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Train Crash Heightens Safety Concerns over China Exports

Posted by Author on August 17, 2011

(Epochtimes)- Experts agree that the deadly July 23 train crash has put an end to China’s ambitious plans to export high-speed railway (HSR) technology and equipment to other parts of the world. This is just the latest and most sensational of many horror stories in which poor quality has damaged prospects for exporting Chinese goods. At the root of this stubborn quality problem across China’s major exporting industries lies prevalent corruption and the Chinese authorities’ blind pursuit of political achievements.

HSR Export Dream Crashes

Beijing had successfully branded its high-speed railway network as a symbol of the “China Model.” The regime’s propaganda touted the HSR as fast, low cost, and large, both a symbol of national pride and a miracle to the rest of the world.
“In as short as five years, China completed the high-speed railway development that took western countries 40 years,” said an article on a Ministry of Railways-sponsored site published 15 days before the train crash that claimed at least 40 lives. “Overnight, we have stunned the world.” Such language and tone dominated propaganda about the HSR development.

Taking the HSR abroad had also been given political and nationalistic significance. Party mouthpiece Xinhua called the export of HSR, “the calling of the world and the longing of China.” The export was said to announce the arrival of “a ‘China Era’ in which China exports and leads the trend of the world’s HSR development.”

For a while China seemed to be quickly approaching this goal. Official media say that China-made locomotives, high-speed trains and their components are used in more than 50 countries and regions, and that China has signed agreements or memoranda of understanding for bilateral rail cooperation with more than 30 countries, including the United States.

But further progress with conquering the world HSR market will come very slowly, if at all, after the recent train crash that battered potential buyers’ confidence. “Their chances of selling high-speed trains are zero,” said Edwin Merner, president of Atlantis Investment Research Corp. in Tokyo in an interview with Bloomberg. “I don’t think they can ever get confidence back.”

Safety Issue Across Exporting Sectors

The HSR case is not the first time China’s overseas opportunities have been dimmed by safety concerns. While China became the world’s largest exporter in 2010, global consumers have grown more wary about risks of consuming China’s products and services.

An April Economist report said Chinese businesses and products quickly lost their halo in Africa due to poor quality and management. Though trade is still growing, so is resentment.

“Chinese construction work can be slapdash and buildings erected by mainland firms have on occasion fallen apart,” the article said. Examples include a Chinese-built hospital in Angola that was forced to shut down after cracks appeared in the walls within a few months of its opening, and an 81-mile road in Zambia being quickly swept away by rains. In addition, the Chinese imported to Africa, along with products and services, corruption and business malpractice.

As a matter of fact, the majority of China’s staple exporting industries have experienced safety scandals in overseas markets.

For example, its second largest export industry (based on 2011 volume), apparel and accessories, has been plagued by recalls due to safety concerns. In 2010, 58 percent of the European Union’s non-food recalls were produced in China, consisting mainly of clothing, textile, and fashion items. Chinese media said the frequent recalls threatened the survival of many Chinese manufacturers.

Furniture, China’s seventh largest exporting item in the first seven months of 2011, also had its share of scandals. In 2008, European media reported that thousands of consumers suffered serious allergic reactions due to the toxic gas emitted by China-made sofas.

The most notorious of all China’s safety issues are probably toxic foods and toys, both among China’s top export goods. While toxins have been found in almost all types of foods in China, including rice, cooking oil, milk, and many other staple foods, Americans may be most impressed by the toxic pet foods that killed thousands of U.S. dogs and cats in 2007.

In the same year, large amounts of China-made toys were found containing lead, which caused millions of recalls worldwide. After the United States barred lead-contaminated toys, a recent Associated Press investigation found Chinese manufacturers replaced lead with cadmium, an inexpensive, dangerous metal known to cause cancer.

Preoccupation with Growth

China has made various gestures to improve safety standards after each exposure of unsafe products, but safety issues have been recurring and escalating. Experts say this is an inevitable consequence of bad policies and corruption.

Following the train crash, agonized Chinese reflected on the overly speedy development of the HSR project led by former railways minister Liu Zhijun. Liu Zhijun shortened the construction period from five years to two years and seven months so he could present the HSR as a gift for the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) ninetieth anniversary.

Not only was construction rushed, but the first batch of high-speed train drivers received only 10-days of training before they started operating the trains, although a German expert said the training should take at least two to three months.

Safety concerns had been raised by many, but such voices were intentionally ignored by the authorities. More than a year ago the Chairman of Central Japan Railway told the Financial Times that China compromised safety by pushing the trains’ speed too close to maximum safe speeds.

In response to this, the Chinese media quoted railways construction senior consultant Wang Mengshu as saying that the Japanese were just jealous.

Chinese commenting on microblogs say that such conceit and disregard for the people’s wellbeing is typical of a Chinese regime that is preoccupied with speedy economic development.

According to the Chinese people, such an attitude has led to various issues including shoddy construction, the forced demolition of people’s homes, social polarization, and unchecked corruption. Many have called for the authorities to slow down and give more consideration to the ordinary people’s quality of life.

But the CCP is not very likely to shift its priorities away from rapid growth since “economic modernization is arguably the most important dimension of the CCP’s claim to legitimacy,” according to China expert Bruce Dickson.

To ensure economic development, Dickson said, in his book Wealth Into Power, the CCP has ganged up with the business world and formed a “crony communism” system in which officials and red capitalists share huge profits.

This system has allowed officials to trade political power for profit, and allowed unethical businessmen to get away with malpractice. In the HSR case, Liu Zhijun was investigated in February 2011 for corruption, while his top aide, engineer Zhang Shugang, had US$2.8 billion banked in foreign countries.

The regime stifles the voices of those who would expose this systemic corruption. Shortly after the train crash, the Central Propaganda Department banned reporters from independently reporting on or investigating into the cause of the accident.

Similarly, the authorities arrested artist Ai Weiwei after he attempted to tally the number of children who died inside school buildings that collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Zhao Lianhai, who called for trying the manufacturers of melamine-contaminated formula that sickened more than 50 thousand babies and killed four, was sentenced to two and one-half years in prison.

The Epochtimes

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