Anger and Suspicion as Survivors Await Chinese
Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times
Almost two months after the high-speed train crash in China, Henry Liheng Cao, an entrepreneur from Colorado Springs,
remains hospitalized. More Photos »
By SHARON LaFRANIERE
Published: September 20, 2011
WENZHOU, China — When a high-speed train rammed into the rear of a second train
on July 23 on a viaduct outside this eastern coastal city, the impact cost Chen Lihua, a
38-year-old father of two, eight broken ribs, a punctured lung and one shattered
kneecap. His brother died of head wounds.
Those were the injuries. The insults came later.
Mr. Chen said he lost roughly $6,000 in cash and other belongings in the accident. The
railways ministry paid him a mere $35.
He asked to be transferred from a Wenzhou hospital to a better hospital in the city of
Fuzhou, his hometown. Instead, the ministry moved him to an old-age home, where he
receives no medical treatment, despite continuing lung trouble, back pain and other
ailments due to his injuries.
“I want to cry, but I have no tears left,” he said. “Our family has already lost someone in this
accident. How can they treat us like this? I am being tortured both physically and mentally.”
Almost two months after the rail crash killed 40 people and injured 191 others, the findings
of a government investigation panel, originally to be released in mid-September, will not be
made public until later because ‘‘many more technical and managerial problems need to be
investigated and analyzed,’’ Xinhua, the state news agency, reported Wednesday. No new
release date was offered.
But the injured and the survivors of the dead say they have already reached their own
conclusions. They say the Railways Ministry, which has a long history of corruption,
skimped on safety, bungled the rescue effort, tried to hide the extent of its failings and
showed a callous disregard for victims.
“They are their own little nation,” said Pasquale Liguori, who lost his daughter, a foreign-
language student from Naples, Italy, who was on her first visit to China with her boyfriend.
“The China Railways Ministry killed my daughter, and they want to hide everything that
happened. It is revolting.”
The ministry has said it upholds high safety standards, did not prematurely end the rescue
and is participating in a transparent investigation.
The ministry is indeed a fief, a holdover from the era when the state controlled all. With two
million workers, it is perhaps the world’s fourth-largest employer, behind Wal-Mart. Its
work force matches that of the entire United States federal government, excluding military
and postal workers.
It owns the railways it regulates, a built-in conflict that critics say encourages corruption,
endangers safety in the name of profit and hinders accountability. Its safety data are not
publicly released. It runs its own court system and, until recently, its own police force.
The government has for over a decade discussed dividing the ministry’s business and
regulatory functions, as it did years ago with the civil aviation industry. But using its clout as
the nation’s mover of coal — and now, as the developer of high-speed rail into one of China’s
technological and industrial crown jewels — the rail ministry has adroitly fended off reform.
“The ministry is a monster, half government agency, half for-profit company,” said Zhang
Kai, a Beijing lawyer who has faced off against the ministry. “It can choose to behave like
It is not unusual for victims of government mishaps in China to find themselves isolated and
helpless. Chinese authorities typically minimize events that suggest government
incompetence lest they encourage social unrest.
But as crash victims and others tell it, the bureaucracy’s handling of the crash is a case in
itself. Chinese officials have already declared that the disaster was preventable, caused by
human error and poorly designed signal equipment. Now the ministry faces a dilemma: if
the government’s investigation does not appear credible, it could hurt the ministry’s chances
to export high-speed rail equipment and technology. But any admission of systemic flaws
might also scare away customers.
The rescue effort seems clearly mismanaged. “We are utterly speechless and horrified by
how the rescue operation was handled,” said Leo Cao, 29, a Ph.D. candidate in information
science at the University of North Carolina. His parents were killed and his brother was
critically injured in the crash.
“They brought in heavy machinery to restore train operations and to bury train sections at
the scene while there were still human beings struggling for life in the wreckage,” Mr. Cao
Chinese experts said rescue efforts should have continued for at least 72 hours, but the
Chinese news media reported that the search for survivors was called off after less than
eight hours. Instead, workers cleared wreckage so rail traffic could resume, including
digging a pit to bury a carriage of one of the trains involved in the accident. It was dug up
two days later after a public outcry alleging a cover-up.
Time-stamped photographs show that workers left a corpse unattended on the ground for
90 minutes, focusing on repairs, while frantic relatives waited for news at hospital morgues.
A 2-year-old, trapped in a crushed carriage, was rescued 21 hours after the accident only
because some local officials ignored the ministry’s orders and continued to search the
The ministry’s own contingency plan for accidents emphasizes the need to “seize every
minute and second to restore the traffic,” according to Southern Weekly, a Guangzhou
newspaper. Less than 24 hours after the accident, it proudly announced that the Wenzhou
line was again open for business.
Elsewhere, such conduct might fuel lawsuits, but the ministry’s insular system shields it.
Mr. Zhang, the Beijing lawyer, represented a rail passenger who was arrested by railways
police officers for allegedly slapping a conductor and shoving another. After a trial that 26
lawyers and academics charged was rigged, a railways court sentenced the passenger in
March 2010 to three years in prison. “The No. 1 mission of the court is to protect the
interests of the ministry,” Mr. Zhang said.
After families who lost relatives in the Wenzhou crash protested, officials increased the
government’s offer of compensation to families to about $145,000. Mr. Liguori refused the
offer, calling it an insult to the dignity of his daughter, Assunta. But a Chinese lawyer
advised him in an e-mail that “any appeal is basically a waste of time.”
Most worrisome, half a dozen victims or their relatives said, is the imperious attitude of the
ministry officials. Mr. Chen said Wu Yantang, the compensation team’s head, cursed his
wife and threatened to block his transfer to his hometown hospital if he continued to press
for compensation. “His attitude reminded me of the mafia,” he said. “It chilled our hearts.”
Mr. Wu said, “Everyone was treated fairly according to the regulations.”
Lin Mingming said he protested the transfer of his father, who suffered major head injuries,
to an old-age home with Mr. Chen. But he said he was told: “This is a political issue. You
have no other choice.”
Some victims are pushing back. Mr. Cao’s parents remain in the morgue of Wenzhou
People’s Hospital No. 2 while he and his brother seek legal advice. His brother, Henry
Liheng Cao, 32, suffered a massive abdominal hemorrhage, a ruptured spleen and kidney,
broken ribs and a fractured ankle. He remains hospitalized in Wenzhou.
“This train crash took the lives of my beloved parents, wrecked my good health and threw
the future of my family into jeopardy,” said Henry Cao, an entrepreneur from Colorado
Springs. “Fairness and justice is all that I ask. There are serious doubts whether such basic
tenets are obtainable here.”