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What happened in Wenzhou?

What happened in Wenzhou?

The Saturday night train crash in eastern China that killed around 40 and injured around 200 (different reports give different figures) has provoked a firestorm reaction on the Chinese internet. A number of locals have accused the Chinese government of burying the trains to cover up evidence. The accusations were picked up and circulated on the Chinese microblogging site and rumor hub Sina Weibo, and even official state outlet Global Times has quoted family members of the accident victims questioning the official death toll.

Official reports have said that the crash was caused by a lightning strike. If so, it’s at least the second time in the last three weeks that thunderstorms have caused malfunctions on high-speed rail trains. The first of these incidents occurred on July 10 on a train traveling the newly opened Beijing-Shanghai rail line, though a subsequent investigation from the Shanghai Oriental Post (translated here by the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project) cast doubt on this explanation.

Chinese state media outlet Xinhua says that the government has recovered the "black box" from the latest crash, so an updated report on the cause of the accident should be forthcoming. But a report from Chinese muckraking magazine Caixin argues that the accident would have been "entirely preventable" had the train’s automated data collecting system been functioning properly.

The crash makes for an embarrassing footnote to a series of Chinese government pronouncements about the quality of its high-speed rail system. Shortly after the Beijing-Shanghai connection opened on June 30, Ministry of Railways spokesman Wang Yongping pronounced that the new line and Japan’s vaunted bullet train network "can’t even be raised in the same breath, because many of the technologies employed by China’s high-speed rail are far superior." And a People’s Daily profile of train engine driver Li Dongxiao from last December may be an even more frightening example of Chinese overconfidence, as David Bandurski at the China Media Project explains:

The piece valorizes a train engine driver, Li Dongxiao, who was called upon in 2008 to master the "world’s most complex" train in just 10 days under a "dead order" from Chinese government leaders, before piloting his first train back to Beijing at 350 km/hr.

… the People’s Daily piece emphasizes that Li and his colleagues — none of whom had even college educations – had to rely on instruction manuals that had been translated from German by an outside contractor, rendering many of the terms "extremely strange." At one point, Li heroically bets his German trainer, who shakes his head and says it’s impossible to master the train in under 2-3 months, that he can do [it] in 10 days.

Chinese official outlets are under strict orders as to stick to "love in the face of tragedy" as a theme (see the leaked government directives here at China Digital Times). But no such efforts can stop the power outages that continue to plague Chinese high-speed rail. The latest outage, from yesterday afternoon, delayed twenty trains on the Beijing-Shanghai rail, said government newspaper China Daily.

Meanwhile, partial train service at the location of the crash resumed yesterday morning. Let’s hope that the resumption of service hasn’t come too soon.