Wenzhou Train Wreck, How Much of a Train Wreck Is It?

Posted on August 5, 2011


First of all, I apologize for not having been updating this blog as diligently as I should. A lot has been going on in my personal and professional life. I just started an exciting podcast project featuring mini radio/video documentaries of Chinese and Americans living in both countries and their real-life stories. The podcast will be in mandarin primarily with supplementary content in English. The website will be officially launched this month! I will keep you updated about that. And, you’re welcome to contact me if you want to contribute your stories that are worth sharing with the world. Meanwhile, I’m starting a new program with The Nation magazine in New York in September, which means that I’m relocating to NYC at the end of this month. I’m super duper busy right now, but I’ll try my best and make sure to update this blog at often as possible. Last night I was talking to a friend of mine for 20+ years, who happens to be a reader of this blog, even before he realized that I was the author. His encouragement inspired me tremendously to keep this project alive.

Now, let’s get down to today’s topic, the train wreck in China on July 23 and the “media blackout” afterwards. Although the government seemed to tried to hush the media and public forums right after the accident, its effort hardly succeeded. In fact, the actions the Railway Ministry and governing entities on various levels took in the aftermath of the accident, such as burying the fallen cars only about 24 hours after the accident and the media blackout have triggered storming discussion, criticism and questions online. The accident has indeed become a PR disaster for the government, and as the public’s request for transparency grew, it has launched a PR campaign that aims to pacify the outrage of the public. Among the issues surrounding the accident and its aftermath, the following are some of the most discussed online.

First of all, the incredible death toll. The official death toll of the accident is 40. However, in a weibo survey published a few days ago when the death toll was said to be 39, 98% of the 2000 users who have responded say that they do not believe that “39” is the accurate number. Many netizens have left comments on the poll, expressing their disbelief and anger:

Isn’t this meant to deceive the old folks [?]… You think the local residents who went out to help search for and rescue the victims were mute, the volunteers who helped the paramedics didn’t have weibo, you think people all over China were mentally challenged[?] Four cars full of passengers, and only 39 were killed! It seems that although this bullet train was no good for thunder strikes, it indeed could resist crashing!

Original weibo post in Chinese:

花都小斑 :这是在坑爹么……当附近赶去搜救的居民都哑了么,当帮忙医护工作的志愿者都没有微博么,当全中国人民的智商都有障碍么。满载的四节车厢,就遇难39人!敢情这动车抗雷不来塞,倒是很经摔么!(8月1日 18:25)

In fact, totally six, rather than four cars derailed in the accident, the first four cars of D301 and the first two of D3115. A netizen breaks down the numbers to show how fishy the official report is:

600 passengers in the 6 cars fell down off of the 30-meter high bridge. The casualty in the cars on the bridge not included, the known survivors under the bridge are over 210, but the Xinhua News Agency reported that 35 people were killed. According to Xinhua’s number, then, 600 (total) – 210 (injured) – 35 (dead) = 355. Where are these 355 people?

Original weibo post in Chinese:

天使羽翼光阳 :共6节车厢满员600人掉到30米高桥底下。桥上车厢里有多少人伤亡先不算,桥下已知活着的为210多人,而新华社报的 亡者 为35人。照新华社数据,那么,600(总)-210(伤)-35(亡)=355人,这355人 去 哪了?(7月30日 14:11)

Many netizens have expressed their distrust in the Railway Ministry and their official report:

Already, there is a mother of a victim who said that her daughter’s name was not on the victim list! Only devil would believe the information released by the Railway Ministry!

Original weibo post in Chinese:

颓废-訫寂 :已经有死者的母亲说死者名单上没他女儿的名字了!铁道部放出来的话能信就有鬼了!(7月30日 3:07)

Another netizen sarcastically writes:

Whether you believe it or not, I believe it! I believe whatever the government says! I can only believe whatever the government says!

Original weibo post in Chinese:

fishsz2828 :不管你信不信,反正我信了!政府说什么我都相信!政府说什么我都只能相信!(7月29日 23:19)

In fact, the expression used in this post, “Whether you believe or not, I believe it!”, has become one of the most circulated expressions among netizens in China to sarcastically express their disbelief in the government’s official information about many social issues and current affairs.

There’s also speculation of the reasons for the false report:

It’s said that an accident that kills 35 or more people would be categorized as a “serious accident,” which would cause the municipal Party Secretary of Shanghai, Yu, to be fired! Officials all protect each other’s interest!

Original weibo post in Chinese:

黛菲尔花艺 :据说死亡35人 以上属于重大安全事故 上海市委书记—俞某 就会下台哦 ! 官官相护!(7月31日 13:57)

Another netizen comments on the poll result:

Can the 2% [who answer that they believe what the government report] above all be the employees of the Railway Ministry[?]

Original weibo post in Chinese:

上官老西 :上面的2%是不是铁道部的(7月30日 4:26)

Some also have speculated the real death toll:

According to informants in Wenzhou, the death toll is 259! 183 are injured and 154 are missing.

Original weibo post in Chinese:

李阿7 :据温州知情人士说 死亡259人!! 伤183人 失踪就要154人(7月30日 0:29)

“Many must have been buried,” writes a weibo user grimly. (Original in Chinese: 邂逅鱿鱼 :应该被埋了不少吧(7月30日 0:31))

Netizens also criticized the government’s media hush-up and request transparency on the part of the government to release accurate and truthful information:

The news about the bullet train accident on sino.com has been harmonized, as the Railway Ministry wants to harmonize our voice. We need our own platform to communicate! A platform of us Chinese where we can say whatever we can say! People who have conscience please use all your resources to repost [the news], and keep looking for new ways [to disseminate information]! Otherwise, we are deprived of our basic rights! They say that the results [of the investigation] are going to be release in September, and want us to forget. Should we netizens be losers?

Original weibo post in Chinese:

想像翱翔天空 :新浪网上动车新闻都被和谐了,好像铁道部要和谐我们的声音,我们需要自己的交流平台!我们中国人自己能说话的平台!有爱心的人们动用一切方法继续转发,继续找方法!不然我们连最基本的权力都没有了!他们说9月出来结果好像要让我们淡忘.我们网友难道又是输家吗?(7月30日 2:02)

“Being harmonized” (bei hexie) is a term used by Chinese netizens creatively to refer to being censored and silenced by the government. The term comes from the Chinese government’s rhetorical trope of creating a “harmonious” society in China, an excuse for crushing the discordant voices. Chinese are fed up with the censorship and control of information in China. The demand of transparency from Chinese people is louder each day as more people are increasingly aware of the harm of censorship, and the train accident has become one of the catalyst events that trigger this outcry from the grassroots. “It’s not that we hope that there are more victims, or the death toll to be bigger,” a netizen writes, “and what we want is truth, transparency of [governmental] actions, and a truthful explanation for the people.” (Original Chinese post: 周洋西西 :不是说我们希望遇难者人要多,死亡数字要大,我们想要的是真象,处事透明化,给大家一个真实的说法。(7月29日 23:26))

The government certainly has realized that something has to be done to pacify this unusual outcry from the Chinese public. As one of its PR strategies, the Railway Ministry, in response to the public’s adamant request, released the names of the 40 victims killed in the accident as of July 29th, and has utilized major portal websites in their PR campaign, such as sino.com, which is the hosting portal website of weibo.com and a one of the most popular news websites and blog hosts in China. On the list published on sina.com, the descriptions of some of the victims are unusually detailed. For instance, in the information about one of the victims, Huang Yuchun, she is described as:

a fifth grader, who loved reading, and liked painting, “sometimes very active, and sometimes very quiet.” On the D301 train, the accident happened just as the ctive Yuchun left her seat.

Original in Chinese:


In the information about an Italian student, Liguori Assunta, she is described as:

an outstanding student of the College of Oriental Studies in University of Naples (translated), who loved travelling, a gentle college girl whom was called Qianqian by her friends.

Original in Chinese:


Certainly this humanist appeal has been a major strategy the government now uses in its PR war to regain trust from Chinese public. The coverage on sina.com about the accident is flooded with pictures of Premier Wen Jiabao’s visits paid to survivors and the family of the victims.

Among the victims, two-year-and-eight-month-old Xiang Weiyi, or “Yiyi,” is one of the star victims who is a “miracle” in official press release. Ironically, she was saved after the government ordered the rescue team to stop searching because there was no sign of survivors only 24 hours after the accident.

However, few Chinese bought into this rhetoric. While the Chinese public is concerned about Yiyi’s recovery, many see the government’s using Yiyi as a PR tool a platitude. One of the most circulated post on weibo is a sarcastic description of an imaginary scenario in the future on China Central Television (CCTV) when the government uses Yiyi in their propaganda:

A moving scene in the 2012 CCTV Chinese New Year Variety Show: Little Yiyi sits in a wheelchair, pushed by a police captain, and slowly comes onto the stage, in the background, “Ode to the Motherland” playing. Zhu Jun (CCTV star host) takes over the wheelchair with a heavy heart, and then gives little Yiyi a fatherly hug, tears welling up… In the audience, everyone is wiping their eyes. Yiyi: Thanks to the country, and the party and the government are my new parents. Zhu Jun already has lost his voice as he sobs: What a wonderful child! Dong Qi (another CCTV star host) walks onto the stage with tears, saying in a weeping yet firm voice: The is a great victory, a miracle!! The backbone of China, auntie Ni Ping (an older CCTV star host), walks up to the stage, and, in a serious yet motherly voice, says: Yiyi, don’t worry a bit; all of us are your mothers! Then the entire venue is boiling with exhilaration, and people all over China are moved.

Original in Chinese:

2012春晚最感人一幕: 小依依坐在轮椅上被特警队长推着,在歌唱祖国的背景音乐中缓缓上场.朱军接过轮椅,心情沉重,而又充满父爱地搂着小依依,眼角有泪滑过。。。台下观众无不抹泪。 依依:感谢国家,party和go-vern-ment就是我得再生父母。朱军已经泣不成声:多好的孩子啊!董卿泪流满面地走上台,声音哽咽但语气又无比坚定:这是伟大的胜利,这是一个奇迹!! 中国脊梁倪萍大妈走上台,声音凝重但又不失母爱:依依放心,我们都是你的妈!整个春晚现场沸腾了,全国人民都被感动了。

Another widely circulated post compares China to Germany and Japan in dealing with similar accidents, and criticizes the Railway Ministry’s irresponsibility:

When an accident happened in Germany, it took them two or three years to preserve the scene of accident, piece together the wreckage of the plane, and report the results; after the railway accident in Japan, the major lines were closed for two months, and the character “life” was planted at the scene of the accident in order to remind people of the tragedy. What about China? [You] destroyed the evidence immediately, carried out rescue recklessly, and within 5 hours, [you] announced the conclusion of rescue efforts. When Yiyi was rescued, [you] said she was a miracle. Railway Ministry, where’s your conscience?

Original in Chinese:


In a poll on weibo that asks “What is your opinion about Railway Ministry in the Weizhou bullet train derailing accident?”, 79% respond with “black-hearted, corrupted, and using people’s blood in their experiment!” It has been reported that the bullet train was a rushed project, and the accident was the result of the Railway Ministry’s putting profits and its officials’ political capital before people’s lives. In another poll, which asks “How satisfactory is the Railway Ministry’s handling of the accident?”, only 1% respondents answer “very satisfactory” and 2% answer “somewhat satisfactory,” while 98% answer “pei!”, an expression in Chinese that can be loosely understood as “bullshit!”

Among the actions the Railway Ministry took in the aftermath of the accident, one of the most controversial ones is the burial of the derailed cars within 24 hours after the accident. As the netizens’ accusation of the Railway Ministry trying to destroy the evidence of the cause of the accident grew, the Ministry had to explain the reason for this decision. It’s reported by sina.com “Top News” that:

-The Railway Ministry Denies Burying the Engine of the Bullet Trains- A concerned official of the Railway Ministry says that in order to put the rescue vehicles in the site of the accident, the less damaged cars under the bridge needed to be moved out, and their wreckage, including the smashed parts of the engine, needed to be moved out and put into a dip, so that the crane would have space to operate. None of the parts or the cars were buried, and the accusation of destroying evidence is groundless.

Original in Chinese:


However, few netizens are satisfied with the explanation from the Railway Ministry. “Shameless!” “Bullshit!”, many exclaim. Too many Chinese, corruption is at the heart of the government’s efforts to keep the truthful information from the public. As one netizen writes:

The reason why China is not a strong country is because of these corrupted pests who are eating up [the country] like silkworms; if the government doesn’t give us an acceptable explanation, how can we think that it’s with us; are people their fat chicken, waiting for them to slaughter us?

Original in Chinese:

谦虚的学习 :中国不能有效的强大起来就是因为这些腐败的蠕虫在蚕食,如果政府没有一个合适的交代,是否可以认为他们同样是一样的战线,人民就是他们的肉鸡,在等待宰割吗?(7月30日 19:30)

That is a good question. It is certainly encouraging to see that Chinese are able to voice our opinions candidly more than ever before, but where will this discourse lead to social changes? That is something yet to be seen.

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