On July 28, five days after the deadly high-speed train crash in Wenzhou, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao visited the scene and gave a press conference. Responding to a question about investigations into the causes of the incident, Wen said:
After the incident, the State Council has immediately set up an accident investigation team. This team is independent, and it involves the departments of safety, supervision and the procuratorate. Through on-the-ground survey, sampling, scientific analysis and expert reasoning, the team will reach a solid conclusion that can stand the test of history.
But the credibility of such an investigation has been called into question. Earlier on July 26, He Weifang, law professor at Peking University and an activist for the reform of the Chinese judicial system, wrote three posts on Sina Weibo calling for the setting up of a special investigation committee according to Article 71 of the Chinese Constitution, which says:
The National People’s Congress and its Standing Committee may, when they deem it necessary, appoint committees of inquiry into specific questions and adopt relevant resolutions in the light of their reports. All organs of state, public organizations and citizens concerned are obliged to supply the necessary information to those committees of inquiry when they conduct investigations.
The three posts, translated below, have altogether attracted over 45,000 forwards and 10,000 comments. Netizens on Weibo are overwhelmingly in support of Professor He’s proposal, although they know that it has a slim chance of being adopted.
After the 2003 Sun Zhigang incident, I and four other legal experts called for the triggering of the special investigation procedures as stipulated in Article 71 of the Constitution. The suggestion fell on deaf ears. The Wenzhou accident sparked a public outcry, and investigation by the Railways Ministry would be unconvincing. The reliability of the high-speed rail system is now in doubt. I once again call for the opening of the special investigation committee in order to conduct hearings and give an answer to the public. (link)
The system of special investigation committee as stipulated in the Constitution has been in force for 30 years. But it has never been used. The article is therefore a “sleeping beauty”. The committee is a normal act of power by our highest authority, which has an obligation to do so. In February last year, the US Congress conducted a hearing on Toyota following its vehicle recalls. Our media called it “US Congress interrogating the safety of Toyota”. Who is to interrogate the safety of our railways? (link)
Article 21 of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee rules of procedures said: “The Standing Committee may, when they deem it necessary, appoint committees of inquiry into specific questions and adopt relevant resolutions in the light of their reports.” This means that such committees can still be appointed when the NPC is not in session. The motions can be raised by the State Council, other authorities, or ten or more members of the Standing Committee. (link)
After the serious incident on July 23, the nation is paying much attention to the causes, number of deaths, handling of the scene and issues of responsibilities. From media reports, it is clear that the State Council is playing a major role in the on-site investigation, while the Railways Ministry does the explanation to the public. Apparently, the media, including official ones, is dissatisfied with the answers given by the spokesperson in response to questions raised by the public. The Railways Ministry itself is the involved party bearing responsibilities, and the State Council, being the supervising authority, also has a conflict of interest. Furthermore, the investigation itself is non-transparent. We can expect the results to be unconvincing.
This is worrying. It is clear that the problem stems from the investigating bodies themselves and the defects in the procedures. On July 26, I wrote on Weibo that the investigation should be based on Article 71 of the Constitution, and the National People’s Congress Standing Committee should start a special investigation committee. According to relevant regulations, this committee should be composed of members from the legislature and outside experts. From overseas experience, the works of the committee could include investigations into the causes of the accident, identifying relevant personnel to testify in subpoena, holding debates between experts with different views, and reaching a conclusion.
To achieve some basic credibility, the hearings should be open to the public, and broadcasted live on television, except if it involves state secrets. This puts the truth in front of the public and is an important channel of public supervision. It also helps people, including those accountable, to accept the final conclusion of the committee.
Furthermore, the committee can conduct wider investigations. Using this incident as an example, apart from the above matters, the committee can investigate and assess the current state of development of the high-speed rail system, the hidden problems (such as quality of rails and bridges) and the management system. Only through this can the accident be turned into an opportunity to redress the defects of the system.
My suggestion has attracted widespread responses. Within the first ten hours or so, the first post has been forwarded over 20,000 times and attracted over 5,000 comments. However, many people worry that the NPC Standing Committee is not likely to trigger the special investigation procedures. After all, during the 30 years that the present Constitution has been in force, there is not even one precedent case. Article 71 can be described as a typical “sleeping beauty article”. In the 2003 Sun Zhigang incident, I, together with four other legal experts, called in vain for the triggering of this procedure. Can the tragedy in Wenzhou wake this “sleeping beauty” up?