ticket prices for high-speed trips are a sore point for many, as are suspicions that corruption wracks the project.
In February, Railways Minister Liu Zhijun was dismissed from his post amid allegations that he'd received kickbacks of at least $122 million.