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China is on the fast train to disaster

Posted by Author on July 28, 2011

(The Guardian)– China’s high-speed rail network seemed to symbolise the nation’s unstoppable rise: since the first line opened in 2007, it has built more than 6,000 miles of track and seemed poised to spread the magic into overseas markets, bidding aggressively against established international players. Yet this week, families were mourning the 39 dead and tending the 200 injured in Saturday’s crash, the latest and worst episode in the high-speed rail fiasco. A project said to show China was poised for leadership in advanced technologies is collapsing in death, anger and embarrassment.

How it went so badly wrong carries some dark lessons for China. It’s a story of corruption and corner-cutting and of responsibility passed around an opaque and untouchable bureaucracy. It is also a lesson in a nationalistic habit of “digesting” foreign technology, as one railway official put it, then changing it, so as to claim the result as a Chinese invention.
The lines have been plagued by breakdowns; the track, according to foreign experts, is substandard and likely to crack. The railway minister has been sacked and is under investigation for corruption, and costs have tripled. Bloggers claim the government is more intent on a cover up than an investigation.

These are not the only chickens coming home to roost. A series of scandals has wiped millions off the share price of several Chinese companies. Revelations of fraudulent accounting in China have shattered investor confidence. As with the rail, this has raised questions: without more accountability and transparency, is China really ready to take the next, difficult steps? How can a system that allows so little objective analysis ever achieve that accountability?

These are questions that matter as much to China’s partners as they do to the government. Corruption has destroyed confidence in China’s prestige projects. Corruption also kills: it killed children in Sichuan in 2008 when their schools collapsed, and migrant workers in Shanghai last year when their apartment building became a deadly inferno; it killed babies who were given poisoned milk, drivers on collapsing bridges and thousands each year with vegetables irrigated with contaminated water.

Corruption was a prominent theme in President Hu Jintao’s speech to the Communist party’s recent 90th birthday celebrations, as it has been in almost every leader’s speech for decades. Yet the conditions that make such corruption endemic remain untouched: the monopoly of power in the hands of an untouchable institution. The prosecution of individuals, however high-profile the trials, has done nothing to change that.

China’s 30-year economic rise has been impressive, but suspicion over basic data makes it all but impossible to determine how sustainable it is. The boastful speed of railway construction recalls the Great Leap Forward in the late 50s, when officials were set absurd targets for food production and duly reported them met. Some 30 million people starved to death. The leadership’s response to each of these disasters has been the same: to suppress discussion, silence the victims and paint itself as the solution, not the problem. Last week, when local witnesses protested that railway officials had hastily buried wrecked carriages, there was indignation but little surprise. China Digital Times reported that the central propaganda department had instructed the media that they “must speedily report whatever information is released by the Railway Ministry”.

Unless systemic lessons are learned, there is more to fear. China is embarking on the world’s biggest and fastest expansion of nuclear power. The world must pray the industry will somehow prove immune to the curse of corner cutting, secrecy and corruption – or the potential consequences are chilling.

The Guardian

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