पोस्ट का अंत किताब की जिन पंक्तियों के साथ किया था- “By 2012 the richest seventy members of China’s national legislature had a net worth of almost ninety billion dollars—more than ten times the combined net worth of the entire U.S. Congress.” – इसका ठीक मतलब क्या हुआ, हमारे माथे में पहुंच रहा है? पहुंच रहा है तो हम सीधे-सीधे उसे पचा ले पा रहे हैं?
अस्सी के दशक तक चीनी रेल की कहानी हिन्दुस्तानी रेल की कहानी से बहुत अलग नहीं थी, कुछ मामलों में संभवत: बदतर ही रही होगी. मगर नब्बे के बाद से यह नज़ारा बदलना शुरु हुआ. नई लाईनें बिछाई जानी थीं, हवाई तेजी हासिल करनी थी, सब जल्दी जल्दी. ज़ाहिर है जहां इतना पैसा खपना था, भ्रष्टाचार भी नई ऊंचाइयां अक्वायर करती, आइये देखें, इस रेलीय नव-भ्रष्टाचार का स्थापत्तीय शिल्प किस खूबसूरती में ढला था..
“Until recently, China’s trains had always been a symbol of backwardness. More than a century ago, when the Empress Dowager was given a miniature engine to bear her about the Imperial City, she found the “fire cart” so insulting to the natural order that she banished it and insisted that her carriage continue to be dragged by eunuchs. Chairman Mao laid tracks across the country, partly for military use, but travel for ordinary people remained a misery of delayed, overcrowded trains nicknamed for the soot-stained color of the carriages: “green skins” were the slowest, “red skins” scarcely better. Even after Japan pioneered high-speed trains, in the 1950s, and Europe followed suit, China lagged behind with what the state press bemoaned as two inches of track per person—“less than the length of a cigarette.”
In 2003, China’s minister of railways, Liu Zhijun, took charge of plans to build seventy-five hundred miles of high-speed railway—more than could be found in the rest of the world combined. For anyone with experience on Chinese trains, it was hard to picture. “Back in 1995, if you had told me where China would be today, I would have thought you were stark raving mad,” Richard Di Bona, a British transportation consultant in Hong Kong, told me. With a total investment of more than $250 billion, the undertaking was to be the world’s most expensive public works project since President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System in the 1950s.
To complete the first route by 2008, Minister Liu, whose ambition and flamboyance earned him the nickname Great Leap Liu, drove his crews and engineers to work in shifts around the clock, laying track, revising blueprints, and boring tunnels. “To achieve a great leap,” he liked to say, “a generation must be sacrificed.” (Some colleagues called him Lunatic Liu.) The state news service lionized an engineer named Xin Li because he remained at his computer so long that he went partly blind in his left eye. (“I will keep working even without one eye,” he told a reporter.) When the first high-speed line debuted with a test run in June 2008, it was 75 percent over budget and relied heavily on German designs, but nobody dwelled on that during the ceremony. When another line made its maiden run, Liu took a seat beside the conductor and said, “If anyone is going to die, I will be the first.”
That autumn, to help ward off the global recession, Chinese leaders more than doubled spending on high-speed rail and upped the target to ten thousand miles of track by 2020, the equivalent of building America’s first transcontinental route five times over. China prepared to export its railway technology to Iran, Venezuela, and Turkey. It charted a freight line through the mountains of Colombia that would challenge the Panama Canal, and it signed on to build the “pilgrim express,” carrying the faithful between Medina and Mecca. In January 2011, President Obama cited China’s railway boom in his State of the Union address as evidence that “our infrastructure used to be the best, but our lead has slipped.” The next month, the governor of Florida, Rick Scott, blocked construction of America’s first high-speed train by rejecting federal funds. Amtrak had unveiled a plan to reach speeds comparable to China’s by 2040.
* * *
From Beijing, train D301 sped south and east across emerald-green paddies toward the coast. To Henry Cao, who was seated beside a window in the last compartment of the second car, the train seemed to float, describing long elegant turns and shuddering now and then with the whump of a train going in the opposite direction. As the sun set, a summer storm was gathering, and Henry watched lightning flicker across the clouds. He stretched out on the fold-down bed in his carriage. At his feet, his mother sat upright. She had short wavy hair and wore a blue-and-white striped shirt. She’d lived nearly half her life in America, but she retained the habits of a Chinese traveler, and she carried more than ten thousand dollars in cash, as well as gifts of jade jewelry, in a fanny pack. Her husband sat across from her, with his iPhone. He captured a wobbly snapshot of the digital speedometer at the end of the carriage; it showed the kilometer equivalent of 188 miles per hour.
At 7:30 p.m., on the outskirts of the city of Wenzhou, lightning struck a heavy metal box beside the tracks. The box, the size of a washer-dryer, was part of a signal system that lets drivers and dispatchers know where trains are. Because tunnels block a radar signal, trains rely largely on hardwired equipment such as the box beside the track, which helps drivers and dispatchers talk to each other and controls a traffic signal, giving the drivers basic commands to stop and go. When lightning struck the box, it blew a fuse, which caused two catastrophic problems: it cut off communication and froze the signal on the color green.
At a nearby station, a technician picked up garbled signals from the tracks. He ordered the repairmen into the storm to investigate and reported the problem to a dispatcher in Shanghai named Zhang Hua. The train carrying the Cao family was still miles away, but another train, D3115, also bound for Fuzhou, with 1,072 people aboard, was ahead of D301. Zhang called D3115 to warn the driver that, because of the faulty signal, his train might shut down automatically. In that case, he should override and run it at a cautious speed until he reached a normal section again. As predicted, the computer brought the train to a halt, but when the driver tried to get it moving it wouldn’t start, despite repeated attempts. He called Shanghai six times in five minutes but couldn’t get through. On his train, a passenger uploaded to the Web a picture of the carriage in darkness and asked, “What happened to this train after that crazy storm?? It’s running slower than a snail now … Hope nothing is going to happen.”
Zhang the dispatcher was juggling ten trains by now. Hearing nothing further from D3115, he may have figured that it had restarted and moved on. The train carrying the Cao family was already half an hour late, and at 8:24 p.m., Zhang cleared it to go ahead. Five minutes later, the driver of the first train finally succeeded in restarting his engine and began to inch forward. When his train reached a normal section of track, it suddenly appeared on screens across the system, as if from nowhere, and a dispatcher saw what was about to happen. The train behind it had a green light and was charging down the track. The dispatcher alerted the driver: “D301, be careful! There’s a train in your zone. D3115 is ahead of you! Be careful, will you? The equipment—” The line cut off.
The driver of D301, Pan Yiheng, was a thirty-eight-year-old railway man with a broad nose and wide-set eyes. In the final seconds, Pan pulled a hand-operated emergency brake. His train was high atop a slender viaduct across a flat valley, and immediately ahead of him was train D3115, moving so slowly that it might as well have been a wall.
The collision impaled Pan on the brake handle, and it hurled Henry Cao into the air. His body tensed for impact. None came. Instead, he was falling—for how long he couldn’t tell. “I heard my mother’s voice shouting,” he told me later. “And then everything went black.” His carriage and two others peeled off the tracks, tumbling sixty-five feet to a field below. A fourth car, filled with passengers and spewing sparks, was left dangling vertically from the edge of the viaduct. Henry awoke in a hospital, where doctors removed his spleen and a kidney. He had shattered an ankle, broken his ribs, and suffered a brain injury. When he was alert enough to understand, he learned that his parents were dead. In the chaos of the rescue and recovery, his mother’s ten thousand dollars had disappeared.
* * *
The Wenzhou crash killed 40 people and injured 192. For reasons both practical and symbolic, the government was desperate to get trains running again, and within twenty-four hours it declared the line back in business. The Central Propaganda Department ordered editors to give the crash as little attention as possible. “Do not question, do not elaborate,” it warned. When newspapers came out the next morning, China’s first high-speed train wreck was not on the front page.
But instead of moving on, the public wanted to know what had happened, and why. This was not a bus plunging off a road in a provincial outpost; it was dozens of men and women dying on one of the nation’s proudest achievements—in a newly wired age, when passengers had cell phones, and witnesses and critics finally had the tools to humiliate the propagandists. It was only three years since the earthquake in Sichuan, which had had an incomparably larger death toll. Yet the train crash reverberated across China in new ways.
People demanded to know why a two-year-old survivor was found in the wreckage after rescuers had called off the search. A railway spokesman said it was “a miracle.” But critics jeered, calling his explanation an “insult to the intelligence of the Chinese people.” In the days after the crash, the subject of the collision generated ten million messages on Weibo, from people across the country, with sentiments such as this: “When a country is so corrupt that one lightning strike can cause a train crash … none of us are exempt. China today is a train rushing through a lightning storm … We are all passengers.”
At one point, the authorities dug a hole and buried part of the ruined train, saying they needed firm ground for recovery efforts. When reporters accused them of trying to thwart an investigation, a hapless spokesman replied, “Whether or not you believe it, I believe it,” a phrase that took flight on the Internet as an emblem of the government’s vanishing credibility. (The train was exhumed. The spokesman was relieved of his duties and was last seen working in Poland.)
Within days, the state-owned company that produced the signal box apologized for mistakes in its design. But to many in China the focus on a single broken part overlooked the likely role of a deeper problem underlying China’s rise: pervasive corruption and a moral disregard that had already led to milk tainted by chemicals reaching the market, shoddy schools in the earthquake zone in Sichuan, and unstable bridges rushed into service to meet political targets. A host on state television, Qiu Qiming, became the unlikely voice of the moment when he broke away from his script to ask, on the air, “Can we drink a glass of milk that is safe? Can we stay in an apartment that will not fall apart? Can we travel roads in our cities that will not collapse?”
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao had no choice but to visit the crash site and vow to investigate. “If corruption was found behind this, we must handle it according to law, and we will not be lenient,” he said. “Only in this way can we be fair to those who have died.” When people asked why Wen had waited five days to visit the site, he replied that he had been so ill that he had spent the past eleven days in bed. (Online, people dug up headlines and photos from those days showing him greeting dignitaries and presiding at meetings.)
The public didn’t forget Wen’s pledge as the first deadline for the investigation came and went, and they continued to demand a fuller accounting. At last, in December, authorities released an unprecedented detailed report. It acknowledged “serious design flaws,” a “neglect of safety management,” and problems in bidding and testing. It also blamed fifty-four people in government and industry, beginning with Great Leap Liu. When I spoke to an engineer who worked on the railway’s construction, he told me, “I can’t pinpoint which step was neglected or what didn’t get enough time, because the whole process was compressed, from beginning to end.” He added, “There is an expression in Chinese: when you take too great a leap, you can tear your balls.”
* * *
The railroad minister, Liu Zhijun, did not initially look like a candidate for a dramatic public disgrace. Liu was a farmer’s son, small and thin, with bad eyesight and an overbite. He grew up in a village outside the city of Wuhan and left school as a teenager for a job walking the tracks with a hammer and a gauge. He had an innate sense of the path to power. Good penmanship was a rare skill in the provinces, and Liu perfected his hand, becoming a trusted letter writer for bosses with limited education. He married into a politically connected family and was a Party member by age twenty-one. He was a tireless promoter of the railways and of himself, and he ascended swiftly, heading provincial bureaus on his way to the seat of power in Beijing. By 2003, as railroad minister, he commanded a bureaucratic empire second in scale and independence only to the military, with its own police force, courts, and judges and with billions of dollars at his disposal. His ministry, a state within a state, was known in China as tie laoda—“Boss Rail.”
Liu kept his hair in an untidy black comb-over and wore a style of square horn-rimmed spectacles so common among senior apparatchiks that they were known as “leader glasses.” A colleague of Liu’s, a railway staffer who worked closely with him, told me, “Ever since the revolution, most Chinese officials look alike. They have the same face, the same uniform, even the same personality. They work step-by-step, and they are content to sit back and wait for promotions. But Liu Zhijun was different.” If it was possible to invest a railway job with glamour, he was determined to do so. He liked to convene meetings after midnight and make ostentatious displays of his work habits. Even as he approached the highest ranks of power, he never stopped flattering his superiors. When President Hu Jintao was returning by train to Beijing one summer, Liu hustled up the platform so frantically to greet him that he nearly ran out of his loafers. “I shouted to him, ‘Minister Liu, your shoes! Don’t fall!’” the staffer recalled. “But he couldn’t be bothered. He just kept grinning and running.”
Liu’s success benefited his brother, Liu Zhixiang, who joined the ministry and soared up through the ranks. He was wisecracking and volatile. In January 2005 he was detained for questioning about embezzlement, bribe-taking, and intentional harm regarding his role in arranging the killing of a contractor who sought to expose him. By then, he was vice chief of the Wuhan Railway Bureau. (The victim was stabbed to death with a switchblade in front of his wife. According to an official legal journal, he had predicted in his will, “If I am killed, it will have been at the hand of corrupt official Liu Zhixiang.”) The minister’s brother was embezzling such a large share of the ticket sales that he accumulated the equivalent of fifty million dollars in cash, real estate, jewelry, and art. When investigators caught him, he was living among mountains of money so large and unruly that the bills had begun to molder. (Storing cash is one of the most vexing challenges confronting corrupt Chinese officials, because the largest bill in circulation is a hundred-yuan note, worth about fifteen dollars.) He was convicted and received a death sentence that was suspended and later reduced to sixteen years. But instead of serving his time in a facility for serious offenders, he was transferred to a hospital, where he reportedly continued to conduct railway business by phone.
* * *
Back in Beijing, Minister Liu surrounded himself with loyal associates. The capo di tutti capi was the chief deputy engineer Zhang Shuguang, who once arrived at a railway conference in a fur coat and a white scarf and liked to describe his approach to negotiations as a “clasped fist.” For much of his career, he ran the passenger car division, which gave him control over colossal spending choices. “It was all up to a nod of his head,” Zang Qiji, a retired member of the Academy of Railway Sciences, told me. Zhang knew little of science, but he aspired to credibility and attempted to secure membership in an élite academic society by having two professors write a book in his name. (He fell short of membership by a single vote.)
Liu bet everything on high-speed railways. To preempt inflation in the cost of land and labor and materials, he preached haste above all. “We must seize the opportunity, build more railways, and build them fast,” he told a conference in 2009. Liu’s ambitions and Chinese authoritarianism were a volatile combination. The ministry was its own regulator, virtually unsupervised, and the minister and his aides had no tolerance for dissenting voices. When professor Zhao Jian, of Beijing Jiaotong University, publicly objected to the pace of high-speed-rail construction, Liu summoned him and advised him to keep quiet. Zhao refused to back down, and the university president called him. “He told me not to continue to voice my opinions,” Zhao told me. The professor resisted, but his concerns were ignored—until the crash. “Then it was too late,” he said.
The obsession with speed was all-encompassing. The system was growing so fast that almost everything a supplier produced found a buyer, regardless of quality. According to investigators, the signal that failed in the Wenzhou crash was developed over six months, beginning in June 2007, by the state-owned China Railway Signal and Communication Corporation. The company had a staff of some thirteen hundred engineers, but it was overwhelmed by demands on its time, and crash investigators discovered that those in charge of the signal had performed only a “lax” inspection, which “failed to discover grave flaws and major hidden dangers.” The office in charge was “chaotic,” a place where “files went missing.” Nevertheless, the signal passed inspection in 2008 and was installed across the country. When the industry gave out awards for new technology that year, the signal took first prize. But an engineer inside the company subsequently told me that he was not surprised to discover that the job had been rushed.
There were other suspicious factors. In April 2010 the chairman of Central Japan Railway, Yoshiyuki Kasai, said that China was building trains that drew heavily on Japanese designs. When Kawasaki Heavy Industries threatened to sue the Chinese for passing off its technology as their own, the Railway Ministry in Beijing dismissed the complaint as evidence of “a fragile state of mind and a lack of confidence.” Kasai also pointed out that China was operating the trains at speeds 25 percent faster than those permitted in Japan. “Pushing it that close to the limit is something we would absolutely never do,” he told the London Financial Times.
In the days before the crash, the rush to build the railways added a final, lethal factor to the mix. In June the government had staged the debut of the most prominent line yet, Beijing to Shanghai, to coincide with the ninetieth anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. A full year had been slashed from the construction schedule, and the first weeks of the run were marred by delays and power failures. According to a manager in the ministry, high-speed-rail staff were warned that further delays would affect the size of their bonuses. On the night of July 23, 2011, when trains began to stack up, dispatchers and maintenance staff raced to repair the faulty signal and ignored the simplest solution: stop the trains and repair the signal. Wang Mengshu, a scholar in the Chinese Academy of Engineering who was deputy chief of the committee investigating the crash, told me, “The maintenance people weren’t familiar enough with their jobs, and they didn’t want to stop the train. They didn’t dare.”
* * *
When the crash occurred, Great Leap Liu was no longer running the Railway Ministry. In August 2010 the National Audit Office had reviewed the books of a big state-owned company and came upon a sixteen-million-dollar “commission” to an intermediary in return for contracts on the high-speed rail. The intermediary turned out to be a representative of a woman named Ding Shumiao, who perhaps more than anyone embodied the runaway riches created by China’s railway boom. Ding was an illiterate egg farmer in rural Shanxi—five feet ten, with broad shoulders and a foghorn of a voice. In the 1980s, after Deng Xiaoping launched the country toward the free market, she collected eggs from neighbors to sell on the sidewalk in the county seat. This was illegal without a permit. Her eggs were confiscated, and years later she still talked of her embarrassment. In time, she came to run a small, thriving restaurant, where she gave away food to powerful customers and exaggerated her own success. “If she has one yuan, she’ll say she has ten,” one of Ding’s longtime colleagues told me. “It makes her look more influential, and bit by bit people began to think that they could benefit from their friendship with her.”
Her restaurant became a favorite with coal bosses and officials. Soon she was involved in coal trucking. Then she was “flipping carriages,” as it’s known in the railway business: working her connections to get cheap access to coveted freight routes and, according to Wang, the investigator, reselling the rights “for ten times what she paid.” She became friendly with Great Leap Liu around 2003, and with her ties to the railway business, she prospered. Her company, Broad Union, signed joint ventures and supplied the ministry with train wheels, sound barriers, and more. In two years, Broad Union’s assets grew tenfold, to the equivalent of $680 million in 2010, according to the state news service.
Ding’s given name, Shumiao, betrayed her rural roots, so she changed it to Yuxin, at the suggestion of her feng shui adviser. She was easy to lampoon—Daft Mrs. Ding, people called her—but she had a genius for cultivating business relationships. A longtime colleague told me, “When I tried to teach her how to analyze the market, how to run the company, she said, ‘I don’t need to understand this.’” The Chinese press chronicled her audacious social ascent. To gain foreign contacts, she backed a club “for international diplomats,” which managed to attract a visit in 2010 by Britain’s former prime minister Tony Blair. Her lavish receptions drew members of the Politburo. She joined the lower house of the provincial legislature and made so many charitable gifts that in 2010 she ranked No. 6 on the Forbes list of China’s philanthropists.
Ding was detained in January 2011, and eventually indicted on charges of bribery and illegal business activities. She was convicted of paying fifteen million dollars in bribes to Liu and others to help twenty-three companies secure railway construction contracts worth thirty billion dollars. For her services, her haul was impressive: she received kickbacks from contractors totaling more than three hundred million dollars. Like many others, Ding had discovered what government auditors found out only later: China’s most famous public works project was an ecosystem almost perfectly hospitable to corruption—opaque, unsupervised, and overflowing with cash. In some cases, the bidding on contracts was truncated from five days to thirteen hours. In others, the bids were mere theater, because construction had already begun. Cash was known to vanish: in one instance, seventy-eight million dollars that had been set aside to compensate people whose homes had been demolished to make way for railroad tracks disappeared. Middlemen expected cuts of between 1 and 6 percent. “If a project is four and a half billion, the middleman is taking home two hundred million,” Wang said. “And of course nobody says a word.”
One of the most common rackets was illegal subcontracting. A single contract could be divvied up and sold for kickbacks, then sold again and again, until it reached the bottom of a food chain of labor, where the workers were cheap and unskilled. Railway ministry jobs were bought and sold: $4,500 to be a train attendant, $15,000 to be a supervisor. In November 2011 a former cook with no engineering experience was found to be building a high-speed railway bridge using a crew of unskilled migrant laborers who substituted crushed stones for cement in the bridge’s foundation. In railway circles, the practice of substituting cheap materials for real ones was common enough to rate its own expression: touliang huanzhu—“robbing the beams to put in the pillars.”
With so many kickbacks changing hands, it wasn’t surprising that parts of the railway went wildly over budget. A station in Guangzhou slated to be built for $316 million ended up costing seven times that. The ministry was so large that bureaucrats would create fictional departments and run up expenses for them. A five-minute promotional video that went largely unseen cost nearly $3 million. The video led investigators to the ministry’s deputy propaganda chief, a woman whose home contained $1.5 million in cash and the deeds to nine houses.
Reporters who tried to expose the corruption in the railway world ran into dead ends. Two years before the crash, a journalist named Chen Jieren posted an article about problems in the ministry entitled, “Five Reasons That Liu Zhijun Should Take Blame and Resign,” but the piece was deleted from every major Web portal. Chen was later told that Liu oversaw a slush fund used for buying the loyalty of editors at major media and websites. Other government agencies also had serious financial problems—out of fifty, auditors found problems with forty-nine—but the scale of cash available in the railway world was in a class by itself. Liao Ran, an Asia specialist at Transparency International, told the International Herald Tribune that China’s high-speed railway was shaping up to be “the biggest single financial scandal not just in China, but perhaps in the world.”
* * *
In February 2011, five months before the train crash, the Party finally moved on Liu Zhijun. According to Wang Mengshu, investigators concluded that Liu was preparing to use his illegal gains to bribe his way onto the Party Central Committee and, eventually, the Politburo. “He told Ding Shumiao, ‘Put together four hundred million for me. I’m going to need to spread some money around,’” Wang told me. Four hundred million yuan is about sixty-four million dollars. Liu managed to assemble nearly thirteen million yuan before he was stopped, Wang said. “The central government was worried that if he really succeeded in giving out four hundred million in bribes he would essentially have bought a government position. That’s why he was arrested.”
Liu was expelled from the Party the following May, for “severe violations of discipline” and “primary leadership responsibilities for the serious corruption problem within the railway system.” An account in the state press alleged that Liu took a 4 percent kickback on railway deals; another said he netted $152 million in bribes. He was the highest-ranking official to be arrested for corruption in five years. But it was Liu’s private life that caught people by surprise. The ministry accused him of “sexual misconduct,” and the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao reported that he had eighteen mistresses. His friend Ding was said to have helped him line up actresses from a television show in which she invested. Chinese officials are routinely discovered indulging in multiple sins of the flesh, prompting President Hu Jintao to give a speech a few years ago warning comrades against the “many temptations of power, wealth, and beautiful women.” But the image of a gallivanting Great Leap Liu, and the sheer logistics of keeping eighteen mistresses, made him into a punch line. When I asked Liu’s colleague if the mistress story was true, he replied, “What is your definition of a mistress?”
By the time the libidinous Liu was deposed, at least eight other senior officials had been removed and placed under investigation, including Zhang, Liu’s bombastic aide. Local media reported that Zhang, on an annual salary of less than five thousand dollars, had acquired a luxury home near Los Angeles, stirring speculation that he had been preparing to join the growing exodus of officials who were taking their fortunes abroad. In recent years, corrupt cadres who sent their families overseas had become known in Chinese as “naked officials.” In 2011 the central bank posted to the Web an internal report estimating that, since 1990, eighteen thousand corrupt officials had fled the country, having stolen $120 billion—a sum large enough to buy Disney or Amazon. (The report was promptly removed.)
In the months I spent talking to people about the rise and fall of Liu Zhijun, his story seemed to confound both his enemies and his friends. His rivals acknowledged that, unlike many corrupt officials, Liu had actually achieved something in office: he had produced a railway system that, even with problems, was fundamentally changing the sense of distance and time for ordinary people across the country. On the other side, his defenders found themselves awkwardly saying that he was doing nothing that his peers were not. Liu’s colleague, an affable former military man, told me that at a certain point corruption had become difficult for Liu to avoid: “Inside the system today, if you don’t take bribes, you have to get out. There’s no way you can stay. If three of us are in one department, and you are the only one who doesn’t take a bribe, are the two of us ever going to feel safe?”
Not long after the crash, I met a subcontractor for the railway and I asked him if things had been cleaned up since Liu’s downfall. He let out a humorless laugh. “They made a show of it, but it’s still the same rules,” he said. “They caught Ding Shumiao, but she’s just one person. There are many, many Ding Shumiaos.”
* * *
Several weeks after the Wenzhou crash, the Railway Ministry announced a series of steps in the name of safety: it recalled fifty-four bullet trains for tests; it halted construction of new lines; and it ordered trains to slow down from a top speed of 217 miles per hour to 186. But before long the railway boom resumed, and the first anniversary of the Wenzhou crash was tightly managed. The state press was ordered not to visit the scene, and survivors were warned to keep their mouths shut. When one of them, a man in his twenties named Deng Qian, tried to visit the site that day, he was tailed by police, who videotaped his movements. “Their message to me was clear: I am now their enemy, their threat,” he told me. “I think they will keep an eye on us forever.”
Henry Cao spent five months in a Chinese hospital recovering from broken bones, neurological damage, and the loss of his kidney and spleen. After returning to his family in Colorado, he had to close his camera supply business. He and his brother, Leo, flew to China to retrieve their parents’ bodies. They asked to hold a memorial in their ancestral village in Fujian, but the government forbade it; the parents were buried in a cemetery on Long Island.
Liu Zhijun would eventually go on trial. The verdict was no mystery—98 percent of Chinese trials end in conviction—but a reliable predictor of Liu’s fate was that the Party had already embarked on one of its most enduring rituals. Just as technicians once airbrushed political casualties out of the archives, censors had already taken to the Web to begin excising years’ worth of glowing news reports and documentaries that hailed Liu’s accomplishments, leaving behind only squibs about his arrest. Before long, Great Leap Liu had been expunged so thoroughly from the history of China’s achievements that you might never have known he existed.
By that point, the Wenzhou collision had already come to symbolize the essential risks facing the Communist Party. The crash struck at the middle-class men and women who had accepted the grand bargain of modern Chinese politics in the era after socialism: allow the Party to reign unchallenged as long as it was reasonably competent. The crash violated the deal, and for many, it became what Hurricane Katrina was to Americans: the iconic failure of government performance. It was a merciless judgment. Gerald Ollivier, a senior infrastructure specialist at the World Bank in Beijing, pointed out that trains in China were still by far one of the safest means of transportation. “If you think about it, the China high-speed railway must be transporting at least four hundred million people per year,” he said. “How many people have died on the China high-speed railway in the past four years? Forty people. This is the number of people who die in road accidents in China every five or six hours. So, in terms of safety, this is by far one of the safest ways of transportation. The accident this past year was certainly very tragic and should not have happened. But compared to the alternative of moving people by car, it is safer by a factor of at least a hundred.”
And yet, in China, people were more inclined to quote a very different statistic: in forty-seven years of service, high-speed trains in Japan had recorded just one fatality, a passenger caught in a closing door. It was becoming clear that parts of the new China had been built too fast for their own good. Three years had been set aside for construction of one of the longest bridges in North China, but it was finished in eighteen months, and nine months later, in August 2012, it collapsed, killing three people and injuring five. Local officials blamed overloaded trucks, though it was the sixth bridge collapse in a single year.
People were no longer satisfied simply with the fortune delivered by China’s rise. The fall of Great Leap Liu had dramatized a culture of entitlement run amok. For years, Liu had dedicated himself to enhancing his own prospects along with those of the nation. He had lost his sense of proportion, and the question was whether the government he served had, too.”
वही, इवान ओसनोस की ही किताब से (इवान 2008 से 2013 तक चीन में ‘द न्यूयोर्कर’ के संवाददाता रहे थे).