BEIJING (AP) — China’s bullet train was supposed to signal its arrival as a high-tech leader. Instead, a crash that killed at least 40 people has made it a lightning rod for anger at the human cost of recklessly fast development.
On the Internet and in normally docile state media, the July 23 disaster triggered outrage about China’s drumbeat of deaths from bridge and schoolhouse collapses, coal mine explosions, tainted milk and other disasters.
“I can’t tell whether the current society is moving forward or backward. If it’s moving forward, why does it have to be paid for in lives?” said a comment on the popular Sina.com microblog site, signed Countryman Shen Xiaobao.
The crash is especially sensitive for communist leaders because it hurt members of China’s urban middle class, who are among the chief beneficiaries of the booming economy and an important base of support for the Communist Party’s continued monopoly on power.
The bullet train, based on German and Japanese systems, is one facet of far-reaching government technology ambitions that call for developing a civilian jetliner, a Chinese mobile phone standard and advances in areas from nuclear power to genetics.
Even before the crash, high-speed rail was a target for critics who said it was too expensive and unsuited to China, where GDP per person was $4,200 last year and many families live on less than that. They say the country’s poor majority need cheaper tickets, not record-setting speeds of 300 kph (190 mph) and above.
Plans call for the high-speed rail network to grow to 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers) this year and 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) by 2020. It is part of a building boom that has blanketed China with new highways, airports and other public works.
That has pushed investment as a share of China’s economy close to 50 percent, three to four times the level of the United States, Japan or other major economies. Analysts warn that is dangerously high and could leave China with a glut of unneeded assets and state-owned banks burdened with bad loans.
Yet the public backlash might give Beijing political ammunition against ambitious and big spending local leaders as it tries to reorient China’s economy away from reliance on exports and investment in favor of promoting cleaner, self-sustaining growth.
There are no signs the criticism is abating. China’s middle classes are informed, Internet-savvy and unlikely to swallow their anger despite a government order for state media to tone down negative coverage of the accident.
A search on Sina.com’s microblog site for the words “bullet train” and “crash” on Monday turned up more than 688,000 postings.
The Communist Party has promised repeatedly to slow China’s growth but local leaders are reluctant to rein in the flood of investment, which can show results faster and burnish their careers.
“It does present a chance for them to use safety as another reason to encourage local officials to be more sensitive to growing smarter rather than just quickly,” said Kenneth Jarrett, chairman for Greater China for consulting firm APCO Worldwide.
Already, Beijing has adopted the language of its critics, possibly a prelude to using anger over the crash to promote its economic restructuring.
“China needs development, but not ‘blood GDP’,” the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily said last week.
Chinese authorities blamed the crash on a lightning strike that stalled a train near the southeastern city of Wenzhou and then the failure of a monitoring device that allowed another train to slam into it. That knocked four cars off a viaduct. More than 190 people were injured.
On a July 28 visit to the crash site, Premier Wen Jiabao tried to mollify the public by vowing “safety is our top priority.” He promised a transparent investigation and said anyone responsible would be severely punished.
“The accident reminds us that we should attach more importance to safety in high-speed railway construction,” Wen said.
Despite Wen’s pledge of openness, authorities ordered Chinese media to stop doing their own reporting on the crash, according to the Hong Kong Journalists Association. It said they were told to publish “positive coverage” by the official Xinhua News Agency.
In apparent defiance, the business newspaper Economic Observer published a poignant commentary Saturday in the form of a letter to Xiang Weiyi, a 2-year-old girl who survived the crash that killed her parents. She was found in the wreckage after authorities had declared the search for survivors finished.
“Should we tell you all about the hypocrisy, arrogance, rashness and brutality behind the tragedy?” the newspaper said. “There has never been a guarantee that we will not be martyrs to speed.”
The crash is the latest in a string of incidents that have prompted complaints about official priorities.
In November, a fire at a Shanghai high-rise apartment building for teachers killed 58 people. Investigators said the blaze was started by a welding torch used by workers who were adding insulation as part of a government energy conservation drive. That triggered questions about whether conservation was worth such risks. The government ordered a halt to similar projects at other buildings pending an investigation.
The cost of building the bullet train also is adding to concern over the Ministry of Railways’ high and rising debt level and whether it will have to be bailed out by Chinese taxpayers. The ministry’s publicly reported outstanding debts are 2 trillion yuan ($300 billion), equal to 5 percent of China’s annual economic output.
The ministry is probably not making enough money to pay that debt, Standard Chartered economist Stephen Green said in a report .
The railway ministry, a bureaucratic behemoth that employs 3.2 million people, might be more susceptible to change than other portions of China’s government because it already was reeling from scandal before the crash.
The former minister, Liu Zhijun, the bullet train’s main official booster, was dismissed in February amid a corruption investigation.
Following warnings by Chinese train experts that the bullet trains’ planned top speed was dangerously fast, his successor, Sheng Guangzu, announced in April it would be cut from 350 kph (220 mph) to 300 kph (190 mph). Sheng said slower trains with lower-priced tickets also would be added.
The disaster might ultimately help Beijing by denting the image of state-led growth, said Fei-Ling Wang, a professor of international affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
“It will certainly recast the current development model in some more critical light,” said Wang. “And it may have an impact on China’s image and humble somewhat the enthusiasts, perhaps for the long-term good of China.”
AP researcher Zhao Liang and Associated Press writer Christopher Bodeen contributed.