Kai Ryssdal: We talked in our China series a couple of weeks ago about having ridden one of the spiffy new high-speed trains while we were there. It was spiffy, but also incredibly dangerous.
Thirty-nine people were killed near the city of Wenzhou a week-and-a-half ago when one high-speed train slammed into another one that had been stalled on the track. Hundreds of people were injured.
As was something else, perhaps: The already tenuous trust Chinese people have in their government. We’ve got our China correspondent Rob Schmitz on the line from Shanghai with more. Hey Rob.
Rob Schmitz: Hey Kai.
Ryssdal: So tragedy aside, there’s something more going on with this crash that just set off the Chinese people, right?
Schmitz: Yeah, there really is. It goes beyond the crash to much bigger economic problems in China. Five years ago, China didn’t even have high-speed trains. Today China has the largest high-speed rail network in the world. Problem is, though, many people can’t afford to ride them, and not only that, but these new bullet trains have pushed up the cost of regular train tickets. And this really gets to the general frustration the Chinese have about the rising price of food, the rising cost of living; the property market’s out of control. China’s economy — just like these trains — has just been going too fast, and the people who have been left behind have sat by and watched as the government’s used China’s high-speed rail as a symbol of how advanced China’s become and how powerful its economy is. Well now you’ve got two symbols of that lying on top of each other, dangling over a bridge.
Ryssdal: What are people telling you, Rob? When you’re out and about, what do you hear?
Schmitz: Well, two days after the crash, I was in a taxi, and he’s listening to the radio report from the scene of the crash, and he got so angry that he started just yelling at the radio. You know, you have these moments maybe when you’re in the car when you yelled at the radio. That’s what he was doing; he sort of was ignoring that I was there. And then I sort of asked him, I said, ‘Are you OK? What do you feel about this?’ And he felt relieved to be asked this: he just vented to me for about 15, 20 minutes about how corrupt the government was, how this was the government’s fault. And by the time we knew it, we had stopped about five, 10 minutes ago but he was still venting. It was like one of these — as public radio folks like to say — one of these driveway moments.
Ryssdal: Driveway moments, that’s right, except different context. But hang on a minute, because corruption’s nothing new.
Schmitz: No, corruption’s nothing new, but people talking about corruption all the time on the street with each other; journalists challenging officials, state-run press running with stories about this — that is new. Two nights ago, I was chatting with a Chinese friend and he told me he just read the news that the chief engineer for China’s high-speed rail embezzled 2.8 billion. I said, ‘How? Well 2.8 billion renminbi — that’s about $400 million, boy that’s a lot of money.’ He corrected me, he tells me, ‘No, it was $2.8 billion.’ That’s incredible. Later on, I saw it was reported this guy had just stashed the money into Swiss and U.S. bank accounts. And this Chinese official reportedly has run off with the amount of money equal to the GDP of Fiji. So this type of corruption is really unprecedented.
Ryssdal: What’s the damage control? What’s the spin control, I should probably say, by the central government?
Schmitz: Well, in terms of the crash, it seems like every day, the government takes a new step in the wrong direction. A day after the crash, officials ordered crews to start burying the wrecked cars. The official in charge said they needed to get the cars out of the way to make room for rescue equipment, but many people think the government was just trying to hide evidence that would implicate it as a cause of the crash. And now China’s government has ordered the Chinese press to stop reporting on the crash. Before the media ban, there was a surprising number of editorials taking the government to task. An article in the China Daily said China must develop, but it can’t do so with a GDP that comes with blood. Another article in the China Youth Daily was simply titled, “Slow down, my country.”
Ryssdal: Worth a note that those are state-run media outlets.
Schmitz: Yeah, those two newspapers are extremely close to the Party, and it’s possible that the government will use this disaster to round up more public support of its efforts to slow China’s economy down — things that China’s government has been working overtime on for a year already, and by the looks of it, that’s what it’s already doing.
Ryssdal: Rob Schmitz in Shanghai, thanks Rob.
Schmitz: Thanks Kai.
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