The collision of two high-speed trains on the outskirts of Wenzhou last Saturday that has caused 39 deaths and hundreds of others seriously injured was by all means tragic and horrifying. It was even more shocking for someone like me, who had travelled countless times on the fast and comfortable high-speed trains during my month-long trip in eastern China last summer.
For sceptics and anti-communists, not surprisingly, the tragedy provides yet another long-awaited opportunity to attack Beijing. Their blood-thirst attention to the rising death tolls and injuries, as well as flaring speculations online and heart-breaking grievances of the victims and their families, only seem to offer refreshed ammunition for their "rightful" criticisms. While some of the rhetoric is apparently meant to smear than anything else, the importance of safety can hardly be overstated.
As for any form of public transport, and for that matter, safety must never be compromised. This is something every vehicle engineer and manufacturer should bear in mind and be taught in the first chapter of their professional training. The Chinese railway authorities do owe everyone a thorough investigation and truthful report of what had caused this terrible accident. More importantly, the authorities must provide concrete plans on how to ensure safety of the trains, how accidents of similar nature can be prevented in the future, and how those held responsible would be treated.
But the emphasis on safety should not be taken as an excuse to thwart the development of high-speed trains in China. This is the least I would like to see. Instead it should oblige engineers and manufacturers to step up their quality control measures continuously and regularly to ensure that the trains are safe before they can be loaded with passengers. I have ridden on high-speed trains in Shandong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Guangdong provinces, and I enjoyed the journeys very much. I believe high-speed railway networks, once completed, will be an effective solution to the rising demand of migrant population and people working and sleeping in different cities in China. The question is not whether to scrap the plan because of any major accident, but how to prevent similar recurrence by tightening the grip on safety and making it the DNA of all relevant parties.
From what was broadcast on television news, which was by no means complete and impartial, it seems the Chinese government has missed a good opportunity to address concerns effectively and thus pacify the outrageous crowd. The spokesperson should have been better briefed and rehearsed before he flung himself into the angry crowd of reporters. Speculations continue to spread like contagious diseases, especially online, and victims and witnesses are charging serious allegations against the authorities. No one knows how truthful those accusations are, but there is one thing for sure in the people's mind, mostly at home but probably abroad as well: the government is guilty. And most of them choose to interpret whatever information comes into their face in the negative and even hostile light in which they see the Chinese government.
Many critics and observers have rightly pointed out that China needs to be more transparent with information, especially during crises and emergencies, but many of them fail to appreciate why China remains as stubborn as it is - just as China seemingly does not understand why its people and the world are so demanding of it now. Many blame authoritarianism, which is true and thus explains why there is little respect for human life and dignity. But authoritarianism is not new to China, and it is not confined to communism. Why China has failed to achieve its aspiration for democracy and freedom over the past century is subject to further research and contemplation. The hesitation in disseminating information in a more timely but less reserved manner, I believe, points to a lack of self-confidence of the leadership. Some may see it as arrogance, but arrogance often finds its roots in fear - fear of spontaneity in response, loss of control and authority, and thus revelation of their inabilities and weaknesses. This is also related to their failure of seeing the people as equals but less capable living souls that need parental guidance and governance. Perhaps the leaders should stop blaming the people of failing to trust official versions of the story but rolling up their sleeves to work out a solution - how about starting with changing their view of the rulers vis-à-vis the ruled?