Letter from China (6): A Train Wreck

I am in Shanghai, but I did not come here on the new high-speed train. Not that I didn’t try. I tried to book a ticket online and I tried to buy it in person from the little train ticket office in my neighborhood. Those efforts were thwarted by a new rule, which stipulates that foreigners can only buy tickets at the train station. For someone like me, who has neither an office secretary nor a hotel agent at their service, this would have meant spending most part of a day traveling to Beijing’s South Station to show them my passport. Forget it.

I had already booked a flight when I received an email from a Chinese friend: “Sabine, have you booked the train ticket? I think you should be careful about taking fast trains.” On July 23, a high-speed train had rear-ended another one near the city of Wenzhou, killing at least 40 people. The incident has triggered a virulent debate in China, which is symptomatic of the deep distrust people have towards their non-elected officials. At the same time, it has also shown how difficult it has become to keep people from making this distrust openly known.

There was enough to be angry about. The operator tried to remove evidence and waited a whole day before giving its first press conference. A two-year old girl was found alive in the wreckage after the operator had declared that there were no more survivors. The government tried to block reporting about this story, but even state-run papers and TV channels defied this order while the microblogs, the Chinese version of Twitter, were overflowing with speculation about mismanagement and corruption that might have led to the overly speedy (and sloppy) construction of the high-speed trains, especially since signal failure was a likely cause for the disaster.

The episode is more than an embarrassment for the government. China’s homegrown high-speed trains are feted as another step on the way of the country’s high-speed transition into a modern nation. And the prestigious new line that cuts the travel time between Beijing and Shanghai to four hours started operating on July 1st, the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party.

On July 5th, a video in which a giant Kung Fu panda proposed to his girl-friend on the Jing-Hu train (short for Beijing to Shanghai) became an instant success on Youku and Tudou (the Chinese equivalents of Youtube). A few days later, a friend texted me from inside the train and raved about how comfortable it was. His only complaint: He caught the train conductors smoking in the instrument room. At least they apologized profusely when they were called out.

But very soon, the train ran into problems. There were reports about delays and about passengers left boiling in train cabins with no air conditioning. There were reports about technical flaws. The airlines, which had lowered their prices to compete with the train, regained confidence and raised them to their previous levels. The train wreck of July 23rd should have quelled all remaining worries for carriers flying between China’s most important cities.

What is hasn’t quelled are the concerns of citizens who are increasingly edgy. They worry about tainted baby food and fake medicines; they worry about collapsing bridges and crashing trains; they worry about losing their homes to urban development. And most of all, they worry that the same problem lies at the bottom of all these flawed products and procedures: corruption.

To bribe and to be bribed has become the way of life in China. The local government gets paid off by the development company to take away your home. The doctor is bribed by the pharmaceutical industry, just like everywhere else in the world. But in China, you better give that doctor a hongbao (a red envelope with money) too, if he is going to perform surgery on you. You even bribe the teachers if you want them to pay attention to your child’s education. It seems as if this phenomenon has become more pervasive in recent years.

This makes me wonder whether I could have bribed the woman at the ticket office into selling me a train ticket to Shanghai?

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