Tag Archives: Wenzhou Train

Examining Eric Li and China’s Vox Populi

WARNING: If you are not a fan of VERY long, badly-organized posts, you should probably leave right now.

The Article

Shanghai-based venture capitalist and Fudan doctoral candidate Eric Li has popped up a couple times in the past few weeks. First, he was here, debunking China “myths” in the New York Times, and then yesterday here in the Christian Science Monitor, debunking…well, anyone who is critical of China. I found this second article especially problematic. Let’s dive right in!

Two trains collided and 40 people died. The transportation accident seems to be riveting the Chinese nation and dominating its newspaper pages, TV screens, and the Internet. It has claimed prominent spaces in leading international media outlets.

All of a sudden, the entire Chinese political system seems to be on trial, its economic development model – with the high-speed rail project its latest symbol – discredited; the Chinese people are in an uproar; and Western commentators are again pronouncing a sea change that this time, with the overwhelming force of microblogs, will finally begin to bring down the Chinese miracle. One would imagine, at the very least, the trains would be totally empty.

Already we can see Mr. Li setting up a straw-man of sorts. The implication he’s making is that if China’s trains aren’t empty, this means that Chinese people aren’t really as dissatisfied as the internet would make it seem. Why? So that he can then say, “Look, Chinese people are riding the trains; therefore, no one is angry at the government.”

Unfortunately, that logic doesn’t make an awful lot of sense. First of all, no one would expect China’s trains to be empty; just the high speed ones. But even there, China’s need for some form of transportation is just too great for anything to stop people from taking the train. I’m sure high speed rail numbers are down following the crash, but the fact is that millions and millions of people still need to travel, and there simply aren’t enough regular trains or airplanes or buses to hold all of them.

In fact, I myself will be taking a high speed train in China in a couple weeks. Does this reflect my confidence in the Chinese government, or even my confidence in the Chinese rail system? No. What it reflects is that I need to get somewhere quickly and I can’t afford a plane ticket.

Yet again, reality is intervening.

The Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail line finished its first month of operation having carried five and a quarter million passengers – a number not in dispute. The percentage of capacity number is very much in dispute because of differing statistical models [my emphasis], but even the most conservative interpretations would have the trains half full. This is not shabby for such a large-scale project in its first month, during which a much publicized fatal accident occurred. In the rest of the regular rail system, where the accident actually happened, even the fiercest critics of the railway project are admitting that the trains are nearly full as usual.

First of all, given that the crash happened late on July 23rd, I don’t think that an examination of high-speed rail passenger statistics for July is going to be much indication of how the Chinese public has responded to the crash. But, as I said earlier, obviously people are riding trains in China, so whatever.

More interesting are the “differing statistical models” he mentions. Specifically, what he means is that the Railway Ministy counts a seat as being full as long as one person books on it at some point on a train trip. So if, for example, I take the train from Beijing to Shanghai, but I get off halfway. If no one replaces me, that seat is counted as having been at 100% capacity for the trip. If someone replaces me, the seat counts as 200% capacity. If a third person were to book that seat for another leg of the journey, it would count as 300%. This is how the Ministry was able to announce that the Beijing-Shanghai rail operated at 107% capacity this month ((Here’s a Chinese source for the haters: http://news.163.com/11/0801/19/7AD679J600014JB6.html )).

I’ll leave it to you whether “differing statistical models” is a fair way of categorizing the controversy there.

In the past decade, rapid growth of the Internet has created a digital public square, and its ferocity has become a unique phenomenon. While the vast majority of China’s 480 million netizens use the Internet for entertainment and commerce, a smaller group uses it to vent dissatisfaction about life, society, and the world. They express their most intense feelings about what they are most dissatisfied with in the loudest voices possible.

In the loudest voices possible? What does that even mean? Large fonts? The Chinese state media makes this same claim all the time — that “dissenters” are “drowning out” pro government voices on sites like Sina Weibo. But the fact is that the only way to “drown someone out” on Weibo is with numbers. There’s way to affect what posts other people see and no way to “amplify” your own posts. Dissenting opinions are “louder” on Weibo because, at the moment, most people on Weibo hold dissenting opinions.

If “the vast majority” of people were using Weibo to talk about entertainment and commerce, for example, how did the train crash remain that site’s most popular discussion topic for nine days? Certainly no one would deny that a great many of the comments about the accident were expressing dissatisfaction with the government. And it’s not like Sina, or anyone else, was censoring pro-government views. So how can we explain the tens of millions of Weibo posts about the crash? Were they all made by a select few people while “the vast majority” of China’s internet users took a nine-day holiday from using Weibo? That seems pretty unlikely, especially given the many user polls that were passed around on Weibo and racked up hundreds of thousands of responses in days (users can only vote once per poll).

Now, certainly, those polls are only indicative of “public opinion” to a point, as participants are self-selecting and Weibo users in general skew towards young, urban and educated; they’re not an accurate representation of China’s overall demographics. At the same time, though, they reach sample sizes that are absolutely massive compared to the relatively few scientific opinion polls that are conducted in China; and given that there’s no trustworthy recent (last six months) poll data that I’m aware of, we can’t totally discount the value of Weibo user polls.

The nature of the Internet is such that these sentiments [negative sentiments] are amplified and assume a semblance of dominance. Its manifestation is by definition partial but not holistic, extreme but not representative. Little wonder that any casual visitor to the Chinese digital public square would find a China filled with the most extreme expressions of populism and nationalism.

Really? That’s the “nature of the internet”? Negative sentiments about the government “are amplified” (by who? how?) and “become dominant”? Because when a few years ago when any Chinese post on politics was flooded with hundreds of comments about how the economy was doing better, China had the Olympics, and foreigners should shut up, was that not the internet?

I’m pretty sure it was, but if the “nature of the internet” amplifies negative sentiments (somehow) and makes them “dominant,” how is that possible?

The only reasonable conclusion is that the internet is a communication tool. Because it grants anonymity, it does tend to skew towards obnoxiousness and rudeness, but there is nothing inherent about the internet that reinforces a particular set of political beliefs.

Those who understand the nature of this medium would know that these expressions, while legitimate, are far from reflecting the general views of average netizens, much less the population at large. When put into an objective analytical framework, it is, at best, but one of the barometers of public opinion, and certainly not the most significant. At worst it is what Foreign Policy magazine has recently termed the “People’s Republic of Rumors.”

Ah yes. Here we enter familiar territory; the old “if you disagree with me it is because you don’t understand” argument. Li wields it somewhat clumsily here and then moves on to reenforcing the idea that “these expressions, while legitimate, are far from reflecting the general views of average netizens.”

What, then, reflects the general views of average netizens, I wonder? Millions of negative comments on Weibo, negative train crash posts dominating all the major BBS forums and Chinese SNS…if these do not “reflect” the views of netizens then what, pray tell, does? Why should we discount these views that were expressed so widely and uniformly? Li doesn’t really offer an answer for that.

Instead, he enters into a long argument about how these views are advocated and promoted by the “pseudo-literati,” who are apparently frustrated that they are no longer governing the way they used to during imperial times, and that they have been replaced by ‘obviously more competent’ ((I am here paraphrasing something Li says on page 2 of his article, in the second paragraph.)) political and commercial technocrats.

Not being able to go into politics, many pseudo-literati have over the years gone to work in China’s highly fragmented media industry. In that, they found themselves even more frustrated. Their desire to influence politics is restrained and sometimes repressed by the political authority of the central government. Such is China’s political system.

In their frustration they have bought into the Western ideological notion that the media must be independent of political authority and has the moral responsibility to check the power of the state. Combining this ideological conversion with their feeling of lost entitlement to power, they have appointed themselves as the rightful opposition to Communist Party rule. And they have found the partiality and extremism of the digital public square their most fertile soil. They have sought to interpret the venting of dissatisfaction on the digital public square as representative of the will of the people.

First of all, arguments about modern people’s motivations that begin with a comparison to imperial times are pretty much all total horseshit. Yes, Chinese people have a strong historical memory, but no one alive in China today makes their life decisions based on what they could have expected if they were living in the Qing Dynasty.

As far as the literati goes, a far more useful historical context for their “opposition” to the Chinese government might be the anti-Rightist campaigns (for example), since that’s something that some of them actually experienced and it would certainly be motivation enough to make anyone mad at the government for a long time.

But honestly, I don’t think that’s what’s happening either. In fact, I don’t think what Li’s saying is even happening. China’s media has not positioned itself in opposition to the government, and in fact, a large portion of it is the government. To return to the train crash story, for example, some of the harshest criticism of all came from CCTV. Now, I’m sure some educated liberals work at CCTV, but could it really be characterized as having “appointed [itself] as the rightful opposition to Communist Party rule”?

Moreover, while I’ll grant that the digital sphere is fertile ground for extremism and partisanship, that goes both ways. So if the “vast majority of netizens” are actually pro-government, as Li argued earlier in the piece, how have these disenfrancised literati managed to shut them up? Shouldn’t the “fertile ground” of the internet be nourishing their extremism and partisanship too?

Certainly, there are people in the media with an anti-government motive. I don’t deny that, although I think Li’s explanation of the cause of those motives is ridiculous. But Chinese netizens are not retarded puppets; the fact that negative opinion has become so prevalent on the net is a reaction to real-world conditions, not some kind of shadow media group that is manipulating the stupid public so it can return itself to the glory days of Imperial China. People — yes, real people — are critical of the government because of housing prices, inflation, and safety issues that affect their lives.

Again, Li does have a bit of a point mixed in there. The voices on the internet are not — necessarily — “the will of the people.” The thing is, they aren’t necessarily not “the will of the people” either. Just because an opinion is expressed on the internet doesn’t mean it’s confined there, and in fact, while it’s not as easily quantifiable, I’ve certainly seen plenty of these “internet” sentiments in evidence offline. Just after the crash, for example, I heard a colleague say into his phone with genuine shock in his voice, “You still trust the Communist Party?” This was not a dissident or some dissatisfied media liberal. Nor is it some idiot who would be easily swayed by peer pressure or media guidance. This was a well-educated, well-to-do guy working a good job at a promising tech company.

Now, he’s not necessarily representative of “the will of the people” either. In fact, “the will of the people” is kind of a dumb phrase for a nation of over a billion; there are just too many people to ever be able to really say they have one “will.” My point is that people outside of the (apparently biased) internet are sharing equally negative sentiments about the government on a daily basis, even in public. If Mr. Li wants to talk about “the will of the people”, he ought to at least offer some alternative measurement of it, but he really doesn’t. His argument that regular Chinese people aren’t dissatisfied because they’re still riding the trains ignores the economic and logistical realities that essentially guarantee people will be riding these trains regardless of how they feel about the Railway Ministry or the government. (Additionally, as I pointed out earlier, his statistics for that point are somewhat questionable anyway).

Also in the paragraphs quoted above is the popular notion that a free press is somehow incompatible with China. This argument is so common now that Li apparently feels no need to even attempt to support it, which is good, because it would be difficult to support. What makes a free press so incompatible with China? It’s certainly incompatible with the Chinese government’s wishes, but that’s not the same thing. In fact, I believe a free and independent press could work well under the current system, more or less.

The narrative of dissatisfaction isn’t real

We have indeed seen this movie many times before. The dissatisfaction expressed around the dislocations caused by the building of the Three Gorges Dam was interpreted as a strong general opposition to the dam project itself. The Shanghai World Expo was attacked as a wasteful project unwelcome by the residents of Shanghai. One of their pieces of evidence was the loud expression of dissatisfaction many netizens expressed online about the construction chaos caused by the building of the large-scale Shanghai subway as a part of the Expo. They widely publicized the empty trains during the initial months of the new subway lines’ operation as proof.

But of course, any rider today will tell you that now one would have to squeeze into these trains every day – an interesting replay of what is being said about the high-speed railways.

Again, Li is confusing the fact that people use things they’re upset about some aspect of as evidence that they were never actually upset. This doesn’t make a lot of sense. In the US, for example, when the TSA introduced full-body scanners, many people were upset, but they kept flying. Why? Because they had to. The fact that they took planes doesn’t mean they weren’t angry at the TSA, it means they needed to get somewhere by plane.

He may be right about some people in the media using the empty trains as evidence of people’s anger, but he turns around and makes the exact same (foolish) assumption, just going in the opposite direction.

What is central to all this is that the pseudo-literati, in their effort to carve out a moral space for themselves in the Chinese political landscape, have taken the expressions in the digital public square and created an Orwellian 1984 of Chinese public opinion. They are writing in their newspapers and spreading through their microblogs a virtual and parallel reality of Chinese society.

This is where it becomes clear we’re definitely on the train to Crazytown. An “Orwellian 1984”? Ignoring for a moment the blinding irony (not to mention the redundancy), this isn’t actually true. Millions of regular people — not reporters or “pseudo literati” — were talking about the train crash (for example) or food scandals (for example) or inflation (for example) and complaining about the government. The media, both Chinese and foreign, may have overemphasized this in some cases — we’ll get to that later — but they did not make it up.

The narrative goes like this: The Chinese people are generally dissatisfied with the rapid economic development of the last 30 years; the benefits of speedy development are not worth the costs of its byproducts, namely the wealth gap and corruption, just as an accident discredits the entire infrastructure undertaking of the high-speed rail project. Every disaster, whether natural or due to human error, is proof that the current political system has lost the trust of the people.

No, that’s not how the narrative goes at all ((I’m talking about the narrative on Weibo here, there are number of narratives in foreign and domestic coverage depending on who you read)), and that’s the problem. Because Li is right. That narrative is a load of crap. But it’s also a figment of his imagination. Here’s what the actual narrative is: The Chinese people are generally satisfied with the rapid economic development of the last 30 years. The benefits of speedy development have generally outweighed the costs of its byproducts, but now that China has lifted millions out of poverty and is one of the world’s largest economies, it’s time to slow down a bit and start fixing some of those byproducts; namely the wealth gap and corruption. An accident doesn’t discredit the entire infrastructure undertaking of the high-speed rail project; quite the contrary, nearly everyone would agree that China should and can have high speed rail lines; what the accident does is indicate to people that the implementation of this infrastructure was too hasty and apparently not thorough enough. People are dissatisfied with that because they feel that in this, a period of relative stability, China should have and could have done better. Disasters, whether natural or due to human error, are not proof that the current political system has lost the trust of the people. But the government does lose trust when they handle the aftermath of a disaster poorly, and they seem to be making something of a habit of that.

And who is to represent the will of the people to overturn all this injustice? Of course it’s them, and the media is somehow ordained to lead this revolution. The opinion piece in the immediate aftermath of the accident by a respected commentator essentially repeats this storyline for Westerners in English.

Uh…what? Most of the pieces I’ve seen, in Chinese and English, say nothing about the “media”. If there’s going to be a revolution, everyone seems to think it will be led by Weibo. Yes, there are some reporters on Weibo, but it is not the media, just as it is not the government even though many government officials have Weibo accounts.

I’m not sure what opinion piece, specifically, Li is referring to, but the vasty majority of media reports I’ve seen on this topic have been about “the Weibo revolution”. The media isn’t really involved at all.

There are only two problems with this plan. One, the Chinese people don’t seem to be in on it. Just about every credible public-opinion survey points to strong satisfaction of the Chinese people with the rapid economic development that has been taking place, and they look to the future with unprecedented optimism. The pseudo-literati are loudly demanding a dramatic slowdown in GDP growth. If the Communist Party acceded to their demand, would the Chinese people tolerate that?

Just about every credible public-opinion survey….and how many is that exactly? There’s the PEW polls and, um…hmm. Of course, there isn’t a PEW poll (or any other credible poll) on this topic that’s recent enough to reflect public opinion following any of the high-profile issues that have cropped up in the past year, so I’m not sure how valuable any of those surveys really are. Beyond that, there are other questions, but I don’t want to get into that here — this post is already way too long. My point is, if the “narrative” Li laid out above really represented the narrative that’s presented in the press, then these surveys would be fair game. But that’s not really the popular narrative, and I’m not sure what a survey from two years ago can tell me about public response to social problems that have only really emerged in the past six months.

As for the “Slow down, China” mantra we’ve heard in the wake of the crash, it’s not a media invention. Hundreds of thousands of regular people — not “pseudo-literati” — were saying similar things on Weibo and offline in the week following the crash. Generally speaking, I don’t think Chinese people care much about the GDP in the abstract, and I think it’s unfair to assume Chinese people wouldn’t be willing to put up with slower growth and the effect that would have on their own lives in exchange for things like safer transportation and food and a more level playing ground for businesses (if corruption could be slowed).

Two, China is moving along a political trajectory that is uniquely suitable to its own cultural context and not following a Western model in which the media is an independent forth estate. China will never have its own Rupert Murdoch.

I don’t think I even need to comment on this; I addressed this same idea when it cropped up earlier in the piece.

The victims of this terrible train accident will be properly mourned and their families fairly compensated with respect and dignity. The cause of the accident must be thoroughly investigated and prevented for the future. The country will move on.

Yes, because nothing says “respect and dignity” quite like, “We’ll give you 100,000. Oh, uh, did we say 100,000? We meant 500,000. Still no? OK, fine, 900,000. And an extra 25,000 if you’ll sign fast and get your grieving ass out of our hair!” ((This is satire, not a direct quote, as far as I know.)) But I agree, China will move on.

This author predicts that, in a few years’ time, China’s high-speed railways will be transporting hundreds of millions of people and bringing enormous economic and social benefits to the Chinese people, just as the Three Gorges Dam is delivering much-needed electricity to tens of millions of ordinary families and Chinese industry, and the Shanghai subway built for the World Expo is providing efficiency and convenience to 20 million Shanghai residents.

I’m certain the railroad will be transporting hundreds of millions of people. And hopefully, as a result of the anger that followed this incident, the Railway Ministry will have been cowed into making it at least marginally safer. But I fail to see what that has to do with public opinion, or how the fact that in the future the trains will run successfully somehow means that what people are saying on Weibo or elsewhere now isn’t valid.

There is an old Chinese saying: The people are like water and the ruler is a ship on that water; water can carry the ship, water can overturn the ship. Chinese vox populi – that is the water. What is the vox populi saying? Those who seek to understand China and predict its future course should not misjudge the people’s voice. For those who rule China, misreading that voice carries greater peril than not reading it at all.

Wait, the people are the water? Or the people’s opinions are the water? And other people are misjudging the water? Misreading the water is more dangerous than ignoring it? I don’t see what this simile has to do with anything but I think there’s a law somewhere that says all China op-eds must end with an “old Chinese saying”, so I’ll let Li off the hook.

A better metaphor might be that the people are the water, and that public sentiment as it appears on Weibo is more like the waves. It may represent the real motion of the water, and it may not. There could be other currents underneath the waves that rulers can’t see from the boat. But that would be a very foolish reason to ignore the waves entirely.

Internet Public Opinion and the Vox Populi in China

So, now that I’ve spent 4,000 words tearing it apart, I’ll admit it: there is a good point underlying Li’s post. Specifically, the media (Chinese and foreign) is prone to over-emphasizing the importance of Weibo and other Chinese internet public opinion channels. Part of this — and I should note up front that I am as or more guilty of this than anyone — is laziness. Reporters can log on to Weibo and have a few punchy quotes picked out before lunchtime. They can search for exactly what they want, and moreover, it’s what their editors want. Social media is hot, the internet is hot, and people are clamoring for these stories, so there’s even some pressure on reporters to work this way.

That said, the reporting environment in China greatly exacerbates these factors by failing to reward, and in fact punishing, writers who attempt to collect public opinion by more traditional means. At best, they’ll find a lot of people not willing to talk to the press, at worst they may be met with harassment and even physical violence from whatever party their investigation threatens to damage. The same is true for their subjects, which makes interviewing anyone in China about political topics a bit dicey under even the best of conditions.

Another problem is that the lack of government transparency pushes people to other sources. This is especially true for members of the foreign press. China regularly complains that these reporters never tell China’s side of the story, but Chinese officials almost always refuse to speak to foreign reporters. I feel certain that most media outlets would prefer a quote from Wen Jiabao to a quote from some random Weibo user, but Chinese officials don’t tend to give interviews to foreign media outlets beyond the occasional press conference.

Anyway, regardless of the reasons, Li is right that Weibo and net public opinion in general gets over-emphasized (although I think the fact that Weibo gets over-emphasized is also over-emphasized). This is not only true when it’s negative opinions about the government that are being expressed, either. Remember all the scare stories in the Western press a few years ago when the Fifty Cents Party was in full blossom and nationalist posts were popping up everywhere? The importance of that was over-emphasized too, although something tells me Li probably didn’t write a piece on it.

That said, just because an opinion comes from the internet does not mean that it is invalid or not representative. In the case of the train crash, the feedback was so massive and so uniformly negative that it seems insane to dismiss it as meaningless just because it was typed on a website rather than shouted in the street. We can’t necessarily take any online trend as indicative of something larger until we’ve done a more thorough investigation, but nor can we dismiss it.

Moreover, in discussions of this we have to acknowledge that such an investigation would be exceedingly difficult in the current political environment. If I, for example, were to go around conducting a public opinion poll to support my claims about how Chinese people feel about government in the wake of the Wenzhou accident, how long do you think it would take for me to end up in a police station?

In some cases, we have to take what we can get. The internet is a flawed source of Chinese public opinion, but so are any other sources we might turn to. Moreover, the internet does offer a sample size that’s pretty impossible to compete with even for professional pollsters, and as China continues to develop, the demographic skews are evening out. We’re still a long ways away from the ‘net being a pure representation of all of Chinese society, but what we’ve got now is still useful to examine so long as we are aware of its flaws.

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“Nothing to My Name”, the Train Crash Version

Cui Jian’s song “Nothing to My Name” is perhaps the best-known Chinese rock song of all time. It might also be considered one of the first, given that it was released in 1986. It quickly grew popular, and was adopted by the students as an anthem of sorts during the Tiananmen protests in 1989. In fact, Cui Jian even performed the song live for the protesters.

In the wake of the train accident in Wenzhou, it seems netizens have turned back to this decades old song to vent. Uploaded to Tudou a few days ago, this video — which is currently being spread around Weibo — is a very well done version of that song, with new lyrics that address the Wenzhou crash. It’s a fairly impressive job; most of the lyrics use the same rhyming sounds as the original song.

http://www.tudou.com/v/9lsE69x7n7Q/v.swf
(link)

As of this posting, the video has over 400,000 views. Update: The original video I linked has now been deleted (presumably by Tudou), however, the video has been re-uploaded this morning; see above. If that doesn’t work, try these links, as it has also spread to other sites: Sina, Sina. Those appear to be being deleted, so your best bet long term is just to watch it on Youtube:

If you want to search for it on Chinese sites, the easiest way is to search for the phrase 一无所有 动车版.

Translation

This is a pretty rough translation. There are subtitles in the video, so I haven’t bothered to retype all the Chinese here.

Opening monologue: Railway Ministry, don’t tell me the reason for this accident is rain and lightning. You’re standing in front of the cameras all sanctimonious and graceful, but behind it, how much disgraceful, stinking, bloody, undisguised corruption is there?

Singing begins:
The people are asking over and over,
How can the Railway officials be so ballsy,
Why did they stop the rescue operations,
after just a single day?

The passengers needed your help,
They didn’t need your excuses,
But you’re just evading [the questions],
Speaking without thinking.

Oh, you look like you’re putting on a show,
Do you really feel guilty?

The earth under our feet is trembling,
The tears on our faces are flowing,
What was that that fell [from the train car in the video]
And was captured by the camera ((A reference to the Youku video that showed an object falling from the car.))?

Why was the list of victims not published?
Why were you burying the engine car of the train?
Is it that in your eyes,
The lives of the people are more worthless than pigs or dogs?

Oh, how much is a life worth?
Is a few hundred thousand enough?

Spoken interlude: When they took the body, they found signs of life. This proves that at the beginning some people were still alive. Perhaps at that time, my wife and my family members were still alive. Why didn’t you come to rescue us? The bodies of my wife and my mother in law were still in the car when it was taken off the overpass; they weren’t trying to save our family members, we feel they were just trying to clear the tracks so trains could continue service. Because they said last night that the railway was operating normally again. The bodies weren’t [carefully] extracted from the wreckage, they were dug out with an excavator! In this project, even if they were already dead, you can’t just use a backhoe to handle them!

Singing returns
I’m telling you I’ve put up with it for a long time,
I’m telling you my final demand,
I’m tightening up my fists,
And setting out to find this scumbag,
My heart is trembling,
My blood is pumping,
What will you bring out to console me,
To console my deceased friends and family?

Oh, how much is a life worth?
Is a few hundred thousand enough?

Ending titles: “This video is in remembrance of the N victims who died in the 7/23 train crash. July 27, 2011.

Death on the High Speed Rail: Emerging Causes

UPDATE: Link to a blog post by Tom Lasseter added to the end of the post, high suggest you check it out.

Apologies for the lack of coverage yesterday; our VPN was out and we couldn’t access the blog.

In any event, new information is emerging today that sheds more light on what caused the horrific train crash in Wenzhou (See our coverage of Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3).

First is this Xinhua report, which says the crash was caused because the automatic notification system that should have told the D301 train there was a stopped train in front of it had been disabled by lightning:

Design flaws in railway signal equipment led to Saturday’s fatal high-speed train collision near Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province, the Shanghai Railway Bureau said on Thursday.

Having been struck by lightning, the signal system at Wenzhou South Railway Station failed to turn the green light to red, which caused the rear-end collision, said An Lusheng, head of the Shanghai Railway Bureau, at an investigation meeting held by the State Council in Wenzhou on Thursday.

The signal equipment was designed by a Beijing-based research and design institute and was put into use on Sept. 28, 2009, An said.

The accident revealed the railway sector’s vulnerabilities in safety infrastructure and management, An said.

More damning, perhaps, is this as-yet-unconfirmed expert testimony that the accident might have been averted if the Railway Ministry had chosen to install lighting safety equipment back in 2003:

He Jinliang, a professor at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University and director of China’s National Lightning Protection Technology Standard Committee, said in an interview Wednesday that the Ministry of Railways decided in 2003, shortly before China began embarking on its drive to build an extensive high-speed rail network, against protecting the network’s power-distribution equipment for the trains with lightning rods and surge protection. The equipment in question: those tall poles that suspend power lines along the tracks, from which trains draw electricity for propulsion. That decision came even as Mr. He’s committee—a semiofficial standard-setting body—in the same year adopted standards that recommended installing those lightning-protection devices for big structures such as high-rise buildings and tall bridges.

Those safeguards “would not provide complete protection” against lightning, but they would reduce the likelihood that lightning would severely affect train operation, Mr. He said. “Strong lightning is dangerous as it could short-circuit the network’s power-distribution equipment and cause power outages that could paralyze signaling and safety systems.”

Mr. He said he doesn’t know why the country’s rail authorities decided to skimp on those safety devices. “But as far as I know, lighting rods or surge protectors are not installed on the high-speed rail network’s power-distribution pylons.” The lack of such safeguards, he said, could have played a role in Saturday’s accident.

Mr. He’s claim couldn’t immediately be verified. The Railways Ministry didn’t respond to requests to comment. Ministry spokesman Wang Yongping hasn’t spoken to reporters since holding a press conference on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the media appears to have been let off the leash, or perhaps just chosen to ignore it. Even state-managed CCTV has raised serious questions about government handling of the incident, as well as reflected on its broader implications. Perhaps most telling is this speech, from Qiu Qiming on “24 Hours” (translation via Shanghaiist):

“If nobody can be safe, do we still want this speed? Can we drink a glass of milk that’s safe? Can we stay in an apartment that will not fall? Can the roads we travel on in our cities not collapse? Can we travel in safe trains? And if and when a major accident does happen, can we not be in a hurry to bury the trains? Can we afford the people a basic sense of security? China, please slow down. If you’re too fast, you may leave the souls of your people behind.”

China’s Premier Wen Jiabao, who often serves as the man-on-the-ground for major disasters, is giving a press conference from Wenzhou today, despite apparently being sick:

“I am ill, having spent 11 days in bed, but I managed to come today only after my doctor reluctantly allowed me to check out of hospital. This is why I didn’t come here sooner.”

UPDATE: Well, I guess he wasn’t that sick. Check out this incredible blog post by Tom Lasseter that essentially proves, using only official Xinhua reports, that Wen was lying through his teeth about being stuck in bed for the past 11 days.

Han Han: “The Derailed Country”

The following is a guest translation by a Matt Schrader. It is supposedly an article that was posted to Han Han’s blog and then deleted. However, short of contacting him directly, which I have no way of doing, there’s no way to confirm that the article is in fact his. It’s also worth mentioning that articles are frequently passed off as being by Han Han as an attempt by other writers to draw more attention to the article in question.

On the other hand, articles are also frequently deleted from Han’s blog and when that happens, they quickly end up copied on other sites. Since in this case the original isn’t on Han’s blog, we’ll post the Chinese text in its entirety here. (There is no mouseover text below).

UPDATE: Based on information from a couple sources, I now believe it’s accurate to state that this is, in fact, an authentic Han Han piece.

Translation: “The Derailed Country”

You ask, why are they acting like a bunch of lunatics?

They think they’re the picture of restraint.

You ask, why can’t they tell black from white, fact from fiction?

They think they’re straight shooters, telling it like it is.

You ask, why are they running interference for murders?

They think they’ve thrown their friends under the bus. And they’re ashamed.

You ask, why all the cover-ups?

They think they’re letting it all hang out.

You ask, why are they so irretrievably corrupt?

They think they’re hardworking and plain-living.

You ask, why are they so infuriatingly arrogant?

They think they’re the picture of humility.

You feel like you’re the victim. So do they.

They think: “During the Qing Dynasty, no one had television. Now everyone has a television. Progress!”

They think: “We’re building you all this stuff, what do you care what happens in the process? Why should you care who it’s really for, so long as you get to use it? The train from Shanghai to Beijing used to take a whole day. Now you’re there in five hours (as long as there’s no lightning). Why aren’t you grateful? What’s with all the questions?

“Every now and then, there’s an accident. The top leaders all show how worried they are. We make someone available to answer journalists’ questions. First we say we’ll give the victims 170,000 kuai apiece. Then we say we’ll give them 500,000. We fire a buddy of ours. We’ve done all that, and you still want to nitpick? How could you all be so close-minded? You’re not thinking of the big picture! Why do you want us to apologize when we haven’t done anything wrong? It’s the price of development.

“Taking care of the bodies quickly is just the way we do things. The earlier we start signing things, the more we’ll have to pay out in the end. The later we sign, the smaller the damages. Our pals in the other departments—the ones who knock down all the houses—taught us that one. Burying the train car was a bonehead move, true, but the folks upstairs told us to do it. That’s how they think: if there’s something that could give you trouble, just bury it. Anyway, the real mistake was trying to dig such a huge hole in broad daylight. And not talking it over with the Propaganda Department beforehand. And not getting a handle on all the photographers at the site. We were busy, ok? If there’s anything we’ve learned from all this, it’s that when you need to bury something, make sure you think about how big it is, and make sure you keep the whole thing quiet. We underestimated all that.”

They think that, on the whole, it was a textbook rescue operation—well planned, promptly executed, and well managed. It’s a shame public opinion’s gotten a little out of hand, but they think, “That part’s not our responsibility. We don’t do public opinion.”

They’re thinking: “Look at the big picture: We had the Olympics, we canceled the agricultural tax, and you guys still won’t cut us a break. You’re always glomming on to these piddling little details. No can-do spirit. We could be more authoritarian than North Korea. We could make this place poorer than the Sudan. We could be more evil than the Khmer Rouge. Our army’s bigger than any of theirs, but we don’t do any of that. And not only are you not thankful, but you want us to apologize! As if we’ve done something wrong?”

Society has people of means, and those without. There’s people with power, and those that have none. And they all think they’re the victim. In a country where everyone’s the victim, where the classes have started to decouple from one another, where it’s every man for himself, in this huge country whose constituent parts slide forward on inertia alone—in this country, if there’s no further reform, even tiny decouplings make the derailings hard to put right.

The country’s not moving forward because a lot of them judge themselves as if Stalin and Mao were still alive. So they’ll always feel like the victim. They’ll always feel like they’re the enlightened ones, the impartial ones, the merciful ones, the humble ones, the put-upon ones. They think the technological drumbeat of historical progress is a dream of their own making.
The more you criticize him, the more he longs for autocracy. The more you gaomao him (piss him off), the more he misses Mao.

A friend in the state apparatus told me, “You’re all too greedy. Forty years ago, writers like you would’ve been shot. So you tell me, have things gotten better, or have they gotten worse?”

I said, “No, you’re all too greedy. Ninety years ago, that kind of thinking would have gotten you laughed out of the room. So you tell me: after all that, have things gotten better, or have they gotten worse?”

Death (and More) on the High Speed Rail, Day 3

UPDATE 3: Added paike footage of the toddler’s rescue to the end of the post.

UPDATE 2: Added “Donations” section with translated comments from a Tianya post.

UPDATE 1: Added information about the driver, media coverage, and a video from Shanghaiist, as well as information about a new Weibo poll.

If you haven’t, please read the first two posts on this subject to catch up to today.

This video, posted to Youku, is purportedly the first video of the crash itself. It begins with scenes of the rain, but at the end shows a train moving and then some very bright sparks, or…something. You be the judge:

http://player.youku.com/player.php/sid/XMjg3ODk1NzY4/v.swf

Caixin released a report on the causes of the accident (emphasis added):

9:15 p.m.: Caixin has published a technical piece on the China Train Control System (CTCS), the train operation technology used by both trains involved in the crash. The system, wholly-controlled by an automated computer system, transmits information and monitors speed, taking into account inclement weather conditions like wind, rain and snow.

The report includes videos and explanations from the technology’s designers, and concludes that the accident was entirely preventable had the system been in full force. According to the system’s designs, the traffic control center should have detected the D3115’s slowdown and subsequent halting, and then notified any trains coming up from behind.

More details are available at that link.

The death toll continues to fluctuate, with some reports citing 39 dead, the netizen-crowdsourced list now listing 38 names, and Xinhua’s stories apparently edited to report 36 dead, down from 38 yesterday. But the Global Times puts the death toll at 40 today.

Also in edited news, with regards to the body-falling video on Youku mentioned yesterday, one commenter pointed out that the video has been edited. When originally posted, the video played smoothly, and there was clearly something falling from the train at around the 0:09 mark. Whether or not it was a body is debatable, but now the evidence of whatever it was appears to have been swept clean. Observe, the video now skips slightly at the 0:09 mark. The section where the falling object was visible has been deleted.

http://player.youku.com/player.php/sid/XMjg3OTE2NTQ0/v.swf

That video link was circulated widely on Youku, and was edited at some point yesterday afternoon. Compare it to this, a copy of the exact same video, circulated less widely and as yet unedited.

http://player.youku.com/player.php/sid/XMjg4MTM2MTQ4/v.swf

In case that is also edited, the video has also been copied to Youtube here, although it is a lower fidelity version and thus is a bit less clear.

Suspicion about the incident continues to be widespread. The newest user-created Weibo poll asks if people believe the government’s official casualty figures, and while it only has around 2,000 responses so far, 94% of respondents chose: “I absolutely don’t believe [the figures], if you use your brain to think about it, how could it be possible so few people died?”

Shanghaiist has also been following this story and providing excellent coverage. Two especially worthy pieces of theirs are this, which illustrates the media response to the accident, and this, the translation of a supposed conversation with the driver of the front train, who has not been heard from since the accident. The conversation, especially its ending, seem awfully convenient, and there’s no way to confirm its authenticity, but it’s worth a read anyway.

Meanwhile, other high-speed trains continue to experience power issues, as more problems caused another swath of delays on Monday.

Donations

An interesting question raised by this incident is how regular people can help. Upon hearing of the crash, many netizens wished to donate money. But the Chinese Red Cross, the place most people would generally donate money to in this sort of situation, is still tainted by the recent high-profile scandals and many no longer trust them to deliver donations.

Consider, for example, this Tianya thread about the crash in which the OP asks people to donate to the Chinese Red Cross (thanks to Jake F. for this link). Some responses:

Bah!

You’re donating? I’m not going to get tricked again.

The OP is a master of satire.

Go to hell.

Donate money to Guo Meimei?

The Red Cross shouldn’t even be trying to get donations, they lost so much face and haven’t gained enough back yet.

I fuck your mom! Donate! Donate to the Black Cross Society, you might as well just throw your money away!

Who are you trying to fool?

Red Louse Society [a pun, “louse” is pronounced in a way similar to “cross”]

Donate your mom’s **** ((Yup, I’m not gonna translate that one.))

Go away.

Anyone who donates has no penis.

They found another excuse to dig out some money. Strongly disdain [in his post, this phrase is then copy-pasted around twenty more times].

The Red Cross represents the nation in begging for money.

This is a righteous slap to the face of the Black Society ((here, he means the Red Cross, not gangster/criminal society)).

Those are just a few quotes from the first half of the first page of the thread. At present, it goes on for another 44 pages, without much change in discussion. Right now, the most recent comment on the post is a joke about the original poster’s sister.

Rescue Footage

This video is gaining popularity on Youku right now. It shows the entire process of the young girl’s rescue on Sunday afternoon. It was posted about 15 hours ago and already has over 300,000 plays and 600 comments.

http://player.youku.com/player.php/sid/XMjg4NDI3Mjg4/v.swf

Death on the High Speed Rail, Day 2

UPDATE 5: Added the latest information on the death toll to the introduction.

UPDATE 4: Added Wang Yongpin’s rebuttal to the rumors that they were burying train cars to the “Official Media” section.

UPDATE 3: Added link and information about the Google Documents spreadsheet of victims.

UPDATE 2: Added a translation of some new propaganda directives to the new section “Information Control”

UPDATE 1: Added some information from Shanghaiist and a link from @InBeijingSe

Rather than continue to update yesterday’s post, which is already over 3,000 words long, we’ll be collecting new information about the Wenzhou accident here. If you haven’t already, we suggest you read that post before starting this one.

Xinhua announced this afternoon that the official death toll is now 38, rather than yesterday’s 35. The number of injured, most recently listed by Xinhua as 192, has not been updated.

Official Media

Official reports this morning acknowledge, in a rather indirect way, that China’s high speed rail “still faces challenges.” They are, however, emphatic about how the government remains confident in the trains. From Xinhua:

Despite the accident, the spokesman said the ministry is still confident in China’s high-speed trains.

“China’s high-speed train is advanced and qualified. We have confidence in it,” he said.

From the Global Times:

“China has advanced high-speed railway technology. We are still confident about that,” Wang said.

The government has additionally suspended 58 train services, up from yesterday’s number which was less than 30.

In a press conference today, railway official Wang Yongpin directly addresses the rumors that train cars were being buried at the accident site:

http://player.youku.com/player.php/sid/XMjg4MTQwOTA4/v.swf

In the video, he says that according to a “comrade” of his, the car was buried because of the muddy ground, and that burying the car and then putting dirt on top of it aided recovery efforts. He says they would not and could not figuratively “bury” this story, so they wouldn’t try. He concludes, “That is how he [the unnamed “comrade”] explained this [the cars being buried]. As to whether you believe it or not…anyway, I believe it.”

The Global Times also ran an editorial on the crash:

China’s high-speed railway system has become the newest target of public criticism, although it reportedly stands on the cusp of joining the world’s best in the field. The society harshly criticizes the railway system whenever there is an accident. The authorities’ only option is to accept such criticism.

The collision delivered a strong shock to China’s social psychology, and caused doubt toward the nation’s railway construction plans. For a long time, China has been lagging behind in transportation. Now China is rising to the top level for railways.

However, the nation lacks experience when joining these ranks, and when an accident does happen, society naturally holds many misgivings.

Railway departments have to face up to public inquiries and doubts frankly and bravely. This is a responsible attitude to take for both public security and their own credibility. Top chiefs at the Shanghai Railway Bureau were dismissed yesterday, a correct step that the ministry took to ensure accountability for the accident.

China lags behind advanced countries in overall social management. This enhances the risks that China has to face as it develops a leading railway system. Railway departments should always keep this in mind. Besides owning reliable technologies and detailed management stipulations, they should also be able to lead the world in applying these elements. This is where public worries are focused, and where railway departments may find it difficult to improve.

All those responsible for the deadly crash should be exposed and punished. Nevertheless, the accident should not serve to fully negate China’s rail accomplishments. The rapid expansion of China’s high-speed railway network has brought huge benefits to the nation’s economic growth and social progress. Reflections upon the severe accident should lead to safer, not slower, railway transportation.

It is time for China to lead the world in certain fields. Such exploration is always accompanied by risks, as made evident throughout the history of transportation. China should take warnings from previous disasters. China’s high-speed railways should be a miracle not only in their speed and scale, but also in safety and all other fields.

The deadly crash on Saturday should become a bloody lesson for the entire railway industry in China. It should become a starting point for safer railway standards. The public should continue their attention and criticism and push authorities to respond quickly and fix problems. Nevertheless, people ought to make rational judgments.

The accident should promote the nation to develop a safer and more convenient high-speed railway network, rather than pull it back to the era of sluggish rail traffic.

The tone here seems to be that China is blazing a new trail, and some bumps are inevitable along the way. Given, however, that high speed rail has existed and been running totally safely for decades in France and Japan, among other places, this argument seems unlikely to sway many people.

Information Control

At the same time, the Ministry of Truth Directives Google Plus account has released more leaked propaganda directives relating to the crash, as sent to reporters and shared on Sina Weibo:

In addition to the directive we translated yesterday, here are two additional paragraphs:

To Central Media: Regarding the Wenzhou crash, the newest requirements: 1) Use the deaths and casualty numbers reported by authorities; they are correct 2) Do not report too frequently 3) Report more moving stories, such as people donating blood or taxi drivers not taking fares from victims, etc. 4) Do not investigate the cause of the accident, use the information reported by authorities 5) Do not do “re-thinking” or commentary.

Propaganda Notice: The name of the Wenzhou accident will be the “The 7.23 Wenzhou Line Railway Accident”. From now on, use the headline “Great love in the face of great tragedy” to report on this incident. Do not doubt, reveal, or make associations, and to not retweet things on your personal Weibo accounts. In [TV] programs you can provide the relevant information, but be careful of the music.

Public Response

The public, however, has not been in the mood to forgive anyone. A user-created poll on Weibo asking people their opinion of the way the accident has been handled has already accrued over 25,000 55,000 responses, and they are not good:

Are you satisfied with the way the Chinese government has handled the Wenzhou accident?

  • Very dissastisfied, [the government has] simply shown disrespect for human life. – 93%, 25,796 51,779 votes
  • Dissatisfied, the emergency response has been poor. – 4%, 1,077 2,003 votes
  • Decent, it’s been about average, they saved a few people – 1%, 351 592 votes
  • Satisfied, but I’m just satisfied with the way our countrymen saved themselves [i.e., satisfied with the people’s response but not the government’s] – 2%, 450 855 votes
  • Satisfied, the government is doing a good job. – 1%, 151 290 votes

Another poll on Weibo asked people whether they felt the disaster was “natural” [in this case, they just mean unavoidable] or man-made. 98% — nearly 18,000 voters so far — chose “man-made.”

Part of the reason people are so dissatisfied is videos like this (h/t to Shanghaiist). The government stated yesterday morning that all bodies and passengers had been recovered from the wreckage, but this video clearly shows a body falling out of a train car at around 0:09 as they’re moving it a body being removed from the wreckage. There may or may not also be something, perhaps a body, falling out of the car as it’s topped, but on review it’s not clear what that is. (WARNING: DISTURBING)

http://player.youku.com/player.php/sid/XMjg3OTE2NTQ0/v.swf

Additionally, there were reports yesterday that a surviving four-year-old was pulled out of the wreckage around 4:00 PM, well after the government had said that all survivors had been accounted for (state media reported on Sunday at 4 A.M. and then again at 7 A.M. that all survivors had been found). UPDATE: Here is a link to a story about this from the AP. The Xinhua report on this same story cites the girl’s age as 2 years 8 months, though. For the moment it’s unclear who is right or which system of measuring age they’re using ((The Chinese traditional way of counting one’s age is not as simple as the way age is counted in the West, and it’s possible the AP and Xinhua are working with different numbers because of that.))

The train crash remains the hottest topic on Weibo, with a general discussion of the crash ranking first and another topic dedicated to helping people find their loved ones in second.

Suspicions also remain that the death toll is higher than announced, and people are sharing images like this one, of a Japanese news site that reports 43 people were killed:

Some tech-saavy netizens are also using Google Documents (blocked in China) to try to put together a list of the victims that includes name, sex, age, other info, and links to the relevant media reports. You can see the document here; it is being continuously updated. As of now, they have information on 21 of the victims.

We’ll try to keep this post updated as new information emerges.