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China's high-speed trains were supposed to be a gleaming testament to the country's progress and modernity. Instead, a recent crash that killed 40 people has come to symbolize much that's wrong with China's warp-speed development. In particular, a "Great Leap Forward" mentality toward development is clashing with questions of safety.
The notion that fatal accidents are the price of progress seems to have trickled down to some of the passengers on a recent high-speed train journey between Beijing and Nanjing, many of whom characterized the accident as "normal."
"Forty deaths don't mean our trains are no good," said salesman Jin Zhao'an, who travels extensively on the high-speed network. "Developed countries have many years of experience operating these trains, so they can avoid risks. If this accident hadn't happened, we wouldn't have known the risks, right? It's just a small, small episode in our country's development."
Government investigators are compiling a report into the July 23 accident in Wenzhou, in eastern China. Two trains collided, knocking carriages from a 60-foot viaduct. The report was initially slated for completion in mid-September. But despite mounting public concern over the delay, no official release date has been announced.
So far, investigators have blamed lightning strikes, a software signaling glitch and human error. But more evidence is emerging that basic safety was ignored in the headlong rush to build this politically symbolic high-speed network
Since the accident, 54 bullet trains have been recalled and new high-speed rail projects halted. Safety checks have been instituted and the speed limit reduced across the whole network to 186 miles per hour.
But a train an NPR reporter traveled on between Beijing and Nanjing recently consistently broke that speed limit, traveling as fast as 194 miles per hour. The Railway Ministry refused to comment or accept NPR's interview requests.
Construction Too Fast, Too Corrupt?
One monument to the dangers of overly hasty construction is Nanjing South station's cavernous glass and marble waiting hall. It's the biggest railway station in Asia, and the building alone cost $780 million.
But just 10 days after it opened, the station's enormous outdoor square had to be entirely repaved, since many of the tiles in it were already broken. The Oriental Morning Post reported that the construction company blamed the political imperative of opening the all-important Beijing-to-Shanghai train line on July 1, the Chinese Communist Party's 90th anniversary.
More controversy erupted in mid-July, just two weeks after the station opened, when heavy rain leaked through the roof, causing parts of the building to sink into the ground. Photos posted online showed blue plastic buckets dotted around the futuristic waiting hall to catch the water.
The controversy was compounded when a station official denied there were any quality problems, attributing the sinking to a "design feature." This attracted scathing criticism online, further damaging the credibility of the high-speed-rail infrastructure.
Ren Xianfeng, a senior analyst at IHS Global Insight in Beijing, says China has been building too quickly.
"In a couple of years, the investment in high-speed-rail projects has increased by more than 10 times, which is simply unsustainable," she says.
Ren says the sacking of Railways Minister Liu Zhijun in February for corruption, followed by the subsequent arrest of another senior railway official on corruption charges, raised red flags. Official reports said that $30 million of funding was misappropriated on the high-profile Beijing-to-Shanghai line alone.
"With this speed of construction, there are a couple of issues. First is the quality of the project; the second thing is corruption," Ren says. "It's a legitimate concern about safety: How safely have they built their railway system, because so much money has been siphoned off to private pockets."
'No One Told Us What Was Happening'
More concrete evidence of the apparent disregard for safety in building the high-speed network lies in the Double Phoenix housing estate, in a small town called Shuangdun, about 100 miles from Nanjing in the eastern province of Anhui. The housing complex was completed in 2009, and most of its residents are young married couples of farming stock, proud that they've finally managed to buy an apartment in town.
Yet many of their apartments are due for demolition, since the viaduct carrying the high-speed trains passes directly over the complex, just clearing its roofs by about 20 feet.
"I only found out when they started building the viaduct columns," says resident Sun Miankou. "No one told us what was happening."
Indeed, the routing for the high-speed trains was only formally confirmed in April 2010, according to a report by the Xinhua news agency.
Sun had helped buy an apartment here for her brother and his new wife. But since the Wenzhou train crash, she's been haunted by photos of a train carriage hanging from a 60-foot viaduct. If that were to happen at the Double Phoenix, that carriage would plow straight into her block.
She, like many other residents, believes the high-speed train service is due to start there in October, and she's terrified.
"Of course I'm scared," she says. "I don't want to live here. I don't even dare sleep here. Two generations of my family worked the land to afford this apartment, and now the high-speed rail has been built right on top of it. I'm very worried."
Progress Valued More Than People?
It's not yet clear whether Sun's apartment will be demolished. Although it adjoins those underneath the rail line, she's been told that it may not be pulled down, a fact that worries her even more, since she fears the building's structural integrity may be damaged if just half of it is demolished. If given a choice, she says she would prefer to take compensation to move elsewhere.
But about half of the 84 households being offered compensation to leave are still refusing to do so. They argue that the compensation, set at about $640 per 10.8 square feet, is too low and doesn't take into account the work they've done on their apartments.
Resident Chen Changfeng still doesn't understand how the train line came to be built directly overhead, but he suspects corruption may have played a part.
"I don't understand how the government got approval to build the train line here, even though we hadn't agreed to move," he says. "Our government is advocating 'putting people first' and a 'harmonious society.' But in practice, they placed more importance on building the high-speed rail than on us people."
Many are now asking if this accident could and should herald the end of the Great Leap Forward mentality, when corners are cut to hit political targets. For the government, this accident has led to a credibility crisis.
There's economic fallout too: heavily indebted rail firms may face cash-flow shortages. And for overseas buyers, this deadly accident makes China's high-speed rail technology a high-risk proposition.
And so, China's headlong rush to show itself to be a high-tech superpower might just have ended up demonstrating the opposite.