The July 24th catastrophic crash of a high speed train in Wenzhou, eastern China, made world wide headlines. The dead and injured totals as of today, July 30th, stand at 40 dead and 192 injured although earlier reports indicated as many as 210 injured including 2 foreigners. The cause of the accident is still under investigation, but the preliminary facts indicate that train D301 in service from Beijing South Station to Fuzhou (in Fujian province) and train D3115 in service from Hangzhou to Fuzhou, were derailed when D301 struck the stationary D3115 at around 8:30pm local time. Although both trains are limited to traveling at a maximum of 250km/h (~155 mph), it is uncertain how fast D301 was moving at the time of the accident.
This is more than just a human tragedy for China, but possibly an economic tragedy as well. With China looking to compete globally to sell high speed rail systems that are going to become increasingly important to countries around the world as fuel prices rise, their systems have been plagued by unstable performance and this crash caused the stock of state owned CSR Corporation to plummet 14 points on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Although CSR is technically the world’s largest manufacturer of high speed rail equipment, it faces stiff competition from German and Japanese manufacturers who have more mature and refined products. While none of this is unfamiliar to anyone who has followed businesses in the wake of a disaster in the West, what is unusual is what happened next.
Lawyers were told not to take plaintiff’s cases related to the rail accident.
“Urgent statements” issued under the aegis of the Wenzhou Judicial Bureau and the Wenzhou Lawyers’ Association told local attorneys they were “unauthorised respond and handle the cases” because “the accident is a major sensitive issue concerning social stability”. This caused public outrage when the statements were subsequently made public. In addition, Chinese media has been uncharacteristically critical of both the government’s response to the accident despite a crackdown on coverage by the Propaganda bureau of the PRC. A Propaganda bureau memorandum leaded last Friday warned, “All articles on the Wenzhou train collision are to be put off the homepage with immediate effect. None are to be put on the homepage itself. In the news section, only one article may be placed there, but no commentaries are allowed. Promoting the discussion of related topics on forums, blogs and microblogs are not allowed. Forum sites are to remove all previously promoted articles and blogposts off from the frontpage and mini-sites immediately. All posts, blogposts and microblog posts that do not meet with the requirements of this afternoon’s orders are to be resolutely deleted. All sites are to implement this order with immediate effect, and to complete execution within half an hour. Checks will begin within half an hour.”
Despite this crackdown, a lecturer at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, Zhang Xuezhong, called on the Chinese media to close ranks and work together to “open a window in the sky”. He said that if the media joined forces to act in accordance with their conscience, they might very well be changing the course of history. Wang Qinglei, a producer for the CCTV show “24 Hours”, was fired after host Qiu Qiming asked some very pointed questions during the July 25 broadcast: “If nobody can be safe, do we still want this speed? Can we drink a glass of milk that’s safe? Can we stay in an apartment that will not fall? Can the roads we travel on in our cities not collapse? Can we travel in safe trains? And if and when a major accident does happen, can we not be in a hurry to bury the trains? Can we afford the people a basic sense of security? China, please slow down. If you’re too fast, you may leave the souls of your people behind.” Speculation is that Quinglei was let go over his role in approving this broadcast, but it may have been complicated by his blog postings critical of the government’s action which went viral.
In the aftermath of this public relations nightmare, the Wenzhou Judicial Bureau apologised for the statement. Liu Xianping, spokesman and director of the bureau’s office, said in remarks quoted by Xinhua news agency, “We didn’t know the content of the statement before it was released. It was written by the lawyers’ association [the Wenzhou Lawyers’ Association], which used our name without authorization.” A Wenzhou Lawyers’ Association spokesman confirmed this version of events to Xinhua. Their excuse? They feared that “conflicts would be generated if legal services are not well-provided”. Naturally, fearing poor quality representation is a problem resolved by removing representation all together.
As the rights of our citizens are steadily eroded away, the citizens of a totalitarian country on the other side of the world begin once again to fight for theirs in the aftermath of tragedy, is the most more important lesson we take away from these brave citizens acting in the face of repression the value of free speech or the value of questioning government and industry? Both? What do you think?
~Submitted by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger