July 27, 2011

FOR MONTHS, it has been increasingly obvious that China’s shiny new high-speed rail system is not the triumph of national planning that Beijing or Western admirers claimed. The Chinese government this year fired top rail officials for alleged wrongdoing , an implicit recognition that corruption and debt plague the project. Many of those who questioned the economics of high-speed rail in China also argued that authorities were cutting corners on safety in their rush to build the world’s largest bullet-train network. Those accusations, too, received tacit confirmation when China announced in April that it would cut the trains’ top speed by 30 miles per hour.

Too late: Last Saturday, China’s high-speed rail produced the long-feared catastrophe. Two bullet trains collided in the eastern province of Zhejiang, leaving more than three dozen people dead and scores more injured.

The terrible collision is not only a human tragedy but also a major blow to the credibility of the communist government, which had hoped to sell its trains to other countries – including the United States. Authorities blamed a lightning strike for causing one train to stall out, after which a second train rear-ended it, causing four cars to plunge off a bridge. Unlikely on its face, this scenario does not explain why no fail-safe mechanism halted the second train after the first stopped. That’s what would have happened in Japan, where bullet trains have operated for half a century with zero fatalities.

The Ministry of Railways in Bejing then promised a “serious” and “honest” investigation. Communist party officials immediately undermined that pledge by instructing Chinese media not to report the matter aggressively but rather “to use ‘in the face of great tragedy, there’s great love’” as the major theme. “Do not question. Do not elaborate. Do not associate.”

A flood of skeptical, even angry, comment on the Chinese Internet suggests that the damage-control effort isn’t working. As more and more Chinese are realizing, the tragedy’s lessons are not only technological but also political. China’s high-speed rail system epitomizes the inherent flaws of authoritarian governance, not its strengths.

After a minimum of public discussion and despite contrary expert advice, the nation’s unelected rulers decided to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a mode of transportation that many, if not most, ordinary Chinese cannot afford to use. As the cash flowed, well-connected officials lined their own pockets. Plan-fulfillment and national prestige took priority over passenger safety as officials muzzled reporters who dared to say otherwise.

In short, the high-speed rail program operated pretty much as you would expect in a one-party state with a controlled media and no effective checks and balances. The only mystery is why people in the West who should have known better looked at high-speed rail in China and saw a model for the United States — instead of an accident waiting to happen.