Doubts Over Rail Crash Probe

Chinese officials and media seek to play down human error in a fatal train accident.

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The wreckage of a high-speed train carriage is carried on a truck in Shuangyu, Zhejiang, July 26, 2011.

The July 23 bullet-train crash in the eastern Chinese city of Wenzhou was probably the result of poor management, in spite of Chinese media attempts to play down human error, analysts said on Tuesday.

China's beleaguered railways ministry was supposed to have published a report into the crash by Sunday, according to regulations governing investigations into major public transport disasters.

China's ruling Communist Party has struggled to rebuild public trust in its vast rail system after the high-speed train crash near the city of Wenzhou, south of Shanghai, in which at least 40 people died.

Premier Wen Jiabao called at the time for a sweeping and transparent investigation, but results of the government's own internal probe have yet to be made public.

Railway expert and deputy director of the investigation team, Wang Mengshu, was initially quoted by the state-run Beijing Times newspaper as saying that the crash largely resulted from mismanagement.

His comments were the first official move towards admitting that human error was a key factor in the crash, which the government has so far blamed on a signal failure caused by a lightning strike.

However, later media reports have said Wang was misquoted.

Human error 'more serious'

Zhejiang-based independent commentator Zou Wei said the government had sought to play down the human element of the crash from the start.

"The reason that the report has been delayed this long is our clearest indication that that in reality it was human actions that were the chief factor [behind the crash]," Zou said.

"The lightning strike and the signal failure were not the main reasons."

Professor Su Zhan, business studies professor at Canada's Universite Laval, said the admission of human error would make the crash a much more serious failure of public safety controls.

"Technical failures are relatively easy to fix, because it's clear what they are," Su said. "But if the problem is human error, then that brings with it a whole slew of questions about how to resolve the problems."

Su said China's poor public safety record is a deep-rooted problem. "This is a systemic problem," he said. "It has to do with the quality of personnel and the effectiveness of management."

He said the government should take the opportunity to learn from the crash. "[They shouldn't] just take the simplistic option and come up with a simple explanation so as to have done with it."

Reluctance to criticize

Zou said Wang's comments, and their later retraction, reflect an overall reluctance to criticize the system in any way.

"People aren't taken seriously in this system, whereas in countries with more comprehensive political systems, respect for persons is top priority," he said.

Su said the government should avoid quick fixes, in which a small number of people were punished for the Wenzhou crash, while nothing much changed in the country at large.

"They have to realize that development ... isn't all about speed or quantity; it's about people," he said.

"They shouldn't be trying to hit their targets whatever the price, whatever the cost."

Media coverage of major disasters and accidents is closely controlled by China's powerful and secretive propaganda department, which issues regular directives to journalists and editors dictating the angle to take and sometimes banning coverage of controversial issues outright.

Reported by An Pei for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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Nov 25, 2011 12:54 AM

Except for CCP officials, who are treasured by the one-party authoritarian system, human life is cheap under this sort of oligarchical rule. Almost all of the top Party officials and many of their relatives have Swiss bank accounts they can rely on just in case "worst comes to worst" and they someday get their "official hats" yanked off in a popular uprising against unjust rule.