The Shanghai subway crash and growing perception of corruption

Posted: September 27, 2011 in Logistics, Politics
Tags: , , , ,

Today there was a collision between two trains on Shanghai subway line 10. Some very bloody pictures emerged from the scene and now the number of injured has been reported at 224, 20 of them seriously hurt. No deaths so far.

According to early reports, there was a failure in the signaling system at around 2:30 so the line switched to manual signalling. Then at around 3:00 one train rear-ended another. One of them (probably the one that was hit) had allegedly been sitting at Laoximen station for 30 minutes. Caixin has reported the signaling system was made by a company also involved with the system in the Wenzhou train accident that killed 39 people and also used in subways in a number of other major cities.

Making things worse is a report from 2005 that’s been discovered bragging about how there will never be a collision thanks to Shanghai’s advanced signalling system.

Early signs show that the government doesn’t intend to create an aftermath debacle  like with the Wenzhou accident. Reporters are being given access to the scene, and Shanghai metro jumped out in front of the issue with what appears to be a very sincere, responsibility-accepting apology. [Update: They’ve actually posted two apologies which were subsequently deleted. Both are available at this Shanghaiist link]. But no matter how well the aftermath is handled, it’s going to be bad.

Within two hours of the event, it was the #1 topic on Weibo. Three months ago this story would have been relatively trivial given that there doesn’t appear to be any deaths. But thanks to Wenzhou, it will be under the public microscope. People are already crying foul and demanding answers as to how this was allowed to happen. Here’s some comments from Weibo:

“The Wenzhou railway incident hasn’t been forgotten and now the Shanghai subway incident happens. How could people trust you or believe you?” [温州铁路事件还没让人民忘记,现在 上海地铁 又发生了地铁相撞,你们还让人民怎么再相信你们?]

“I wonder if the authorities are hiding the true casualties.” [这次不知道有没有隐瞒伤亡情况.]

“The Shanghai subway incident has once again proved that living in China safely is a miracle.” [上海地铁事故再次证明:平安活在中国是奇迹]

“Could you please take people’s life into consideration and learn lessons from irresponsible incidents? Living in the current China is already a tragedy, so please don’t do more to make people suffer.” [能不能为人民的生命着想,不负责任的事情引以为戒,生活在这个时代中国的子民已经很不幸了,就请不要再做民不聊生的事情了!]

“Is there any country like China? Is there any  railway department like China’s? It makes me mad. It’s not a problem and humiliation of a department, it’s a country’s problem and humiliation!!” [哪有一个国家、哪有一个国家的铁路运输部门像中国这样?!真让人气愤!这不仅仅是一个部门的问题和耻辱,这是一个国家的问题和耻辱!!]

Man: I’m so glad you weren’t poisoned (to death) by gutter oil, Sudan red, lean meat essence, or toxic buns! Your house didn’t catch on fire! The bridge in front of your house didn’t collapse, right? You’re so lucky that the escalator didn’t malfunction when you went to work! It’s wonderful! We survived another day! Woman: I was so worried you’d get run over by someone supposedly going 70 kph on your way to work! Or get stabbed eight times in a row! My gravest fear was that you would be accidentally injured by chengguan who were beating up someone else! I was also worried you would need to ride the high speed train! But I didn’t dare to call you, because I was afraid your cell phone would explode!

Recently the picture to the right made rounds on the Chinese internet (translation by Danwei). Everything the couple says alludes to some danger that’s common in China or has happened in recent months demonstrating how people were already on edge about the safety of their food, products and especially their transportation. If it’s true that subway operators voluntarily switched to manual signaling and the crash happened almost immediately after, that would appear to be an act of Wile E. Coyote incompetence that even the Wenzhou accident couldn’t match.

Whether there’s anything sketchy with the companies, officials or operators involved isn’t yet known and may not be fully known. But what really happened isn’t nearly as important as what people perceived happened…and if Weibo is any indication, many already assume the worst.

That this happened in Shanghai is especially damning. Last November a fire engulfed a residential building in the city killing 58 people. It was found that corruption was definitely the cause and involved everyone from contractors and welders to government officials. In the end 26 were charged.  Then there was former Shanghai mayor Chen Liangyu who was ousted in 2006. He had been the highest player in a Shanghai cesspool of corruption and misuse of power at the time, and one of the highest officials to ever “fall off the horse” in China.

I remember once while I was walking on the street in Beijing with my girlfriend I stepped in a gaping pothole. “It’s probably there because of corruption,” she said laughing. She wasn’t really kidding though. In a culture that breeds corruption through lack of accountability and independent supervision at every level of society, there’s no telling what damage it does, what safety regulations get ignored, what corners get cut, which important jobs are given to horribly unqualified people, or what sensitive public works contracts are given to companies that can’t deliver. The Shanghai building fire represented a compounding of common corruption at many different levels that came together in a perfect storm.

There may very well be no foul play involved in this subway crash, but if that’s the case, good luck selling it to the public. As the one Weibo commentator noticed, things like this don’t tend to happen in many other countries; at least not with the frequency that they do in China. And with an unbroken string of safety issues in the past year directly attributable to corruption, suspicion in this case will be unavoidable and nearly impossible to pacify. It will be one more straw on the camel’s back of a public that’s been incredibly patient with a system whose transgressions (and attempts at covering up those transgressions) are becoming more and more visible, and seemingly more and more frequent with the emergence of tools like Weibo. People are seeing the harsh details of the system that’s screwed its people in every imaginable way, with the exception of providing raw economic growth. Those content with the system the way it is had better hope that growth lasts forever.

  1. Mike says:

    Great post again, Sinostand. This is another tragedy where I just hope the people involved get well and never forget what happened. The nation’s search for accountability begins with them.

    If trains, food, medicine and real estate all show the effects of poor management and oversight, what happens when the economy as a whole also begins showing cracks? If these other aspects of life in China are built on a foundation of corruption, is it right to trust that the economy, growth and future potential are really as stable as we perceive it?


    • sinostand says:

      The economy as a whole is already showing very big cracks. The real estate market is essentially an enormous ponzi scheme. The newly rich (and often corrupt) buy up real estate to stash their assets and local leaders (often corrupt themselves) accommodate to them by leveling low income housing and throwing up luxury apartments that no one will live in. Nice short term gains for both parties, but they’re perpetually inflating the bubble. Events like the train crashes are wearing down public tolerance to the point that when the big catastrophe (ie-housing bubble collapse or hyperinflation) hits, there won’t be much room for patience left. Whatever happens, China’s economy will survive. It’s drivers are too fundamental not to, but I don’t know if you can say the same about a certain ruling organization.

  2. Yo Mama says:

    You are right on and it doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence from the foreign onlookers/investors, especially given that it was/is the bursting of the real estate market that leveled the U.S. economy. What gives me pause is the mere fact that it (the bubble) just seems to go on and on… The individual who could tag the moment of the implosion would be worth a lot of money. Where is Roubini when you REALLY need him?

    I also think you are so correct in saying that the economy will survive because of the “fundamental drivers”. One of those drivers is consumer spending which, although not even close to the percentage of discretionary income that Americans spend, is growing nevertheless. That really is the future for the Chinese economy, but the hiccup that comes from the bursting of this era’s growth will give pause to a lot of, um, important people. I guess ‘they’ are already getting their paperwork and foreign passports in order.

    Here’s the catch: If the realignment of post-real estate-driven economy era coincides with a political realignment, that could prove to be a very, very long term correction. The only advantage that the U.S. has right now in its economic correction is that the foundational political philosophy is strong. Is there a better government than a representative democracy? I don’t know. But, it is better than anything else currently out there, even if it has its own times of much-needed correction.

    I look forward to a China which is driven by consumers and not 70% on fixed asset investment. That would be good for imports and exports the world over and will (hopefully) be more equitable for all trading nations. Do you think that time will come or is it just a pipe dream? Will it take a bursting of the real estate bubble for that to happen or will it require political ‘modification’? Maybe both?

    Thanks for your writing, as always!

    • sinostand says:

      I think both a financial burst and political modification will happen sooner or later. Try as they might, I don’t envision being able to quickly enough create the kind of behavioral and systematic changes needed to avert a financial collapse . And the authoritarian growth-at-all-costs political model the CCP is in certainly isn’t sustainable either. But the people at the top know that. Whether the politburo shifts to the right or the left next year may well dictate whether the needed reforms are initiated by the Party or inflicted upon it. But like you said, if immediate political and financial transitions happened concurrently or one caused the other, it would be bad news bears for everyone.

      There will be a big power transition during 2012-13…right around the time some economists are predicting the housing bubble will burst. The only thing that’s certain though is that the Party is very nervous…and if these kinds of accidents/safety issues keep happening, they’ll go into the transition that much weaker.

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