Racism and Accidents

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.


  1. Katja

    Transparency helps though. If Germany’s reaction to Eschede had been ‘major love in the face of major disaster.’ instead of a thorough investigation detailing the chain of events that to the accident I think it could have had an impact on export sales as well.

    • Alon Levy

      You’re perfectly right that transparency is important. But, the reactions that it’ll hurt Chinese export sales seem to predate the leak of the propaganda instructions, and at any case the articles that quote such reactions do not mention the propaganda.

      • Stephen Smith

        They may have predated the propaganda instructions, but they didn’t predate the rumors that they were (literally!!!) burying the evidence (along with a young girl, apparently!). And even before that, anyone with half an iota of knowledge about how the Chinese government operates knew that there wasn’t going to be an exhaustive investigation into root causes.

        And you’re also leaving out the fact that this isn’t the Chinese HSR program’s first brush with danger – there were steel procurement corruption allegations, and then the fact that they had to slow the trains down by 50 km/hr, and then of course the resignation/firing of the railway chief.

        All in all, I guess my point is that you don’t have to be racist or prejudiced to see Chinese HSR as among the shittier and more dangerous systems in the world.

        • Alon Levy

          That there would be a coverup was likely. However, this doesn’t change the fact that people were expecting one in a way that they frankly do not expect of Siemens or DB. Apparently, the previous fatal HSR accident in China was in 2008, killing 72, which would put CRH’s safety record somewhere below that of Germany and above that of the US and South Korea.

  2. Danny

    What is interesting about NIH as a bias is that it rarely exists as consumers, but almost exclusively as producers. Consumers will readily buy an ASUS PC, a Volkswagen car, a Yamaha motorcycle, a Bechstein piano, or a Blackberry phone. To put it simply, consumers don’t give a crap where the technology comes from…they will buy it if they like it.

    It is the producers that care about it. It doesn’t matter if it is a public enterprise, a private enterprise, or even a non-profit. In fact, I would wager that NIH syndrome is the reason why we have so many charities that serve the same exact purpose.

    Of course, when it comes to public investments, we also get NIH syndrome, and it seems to look like it is consumers with the problem…leading politicians to believe that it is really what the public wants. But in reality they are just regular people who feel empowered as producers because they can influence production.

    We shouldn’t listen to them, because true consumers don’t care.

  3. EngineerScotty

    Generalizations about culture, which are all too common in the press–are almost always inappropriate. (Even if they can be backed up with documentary evidence, this is still an area in which careful treading is necessary). None of the statements you cite above which make reference to the character of Chinese society even begin to approach fair comment. At present today, there’s a lot of “Chinese-made stuff is crap” attitude still around in US discourse–though far less than in the past, as more Chinese brands become popular here; and much of what remains comes from those with a vested interest in promoting a protectionist agenda. And several decades ago, it was Japanese products that were commonly derided as inferior (and for a while after the war, they were); look how that turned out.

    OTOH, testable observations about foreign political institutions are fair game. It’s perfectly fair comment to point out that corruption in China is not uncommon, and to point out the authoritarian tendencies of the government there; there’s plenty of documentary evidence for both. Likewise, there are many legitimate complaints about the manner in which HSR projects have been built, particularly with regard to what would be considered in the US to be extreme abuse of eminent domain–even though our laws sometimes swing too far in the other direction, I’m glad that the roughshod tactics frequently employed by Beijing are held in check in the US, even though it certainly adds to the cost of public works projects.

    What annoys me (as someone who is married to a Chinese and visits the country on numerous occasions) are the efforts to tie this to Confucious or other Chinese thinkers of antiquity, particularly by those who are utterly informed on the subject; or numerous other ways in which these faults are portrayed as endemic or unique to the Chinese.

  4. Stephen Smith

    You know, I’d also question your framing of this as the West vs. Asia. A lot of criticism I’ve read of Chinese HSR has come from Japanese news sites and Japanese analysts, and obviously their problem is not anti-Asian racism. Of course, knowing the history of East Asia, it could be anti-Chinese racism on the part of the Japanese…

    • quashlo

      The Wenzhou incident was widely covered in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Korea, as well as Japan. Coverage from all of these countries had their fair share of criticism of the crash, as well as some “It will never happen here” attitude.

      Also keep in mind several things:

      1. It’s not hard to find Japanese news about railways in neighboring countries… China actually gets most of this attention because it’s building a lot of railway infrastucture, but it’s quite easy to find regular news stories about developments regarding KTX or Taiwan HSR. I personally would attribute this at least partially to a deeper interest in railways from the general public, as well as interest in the development state of the rest of East Asia (and Japan’s place in it).

      2. News coverage of even minor railway-related incidents on domestic railways is typical in Japan. Even minor delays or mishaps, like a platform overrun or a train completely blowing past a stop, are reported in the news. So for all the other benign news items about the opening of new lines, new stations, etc. in China, it’s only natural to expect some reporting on the bad sides.

      3. There was already a lot of HSR-related friction between China and Japan in the weeks before the accident, particularly in relation to China’s patent applications for HSR technologies, a MOR spokesman’s claims that CRH was far superior to the Japanese Shinkansen, etc. These all got a fair amount of coverage in Japan, and there was some increased public interest regarding these issues. The Wenzhou crash came just on the heels of all this, so it was a natural topic of media coverage.

    • Miles Bader

      I suspect at least some of that comes from annoyance at China’s “Hi, give us your tech! Big market! Thanks… see ya! BEHOLD THE GLORIOUS NEW CHINESE TECH!” behavior w/r/t HSR.

      Granted, they’re doing the same thing to everybody else…

    • Alon Levy

      I didn’t go into it in the post, but Japan has the same attitude toward China as the West: “who are those up-and-coming assholes who’re competing with us?”. I think it had the same attitude toward Korea, too. Last year, JR Central’s chairman, Kasai, criticized China for being unsafe over its decision to run trains at 350 km/h (as opposed to, um, JR East’s attempt to run at 360, aborted for technical reasons that had nothing to do with safety).

      • snogglethorpe

        I’ve no idea in what context he made such statements, but of course that isn’t necessarily an inconsistent position, if predicated, for instance, on knowledge that the line was not designed to run safely at 350 km/h… details matter a lot, after all.

        And as for the “up-and-coming etc”, sure, that’s a common, if ultimately pointless, attitude amongst many developed nations.

        Still, that’s not in itself racism (although “racist” (“culturalist”?) attitudes about China are certainly not uncommon in Japan). While it’s not a very admirable attitude, I think it’s very understandable — if you’ve spent a long time slowly building up your position and paying your dues, it’s no fun to suddenly see someone who started two days later suddenly in your rear-view mirror — but of course, it’s also counter-productive if it prevents you from responding to the competition adequately.

        [In the case of China, the feeling that they’re “jumping the queue” is even stronger, given China’s penchant for playing the “we’re so big you have to play with us and we make the rules” card.]

        • Alon Levy

          I’m not sure what context it was, either. I can’t find the original article – looking up keywords on Google only gives articles from the last few days – but as I recall, it was a general accusation of Chinese technology. That was around the same time JR Central came out with the N700-I, rated at 330 km/h, so it was probably just a marketing ploy – especially in light of the 350-360 km/h products coming out of multiple first-world manufacturers, including Japan’s JR East and Kawasaki. Most likely, Kasai realizes that the travel time difference between 330 and 350 is small, and the N700-I can compensate for it using its ridiculously fast acceleration rate, so he’s hammering on safety as a way to convince people his product is superior. It’s no different from how Alstom has convinced a fair number of people that articulated bogies make trains safer.

      • Miles Bader

        (… I posted a reply, but (1) it didn’t show up, and (2) trying to post it again led to the blog software saying “You’ve already posted that!” …)

  5. danz

    I have some very serious doubts on the death toll on China’s railway system you used in one of your previous post. For example, I found a report about national wide casualties from all kind of accidents in the year 2002, from one of Chinese government websites. It mentioned that on the railway system in 2002, there were 11922 accidents with causality and 8217 death, which were 413 and 192 less, respectively, compared to the previous year”. I don’t know the composition of those numbers in details, but they are just completely out of proportion to the 317 per 20 years. I think more 3am maths and research are indeed required to conclude that “China has the safest passenger trains.”


    • Alon Levy

      First, I have doubts, too – the list is based on Western media reports.

      Second, the numbers on the list are really compilations of disasters, and for the most part measure danger to passengers. They miss suicides and minor grade crossing accidents, which are the vast majority of fatalities (see here for EU statistics).

    • typhoidX

      The original Chinese text used the characters “铁路路外” to describe these “railroad” accidents. “铁路” means railroad, “路外” – when translated literally – means outside the road. Those figures could be referring to casualties that occured on/near the tracks (i.e. suicides, collisions with vehicles, people, maintenance accidents, etc), but the causes of which are unrelated to train operations. I don’t see why else they would specify “路外”.

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