2011年7月28日 星期四

A railway accident waiting to happen / FT社評:動車事故反映中國治理弊病

2011年07月28日 14:22 PM
Leader_A railway accident waiting to happen
英國《金融時報》 社評

Last week's crash involving two Chinese bullet trains is principally a human tragedy. Many lives have been lost, and the nation has in recent days been transfixed by the harrowing stories of the survivors.


Beyond the human suffering, the accident shines a light on some of the flaws that disfigure China's rapid modernisation and also raise doubts about the durability of its extraordinary growth.


China may have acquired the gleaming trappings of a modern industrial economy, but it has not developed the governance systems to match. Power, whether that of the producer or the state, still goes largely unchecked by public freedoms such as those of expression and association. There is limited accountability through the agency of the media; through the ballot box it remains non-existent.


This hurts the welfare of the Chinese people. Think of the scandal of tainted baby milk or the collapse of so many school buildings during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, thought to be the result of shoddy construction owing to municipal corruption.


The same ills seem to have plagued the vast high-speed rail programme. The minister responsible was fired for what were euphemistically termed “disciplinary violations” earlier this year amid rumours of systemic bribery. Foreign officials and executives had warned that China's homegrown rail technology was not up to the task, being based on bowdlerised versions of foreign designs that were expected to operate at speeds for which they were not designed. Stories abounded about large sums being siphoned off by contractors during the construction phase.


Safety failings and corruption occur in western countries too, of course, but these societies have institutional mechanisms to correct mistakes – systems Beijing is still loath to encourage. The railway project was not an isolated endeavour but part of a boom unleashed by the state to keep growth going following the financial crisis. The accident raises questions about how well this money was invested.


When doubters questioned the wisdom of exorbitantly expensive high speed rail travel in a still-poor society, or of siting stations outside the limits of existing cities, they were told that China was building for the future and would grow into its new infrastructure. These claims look more hollow now, as does the notion that China can defy the laws of economic gravity, leaping over other states, and moving up the value chain faster than other countries have done before.