As has been widely reported in the news, China had a major rail accident three days ago, killing 43 people. A positive train control system that was supposed to prevent accidents didn’t; it was reportedly shut down due to severe weather, and as a result, when one train stalled on a bridge, another train rear-ended it and derailed, and two of its cars fell from the bridge. The Chinese government’s response was secretive and authoritarian, as can only be expected of a regime that treats breathing exercises as an act of subversion, and a leaked set of propaganda instructions to reporters contains such gems as “From now on, the Wenzhou train accident should be reported along the theme of ‘major love in the face of major disaster.’”
However, more interesting is the reaction of Western media to the disaster. Bloomberg quotes several financial analysts who raise doubts about China’s ability to export technology. A Financial Times blog analogizes high-speed rail to China’s fast-growing economy and warns of overheating. The general mood is one of treating accidents in China as evidence of a defective culture, which does not care about safety. More abstractly, it’s evidence that Asians don’t care about the individual, only about nationality and prestige. It comes from the same place as the San Francisco transit planner who, Richard Mlynarik reports, answered a question about Japan’s short turnaround times with, “Asians don’t value life the same way we do.”
The biggest HSR accident in history is still Eschede. The cause of the accident turned out to be a series of errors in maintenance and design. And yet, nobody doubts the safety record of Germany. They know that German industry turns out high-quality products. Siemens successfully distanced itself from the accident, claiming that it was only partially responsible to the manufacturing and that it was really DB’s train, and has sold its Velaro train in multiple foreign markets. An accident on its maglev test track that killed 23 hasn’t prevented it from marketing its maglev technology, and Germany’s continued rejection of maglev is on grounds of cost rather than safety. DB too was unfazed, made cosmetic changes, and was more recently hit with a less deadly egg on its face in Berlin; it too gets contracts abroad.
Eschede is emblematic of reactions to accidents in the West; Wenzhou is emblematic of reactions to accidents in Asia. (Amagasaki was as far as I can tell somewhere in the middle.) Individual incidents merely confirm what everyone knows.
The reality, buried at the bottom of few articles and unmentioned elsewhere, is that China’s overall safety record is not that bad. If one believes that Wikipedia’s list of accidents is exhaustive, then China’s record is very good. Even if not, on any reasonable estimate of Chinese HSR traffic (including traveling at lower speed, as the trains in question were), its safety is better than in many of the scoffing Western countries. Assume 150 billion passenger-km a year; this compares with an actual figure of 300 million HSR passengers per year as of 2010 and an average trip length of a little more than 500 km on all lines, not just high-speed (computed from data here). To beat the last twenty years’ American railway safety, China’s HSR division will need to have no additional fatal accidents for a year. To beat Germany, make that three years.
The sort of racism that would lead commentators and investors to think less of China’s safety over Wenzhou but not of Germany’s over Eschede is subtle; it’s nothing like overt discrimination in jobs or immigration or housing. As a result, it’s more or less self-solving in the long run: in the 1960s, Westerners thought Japan made shoddy products, in the 1990s they thought the same of South Korea, and in the last decade they’ve shifted the target to China. In twenty years, when China’s GDP starts approaching that of developed countries, they’ll find another target. They’ll of course not stop thinking that Asians are an undifferentiated mass of insects with no thought or creativity (or that Muslims are terrorists), but they’ll appreciate that they can make and even design manufactured products.
The significance is that it’s a telltale sign of the Not Invented Here syndrome. Convincing Americans to adopt European practices and vice versa is hard enough; but convincing them to adopt practices from Japan, let alone China, is anathema. You might as well try to convince an Orthodox Jew to switch from beef to pork. Attacking the assumption that other countries’ experiences are always part of a grand cultural essence is not just good humanity and antiracism; it’s also good technical planning.
In contrast to both the cultural approach and China’s apparatchik guidelines, I’d propose the following way to report accidents, terrorist attacks, and other major disasters:
1. Put individual events into broader statistical context. An aircraft or train crash should be accompanied by a reminder that those modes are still safer than all others.
2. Report on the causes of the accident, both immediate (as described in the first paragraph of this post) and fundamental, including any political or economic pressure to skimp on safety.
3. Avoid overinterpreting high-impact, low-probability events. Thus, avoid questions such as which train design standard is safer unless either directly relevant to the disaster (the wheel broke, the car crumpled, etc.) or backed up by extensive multi-year evidence.
4. If the official story or the source is not credible, pursue a separate investigation, using your own knowledge, or that of outside expert sources; pressure the institutions involved to be more candid about their own failures.
5. Follow up on the lessons learned, and whether they are helpful or not. As an example, consider the various measures taken to improve air safety since 9/11, and think which have been effective and which have not.
6. Avoid fluff at all costs.
For the most part, this list of items boils down to “Report on disasters involving non-Westerners as if they involved Westerners.” People are people, and societies are societies.