(Chinese Human Rights Defenders, August 3, 2011) The Chinese government’s handling of the Wenzhou high-speed railway crash on July 23 has been marked by a profound lack of respect for human life and other human rights abuses, including violations of the rights of freedom of expression and opinion, freedom of association, and the right to know.
According to the official media agency Xinhua, as of August 3, 40 people were killed and 191 injured as a result of one train crashing into the end of another train that had lost power and was stalled on the tracks in Wenzhou City, Zhejiang Province. Many netizens have challenged the official numbers, and for good reason. A two-year-old girl was found alive in the wreckage about 21 hours after the crash—hours after an official had announced there were no more survivors. Workers quickly tried to clear the scene, burying some of the wrecked train carriages. A mother who lost her young child in the crash asked in anguish on a Chinese microblogging site why her child’s name did not appear on the government’s list of fatalities, and wondered how many other names were missing from the list. The actual number of fatalities and those injured remains unclear.
The initial bold coverage of the crash by the Chinese media has largely been brought to a halt by a July 29 directive from the Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department prohibiting any negative or critical reporting of the accident or the government’s handling of the incident. Wang Qinglei, producer of CCTV’s “24 Hours” news show, was fired on July 27 for his critical reporting of the crash. Much of the discussion about the crash on the Internet is now also being censored. Some victims’ families have reportedly been threatened by officials to stop publicly questioning the government’s response, or they will be denied compensation.
“The manner in which the Chinese government has handled the accident—by suppressing information, censoring the media, prematurely halting rescue operations, destroying evidence, and thwarting citizens’ investigations—reveals this authoritarian regime’s utter disregard for human life and fundamental rights,” said Renee Xia, CHRD’s international director.
In light of widespread doubts about the government’s initial hasty explanation for the crash—a lightning strike—the government has now ordered an investigation of the accident, which will be conducted by the Ministry of Railways. Needless to say, this raises serious conflict of interest concerns, and CHRD doubts that this investigation will actually lead to those responsible being held to account.
CHRD urges the Chinese government to do the following:
1. The National People’s Congress Standing Committee should establish a special investigative committee to conduct an impartial investigation of the accident. This committee should provide timely disclosure to the public of the investigation’s progress and findings.
2. Ensure that justice is done, and that those responsible for prematurely halting rescue efforts and recklessly handling and clearing away the train wreckage are held accountable. If crimes have been committed, there must be accountability under China’s Criminal Law. Victims’ families who wish to seek a remedy in court must be permitted to do so, and lawyers must be allowed to represent them.
3. Respect Chinese citizens’ right to information and freedom of expression. Citizens must be allowed to discuss the accident, their concerns, and grievances without being censored or threatened. The press must be permitted to accurately and openly report the news and engage in investigative journalism, which among other things, will help identify problems and lessons learned, and thereby minimize the risk of similar accidents occurring in the future.
4. Develop respect and sanctity for life throughout the country by disseminating human rights information and promoting human rights education, and genuinely adhering to human rights principles in developing government policies and making decisions.