Geopolitics

Costs Of A Coverup? What’s At Stake For China After High-Speed Train Crash

Criticism is quickly building after last weekend’s crash killed 35 on a high-speed rail line that had been touted by the government.

Video image of crash
Video image of crash

It has been four days since one high-speed train rear-ended another in East China causing the death of at least 35 people, and injuring some 200 others.

Only three weeks earlier, the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway was boasting about being the longest and most quickly constructed in the world, as it was inaugurated with great fanfare. Yet numerous failures occurred within days of the operation, capped by the deadly accident that confirmed the Chinese public's doubts about the security of the country's high-speed rail, and sparking a crisis at the Chinese Ministry of Railways.

Up to now, both the state media and the Ministry of Railways claim that the accident was caused by lightning that struck and stalled the first train. Three senior officials were soon fired. Public opinion is outraged at the way the rail authority and other public officials have dealt with the incident.

It took 24 hours before the Ministry of Railways scheduled any sort of press conference to address the deadly July 23 incident that occurred near Wenzhou City. But when dozens of reporters arrived at the conference, only four designated media were allowed to enter the venue. There were more "leaders' present than reporters.

Moreover, in the conference, nothing about the accident was explained. All we learned is that Long Jing, the Secretary of the Shanghai Railway Bureau, was sacked by Sheng Guangzu, Minister of Railways, who has taken office only a few months ago.

It seems that everybody knows that Long Jing is just a scapegoat.

Truth from survivors' cell phone

The Railways Ministry spokesman and other public officials were said to have left the venue via the rear door at the end of the conference when the reporters swarmed forward to ask questions. The reporters were immediately pushed away by security guards. Even today no list of the dead has been issued.

After the fatal incident occurred, it was the surviving passengers themselves, stuck in the train carriages, who transmitted the news through their cell phones. It was more than one hour before the government media responded to the incident and started releasing very limited information about it, while CCTV, a state television channel, released the news hours later when messages were already widespread on the Internet. Yet what CCTV gave us was just clichés. It did not address clearly how the crash happened, instead the "instructions of the leadership" were delivered fulsomely and none of their names were left out.

On Sunday morning, less than 12 hours after the accident, the search and rescue team rashly announced that there was no more sign of survivors and started moving the fallen carriages. Large machinery was brought in to cut and crush the fallen carriages. Yet numerous passengers continued to be found still alive.

The most chilling question to imagine: What if the carriages being discarded still contained living passengers? In a 1998 crash in Germany the search and rescue lasted for 72 hours, while in China it is barely 12.

China has invested heavily in building a train network in this most populous region of the world. It will stretch to more than 12,000 kilometers of track by the end of 2012. When President Hu Jintao paid a visit to the US last January, China's largest train manufacturer, CSR Corp, signed letters of intent for ventures with General Electric (GE), aiming to gain the business of supplying America's high-speed rail investment plan unveiled by President Barack Obama early this year.

However, behind the apparently "leaping" development of high-speed rail, many serious problems are emerging. The Ministry of Railways has long been considered to be a closed and kingdom-like "Power Ministry". It even has its own separate police and court system, as some media call it: "competitor and referee in one."

In addition to scandalous corruption cases involving the former Minister of the Railways and a Deputy Chief Engineer in the past six months, a series of safety incidents of this much-hyped rail system have taken place and caused many serious questions. Just last month, Zhou Yimin, one of the former Deputy Chief Engineers, revealed to the press that due to Liu Zhijun, the former Minister currently under corruption investigation, when China bought the EMU CRH380 prototype vehicles from German's Siemens, it was clearly stressed in the contract that "the maximum speed is 300 kilometers per hour", while Liu wanted to create "the world's fastest train" at the expense of its original safety design.

Zhou Yimin further pointed out that both Japan and Germany, which have joint venture relations with the Chinese train manufacturers, have sharply criticised China's claim of its capacity for running at 350km. They say that safety factors are being sacrificed. Although Japan and Germany have experimented safety speed tests of over 400 km/hr, "the experimental speed and the operating speed are two different things, yet China pretends that it has a break-through in its technology", Zhou said. Widely circulated rumors on the Chinese internet also say some engineers working for the Ministry claim that they'll never take the high-speed rail to avoid risking their own lives.

China's high-speed rail construction and testing time were compressed in order to "lead the world" or to coincide with certain meaningful dates, for instance the inauguration of the most feted Beijing-Shanghai line to celebrate the Chinese Communist Party's 90 years anniversary. Even the drivers' training time has been compressed to just ten days.

Original material culled from E.O. and translated by Laura Lin

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Society

How Low Trust In Government Fuels Violence Against Politicians

The deadly stabbing of UK MP David Amess confirms this researcher's ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad.

Tribute to slain UK MP David Amess in Leigh-on-Sea on Oct. 15

James Weinberg

The killing of British Conservative MP David Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on October 15, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councillor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

This is to say nothing of the 2018 attack on the Palace of Westminster that left police officer Keith Palmer dead and MPs in a state of shock.

Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.


Between the divisive politics of Brexit and the growing polarization of British party politics, MPs currently work in a low-trust, high-blame environment. Even before the existential angst and subsequent politicking of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent Hansard Society audit of political engagement concluded that “opinions of the systems of governing are at their lowest point in the 15-year Audit series – worse now than in the aftermath of the MPs' expenses scandal."

The ramifications of governing in such an age of distrust are significant for the mental health and wellbeing of politicians. With colleagues, I've argued that such visceral and endemic distrust is a key stressor in political life. People are not simply wary or skeptical of politicians, they now routinely criticize their personalities and dismiss their good intentions. At its most severe, this “distrust stressor" manifests in the growing threat of physical violence faced by politicians.

Unfortunately, the distrust stressor is commonplace in the febrile climate of post-millennial UK politics. Serious cases of stalking and harassment have become a “common experience" for MPs. In the UK general election of 2017, for example, 56% of surveyed parliamentary candidates expressed concern about the levels of abuse and intimidation they had received and 31% said they had felt “fearful" during the campaign. Misuse of anonymous social media accounts has intensified these problems and created a toxic environment for elected politicians that regularly exposes them to online rape and murder threats.

Governing under threat

As part of an ongoing study of trust and governance in five democracies around the world, I recently carried out more than 50 in-depth interviews with junior and senior politicians in national legislatures, including questions on the stresses and strains of political life.

Reflecting on the ramifications of simply doing their job, one Conservative MP commented:

There have been votes that have been controversial, and you can then get a lot of abuse as a result of picking a side. My office has been vandalized, I've had stuff sent to me in the post, I've received death threats. And you do build up a very thick skin doing this job, there's no shadow of a doubt. Because one week in it, if you're not able to roll with the punches, you won't see through a whole term.

Almost 40% of interviewees were able to cite more than one instance of serious abuse or threats of physical violence. Not only are these experiences felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK, but they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile. As one MP in New Zealand told me:

I've had some pretty horrible death threats and I've had a lot of abuse, particularly through social media. But also, funnily enough, in writing and phone calls. Unfortunately it's becoming more part of our political life.

Another, this time in South Africa, said:

What [this group of constituents] were saying is that if the water supply was not fixed by a certain time, they were going to kill me. And what they did is they took a tyre and said that this tyre was going to go around my neck and they're going to light it and that was going to be my demise. Listen, when you see your life flash before your eyes… you start to question whether it's worth it.

In the UK, analysis of data from the Representative Audit of Britain (a survey of all parliamentary candidates who stood in general elections between 2015 and 2019) suggests that the harassment, abuse and intimidation of elected and aspiring politicians is also highly gendered. Women politicians, and black and minority ethnic women in particular, experience a disproportionate share of sexualized abuse online. They also receive more aggressive and sexualized threats offline.

Contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation.

It is relatively easy to understand why all this would be detrimental to politicians' professional competence and their sense of personal worth and wellbeing, but it is harder to find solutions to this crisis.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has called for increased security measures in the wake of Amess's death. This is welcome but it's an instrumental response which might not be easy to implement. Political contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation – and it is unlikely that most MPs will agree to suspend constituency surgeries or fill their offices with armed guards at a time when governor-governed relations are already so strained.

Photo of \u200bNew Zealand's parliament in Wellington

New Zealand's parliament in Wellington

Guo Lei/Xinhua/ZUMA

Compassion and education

While specific issues around MPs' security and training are grappled with, we also need a call for conscious restraint and compassion in political discourse. When some politicians themselves resort to dog-whistle populism, verbal abuse and infighting, it broadcasts an image of politics as an arena for incivility. At the same time, it perpetuates a binary worldview that crowds out the possibility of empathy and compromise.

Alongside this, we need to overhaul the media coverage of politics. Increasingly intent on personalizing the political and politicizing the personal, a 24-hour news media too often drip feeds blunt stereotypes about politicians' personalities and motives. In contrast to much news coverage of politicians, my own research with hundreds of elected MPs and councillors has shown that the majority enter politics with an extraordinary dedication to improving the lives of others that is rarely perceived or appreciated by those they govern.

A deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible.

Equally important, nations around the world must commit to fully funded and well-resourced programmes of democratic education. Politics is messy and full of contingencies, and a deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible or desirable. In turn, this breeds disappointment and lowered self-efficacy, which together disrupt the positive potential of deliberative participation.

Ultimately, there is no place for political violence, harassment or intimidation in a functioning democracy. At the very least, politicians are ordinary humans attempting to undertake an extraordinary job on behalf of everybody else. Whatever their political views, nobody who has the courage to "step into the arena", to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, deserves to fear for their life in the pursuit of public service. To say that we need to rediscover civility and respect in our politics is once again an understatement of a devastating truth.The Conversation

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James Weinberg is a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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