Wenzhou, where two trains collided, sending cars plummeting off a viaduct. Photo via NYTimes
China recently experienced a horrific, high-speed train wreck. As China’s infrastructure grows, so has its number of artificial (or artificially compounded) disasters. Part of this is just the numbers (shit happens) but part of it is due to corruption and incompetence.
The wreck is one of several high-profile public transportation accidents in China recently. Early Friday, 41 people died when an overloaded bus caught fire in central China’s Henan province.
Earlier this month, an escalator at a subway station in Beijing collapsed, killing one and injuring 28. Last week alone, four bridges collapsed in various Chinese cities (NYTimes).
While you can’t yet attribute this terrible train wreck to corruption, other disasters have had a documented relation. Further back, in a 2008 earthquake, countless state-built schools collapsed while other buildings did not, killing many children.
In China, the buildings that crumble during earthquakes are schools and hospitals, while the Party’s headquarters and the houses of its functionaries remain standing…
In China, as you’d expect, tort law is a joke. After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which left nearly 90,000 dead or missing, Chinese courts dismissed a lawsuit filed by parents of children crushed to death in collapsed schools. Those who protested were locked up. (City Journal: 1 Million Dead in 30 Seconds)
As the country gets more infrastructure more of it will fall down, but you can tell that corruption and incompetence are part of the problem because A) the Chinese government’s reactions and B) research.
A) Where There’s Smoke
The Chinese government’s response to shoddy construction that killed children (2008) was to lock up protesting parents. Other disasters are simply covered up. These range up from major things like oil spills to things like an an astronaut’s blood being wiped away to show a perfect re-entry. In the case of the train wreck, they’re actually burying some of the evidence, ostensibly to prevent technology from leaking. It’s not an alien landing tho, they could presumably secure the site.
B) There’s Fire
“Corruption versus the level of corruption that might be expected from per capita income. Of all earthquake fatalities attributable to building collapse in the past three decades, 82.6% occur in societies that are anomalously corrupt (left-hand corner of the plot)” (via Nature)
An assessment of global earthquakes by Nicholas Ambraseys and Roger Bilham showed that 83% of deaths occurred in places considered to be unusually corrupt.
And it’s not that earthquakes simply occur more in the developing world. Japan and California are especially prone, but rigid building codes keep people alive.
A minute before the March earthquake, automatic seismic monitoring systems sent warnings to Japanese cell phones. Elevators glided obediently to the nearest floor and opened. Surgeries were halted. Videos from Tokyo show skyscrapers swaying gracefully, like cornstalks in the wind. Not one collapsed…
California’s Loma Prieta quake, the “World Series earthquake” of 1989, was as big as the one in Port-au-Prince. It killed so few people by comparison—only 63—because San Francisco’s buildings and infrastructure were well designed and strong. (City Journal)
Construction, however, is notoriously corrupt, according to a 2007 study by Charles Kenny:
The industry is consistently ranked as one of the most corrupt: large payments to gain or alter contracts and circumvent regulations are common. The impact of corruption goes beyond bribe payments to poor quality construction of infrastructure with low economic returns alongside low funding for maintenance-and this is where the major impact of corruption is felt. (World Bank)
Is this to say that China should stop or even slow down its infrastructure growth? Certainly not. Just look at the drop in airfares on the Beijing/Shangai route after they introduced high speed rail:
Airfares on the Beijing-Shanghai route, before and after the arrival of the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed train (via Fallows)
Infrastructure obviously helps people. But corruption makes for bad infrastructure, which kills people. The Chinese government doesn’t seem directly interested in this, but they are interested in staying in power, and if the illusion that they have things under control slips, the communist party itself may go off the rails.