Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Repercussions Persist From China's High Speed Rail Crash

Victims of the high speed rail crash that killed 40 people and injured over 190 people are caught up in the unending bureaucratic and governmental nightmare. The railway "company" is the worst of a for-profit entity and a state-run and operated entity, with no oversight and accountability. Moreover, the rail company is essentially investigating itself and isn't likely to find fault where fault truly lies precisely because the company knows that its long range plans call for the export of high speed rail technology.

Add to that the fact that railway personnel were more interested in restoring service as quickly as possible and sought to bury damaged equipment rather either search for victims and survivor or carry out a thorough investigation.
Mr. Chen said he lost roughly $6,000 in cash and other belongings in the accident. The railways ministry paid him a mere $35.

He asked to be transferred from a Wenzhou hospital to a better hospital in the city of Fuzhou, his hometown. Instead, the ministry moved him to an old-age home, where he receives no medical treatment, despite continuing lung trouble, back pain and other ailments due to his injuries.

“I want to cry, but I have no tears left,” he said. “Our family has already lost someone in this accident. How can they treat us like this? I am being tortured both physically and mentally.”

Almost two months after the high-speed rail crash killed 40 people and injured 191 others, a government investigative panel is readying a report on the disaster, expected to be released this month. But the injured and the survivors of the dead say they have already reached their own conclusions. They say the railways ministry, which has a long history of corruption, skimped on safety, bungled the rescue effort, tried to hide the extent of its failings and showed a callous disregard for victims.

“They are their own little nation,” said Pasquale Liguori, who lost his daughter, a foreign-language student from Naples, Italy, who was on her first visit to China with her boyfriend. “The China Railways Ministry killed my daughter, and they want to hide everything that happened. It is revolting.”

The ministry has said it upholds high safety standards, did not prematurely end the rescue and is participating in a transparent investigation.

The ministry is indeed a fief, a holdover from the era when the state controlled all. With two million workers, it is perhaps the world’s fourth-largest employer, behind Wal-Mart. Its work force matches that of the entire United States federal government, excluding military and postal workers.

It owns the railways it regulates, a built-in conflict that critics say encourages corruption, endangers safety in the name of profit and hinders accountability. Its safety data are not publicly released. It runs its own court system and, until recently, its own police force.

The government has for over a decade discussed dividing the ministry’s business and regulatory functions, as it did years ago with the civil aviation industry. But using its clout as the nation’s mover of coal — and now, as the developer of high-speed rail into one of China’s technological and industrial crown jewels — the rail ministry has adroitly fended off reform.

“The ministry is a monster, half government agency, half for-profit company,” said Zhang Kai, a Beijing lawyer who has faced off against the ministry. “It can choose to behave like either one.”

It is not unusual for victims of government mishaps in China to find themselves isolated and helpless. Chinese authorities typically minimize events that suggest government incompetence lest they encourage social unrest.

But as crash victims and others tell it, the bureaucracy’s handling of the crash is a case in itself. Chinese officials have already declared that the disaster was preventable, caused by human error and poorly designed signal equipment. Now the ministry faces a dilemma: if the government’s investigation does not appear credible, it could hurt the ministry’s chances to export high-speed rail equipment and technology. But any admission of systemic flaws might also scare away customers.

Foreign entities looking for high speed rail want to see a detailed investigation, but they don't want to purchase from an entity that is rife with all kinds of technological shortfalls; it's a conundrum for the company and it seems that rather than come clean with its faults, it's going to shift blame where possible.

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