History of high-speed propaganda tells all

CMP Staff
Editorial
David Bandurski
David Bandurski
Posted on 2011-07-25

For months, doubts and accusations have swarmed on the margins of China’s high-profile push to develop its high-speed rail system. But harder questions — about corruption, waste, quality, safety, service and intellectual property — were submerged by feel-good propaganda, pushing claims of technological superiority to win political points.

The crash of a high-speed train near the city of Wenzhou over the weekend has whipped up a new wave of public anger toward the Ministry of Railways — and toward the government more generally — and brought a new and frenzied sharing of information online, even as authorities have moved quickly to stem media coverage.

For many Chinese, one of the most infuriating aspects of this story has been the government’s apparent unwillingness to answer the most basic questions, and its tendency to fall back on cryptic responses and tired propaganda memes.

On July 12, Chinese media asked how a lightning strike had caused a serious malfunction on July 10, why there was no contingency plan, why passengers had not been compensated, why backup power systems had not been used (leaving passengers in stifling hot cars)? Responses from the Ministry of Railways were not forthcoming, even as more malfunctions and delays piled up on July 12 and 13. The official line from the ministry last week, as delays continued to become an issue, was that it was only natural that the high-speed rail needed time to work out the kinks. To which Chinese internet users asked scathingly whether the Ministry of Railways thought Chinese passengers were lab rats (实验品). [NOTE: Correction made here to note that the above-mentioned criticism of the ministry’s statements came from web users, not the Legal Mirror, which was the news story source.]

The tension between real answers and propaganda cageyness seemed to boil over at yesterday’s press conference with Wang Yongping (王勇平), the Ministry of Railways spokesman who arrogantly asserted on July 7 that China’s high-speed rail was far superior to Japan’s Shinkansen, and that the two “cannot be mentioned in the same breath.”

When Wang was asked yesterday how it was possible that a five-year-old girl was found alive after officials had declared an end to the search and rescue, Wang responded: “That was a miracle . . . ” Shouts erupted among the reporters, “It is NOT a miracle! It is NOT a miracle!”

This was a flat rejection of the familiar propaganda meme of love, unity and selflessness in the face of tragedy. The reporters didn’t want to hear more feel-good nonsense. They wanted to know exactly why the girl had not been found earlier, and what her discovery revealed about the nature and handling of the search and rescue itself.

But propaganda directives leaked online suggest Chinese authorities are doing their utmost to play on the emotions of the public, building a story about tragedy overcome. Their answer to real questions and concerns is to peddle more feel-good nonsense.

The directives read:

“On the Wenzhou train collision accident, various media must report information from the Ministry of Railways in a timely manner, media from various regions must not send reporters [to the scene] to report the story, and child papers and magazines as well as websites must especially be managed well [EDITOR'S NOTE: This refers to commercial newspapers and magazines like Southern Metropolis Daily and Caijing]. Links must not be made to the development of the high-speed rail, and reports looking back (反思性报道) must not be done.” [EDITOR'S NOTE: Reports "looking back" refer to reports that investigate the causes of an event and make suggestions, for example, about government responsibility.]

“Latest demands on the Wenzhou train collision accident: 1. Figures on the number of dead must follow numbers from authoritative departments; 2. Frequency of reports must not be too dense; 3. More reporting should be done on stories that are extremely moving, for example people donating blood and taxi drivers not accepting fares; 4. There must be no seeking after the causes [of the accident], rather, statements from authoritative departments must be followed; 5. No looking back and no commentary.

” . . . From now on, the Wenzhou train accident should be reported along the theme of ‘major love in the face of major disaster’. No calling into doubt, no development [of further issues], no speculation, and no dissemination [of such things] on personal microblogs! . . . ”

The culture of propaganda that has defined the railway ministry’s response after and leading up to the July 23 tragedy is in great measure responsible for the failings of China’s high-speed rail, as well as serious safety concerns and accidents that have plagued other major infrastructure projects that have gone forward without public scrutiny. Saturday’s accident is an indictment of China’s prevailing political culture, of which propaganda and information controls are an central part.

That culture operates without independent scrutiny, prioritizing grandiose visions — a Great Leap Forward mentality — over basic public concerns like safety and fiscal accountability.

On that note, it’s well worth revisiting a front-page piece that appeared in the Party’s official People’s Daily in December last year, six months before the formal launch of the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail. The piece valorizes a train engine driver, Li Dongxiao (李东晓), who was called upon in 2008 to master the “world’s most complex” train in just 10 days under a “dead order” from Chinese government leaders, before piloting his first train back to Beijing at 350 km/hr.

Simply assuming these details compact the sense of Li’s heroism, the People’s Daily piece emphasizes that Li and his colleagues — none of whom had even college educations — had to rely on instruction manuals that had been translated from German by an outside contractor, rendering many of the terms “extremely strange.” At one point, Li heroically bets his German trainer, who shakes his head and says it’s impossible to master the train in under 2-3 months, that he can do in 10 days.

The piece, partially translated here, now reads as a portrait of folly mistaken for glory.

Li Xiaodong, “Pioneer of Increased Speed”
(Pioneers of Our Day Series)
People’s Daily
December 14, 2010
PG 01

Li Dongxiao (李东晓) is a middle school graduate, an ordinary [engine] driver, but he has created many firsts for China’s high-speed rail. He passed the exam for high-speed rail operating permit 001, he chalked up the first world speed record for China’s high-speed rail, he trained the first generation of high-speed train [engine] drivers, and participated in the creation of China’s first training manual for the high-speed rail . . .

Diligent Study and Strenuous Training, Aspiring to Work, [Being Able to] Drive a High-Speed Train Home within 10 Days

Li Dongxiao, who stands at 1.8 meters tall, with big eyes and bushy eyebrows, crisply dressed in his uniform, is like a name card for the Transport Depot of the Beijing Railway Bureau. This is not just because he has been a train engine driver for the past 20 years, with no accidents, his skills refined, but because he is inseparable from China’s first high-speed railway, the Beijing-Tianjin intercity line.

On March 16, 2008, Li Dongxiao was among 10 engine drivers with the Transport Depot of the Beijing Railway Bureau to be selected as the Republic’s first group of high-speed rail drivers, and ordered to undergo driver training at Tangshan Railway Vehicle Co. Ltd. At that time, Li Xiaodong and his colleagues had never seen the domestically-made CRH3 high-speed trains, and they didn’t even know how many controls there were in the cab of the engine.

But the countdown had already started. On August 1, the Beijing-Tianjin Intercity Line was set to formally begin serving the Beijing Olympic Games, subject to review from passengers from all over the world. On July 1, the Beijing-Tianjin Intercity Line would enter its trial run period. The four months prior to this, the trains would have to run a total of 400,000 kilometers, the equivalent of 10 runs around the earth’s equator, completing adjustment and testing of the line system, signals, electrical supply, [passenger cars] and other areas.

An extra day of testing and adjustment means an extra thread of safety and comfort for passengers. The superiors [in the government] sent down a “dead order” [ie, and incontrovertible command]: They would train for 10 days, and after 10 days they must take their first train home to Beijing at a speed of 350 km/hr!

“Without two or three months, you guys can’t drive these out of here!” German expert Mark (?), who was leading the training at Tangshan Railway Vehicle, said, shaking his head. Beginning from zero, and only using 10 days to drive the world’s most advanced and most complex high-speed trains, [he said], this is an impossible task to complete.

“In just 10 days, not only did we have to learn it, we had to drive the trains back to Beijing!” Li Dongxiao [said], refusing to concede defeat.

“Well then, let’s make a bet! We definitely can drive them back in 10 days!” Li Xiaodong responded with more confidence than Mark. He coveted the badge pinned on Mark’s chest — a badge representing the highest driver qualification within the German high-speed rail system.

The difficulty and complexity of these engines was unprecedented. The CRH3 trains traveled at a speed of 350 km/hr, the fastest trains in the world. The structure of the train was complex, the [overhead] lines were thick as spider webs, connected to hundreds of thousands of component parts. There were more than 2,000 error codes alone.

The level of difficulty of engine operation was unprecedented. While [ordinary] trains had just over 10 switches on the dash [in the cab], the high-speed train had 40 or 50. Each operation was a combination of moves, and decisions had to be made in the wink of an eye, because in just one second the train moved ahead 97 meters. There was no room for error.

The level of difficulty of the [operational] instructions was unprecedented. The “Technical Materials on the CRH3 Train” is a 670-page volume “brick” written in German. The translation was outsourced by the railway ministry, and some of the technical terms were translated in extremely strange ways. Add to this the fact that the knowledge covered in the manual covered areas that were new [to the drivers], such as computers, material [science] and mechanics, and there was not a single college graduate among Li Dongxiao and his colleagues, so they had to study from scratch.

[ABOVE: The July 25 edition of Shanghai's Xinmin Evening News reports on the front page the story of a five-year-old girl found after officials announced an end to the search and rescue effort. The headline reads: "The Miracle of a Life." The coverage fits nicely with orders from the Central Propaganda Department demanding coverage of the train disaster focus on "stories that are extremely moving."]

[ABOVE: The front page of the December 14, 2010, edition of the official People's Daily, with article on Li Dongxiao at bottom-right.]

10 Comments to “History of high-speed propaganda tells all”

  1. Frankie Fook-lun Leung says:

    Many of my American friends marvel at China’s style of administrative decision-making. The US major construction projects are impeded with bipartisan politics and delays and investigations. China provides a model of rapid decision-making and implementation with results and efficiency. The bullet train provides an example to praise China and China to indulge in self-flattery UNTIL the shit hits the fan. Now they say, look at the Chinese bullet train. China is obsessed with showing-off her achievements to shed the Opium war shame. She invites the rest the world to look at the high-rise buildings in Putung and of course, the Olympic Games in Beijing. Now, my American friends stop tell me that the China’s model is the best. The Wenzhou disaster speaks for a thousand praises.

  2. David says:

    Itlee:

    Right you are . . . As you know, I’ve remarked before on you using similarly emotive language — what Hayakawa called “snarl words.” It does not contribute anything to the discussion to say, “X is nuts,” or “Y is a jerk,” or “Z must have mistranslated this sentence purely to feed a conspiracy of misinformation about China.”

    This is why I answered BFP’s concerns. Because even though they were couched in “snarly” language, and based on a misreading of the post, they are valid questions.

    Best,
    David

  3. ltlee says:

    @xinxin
    “people like BFP are patriotic but complete nuts.”
    What the hell does this mean?
    BFP had made some statements challenging Mr Bandurski.
    These statement could be right or wrong, objectively speaking.
    Fox example, “The specific trains in question are Japanese (Kawasaki) and Canadian (Bombadier). The Beijing-Shanghai line uses CR380 which is Chinese made. This is reflected in operating speeds, with the operational speed of the crashing trains being 200 km/hr as opposed to 300 km/hr, and the names of the trains being denoted as D, rather than G for high speed.”
    Can’t you not comment on their veracity?

  4. xinxin says:

    people like BFP are patriotic but complete nuts. by now they ought to have eaten humble pie, but no, they wouldn’t. it is people like him that will help contribute to the next big mainland chinese disaster. china has no shortage of such people, there and overseas. alas, china has no need for them too. i wonder how a person like BFP can explain / rationalize the gov’t's act to destroy and bury the broken engine car immediately after the accident, thereby destroying whatever evidence that could help in the ensuing investigation.

  5. real name says:

    contains that training manual also sentences like “If the train ran at 350kph, it was operating beyond the safety margin”?
    http://www.shanghaidaily.com/nsp/Metro/2011/06/22/Train%2Bspeed%2Bclaims%2Bwere%2Bfalse/

  6. David says:

    BFP:

    You rashly assume a great deal about our attempts at secrecy. Why would we “censor and delete” your concerns? Responding to your remarks is a simple and painless matter — having nothing at all to do with “courage.”

    *Propaganda directives are now routinely leaked through websites and social media. These were re-posted by Berkeley’s China Digital Times, and I spoke to journalists in China by phone to confirm that like orders had been received. They seem to have been routinely ignored in the past few days. The “Iranian blog” remark is a complete non sequitur. So I’ll just let it stand.

    *I did not assert that the train is Chinese. I only noted Wang Yongping’s remarks that Chinese rail technology was far superior to Japanese technology — to provide context, as Wang is now a center of attention. I also remarked the “failings of China’s high-speed rail,” which does not at all assume the TECHNOLOGY is Chinese. That should be clear.

    *The train is a high-speed train. Even Xinhua says so: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/indepth/2011-07/26/c_131010413.htm

    *For more background in Chinese on the history of high-speed rail, and how former minister Liu Zhijun confused the issue, read this piece: http://www.nfpeople.com/News-detail-item-1438.html

    *I re-checked the Legal Mirror link, which clearly goes to a news article, not a commentary, about the ministry saying a 2-3 month 磨合期 is to be expected. Then I checked my notes for this piece. The assertion that the ministry is implying people are 实验品 comes from Sina Weibo user 党报头条 (http://weibo.com/2138053914/xfMeFpmAz), which was based on the Legal Mirror news link. The links were side by side in my notes, hence the misunderstanding. No conspiracy. And correction made accordingly.

    As a friendly suggestion, I would encourage you to comment in a more cool-headed manner. Threats and denunciations hardly put others in a mood to listen.

    Best,
    David

  7. BFP says:

    The “propaganda directives” leaked online belong to a Taiwanese blog. Are you seriously citing a Taiwanese blog in an academic setting? Would your boss accept an Iranian blog about life in the US?

    You also cited this article: http://news.sina.com.cn/c/2011-07-21/140422853231.shtml which you said contained a quote from the Legal Mirror which asked whether the Ministry of Railways thought Chinese passengers were lab rats. I read the entire article and could not find anything to the effect of what you said it said.

    You have also made a misleading statement that this was the high speed train and that it was a Chinese made high speed train. The specific trains in question are Japanese (Kawasaki) and Canadian (Bombadier). The Beijing-Shanghai line uses CR380 which is Chinese made. This is reflected in operating speeds, with the operational speed of the crashing trains being 200 km/hr as opposed to 300 km/hr, and the names of the trains being denoted as D, rather than G for high speed.

    Maybe I’m too used to high standards in scientific academic publishing but flat out lying is not acceptable. I hope you have the courage to respond to my concerns instead of censor and delete them. I have taken a screen shot of this post and will have it saved to distribute in the event that my argument is censored.

  8. admin says:

    The following comment was posted by a person identifying himself as a mainland-based safety expert. They asked that their name and e-mail be withheld:

    On Sun, Jul 24, 2011 at 3:15 AM,
    Hello All,

    I would advise to avoid riding on China’s high speed rail (HSR) system until we have a better understanding of what caused this crash tonight, July 24, 2011, between Hangzhou and Wenzhou. Two trains got into a rear-end collision. Such an accident should not happen in 2011 if the train system is equipped with bare minimal GPS location systems. The fact that they did collide would suggest to me that either:
    1. The HSR system was not equipped with such a fundamental safety system, or
    2. An equipped system was not functional, not designed properly, or was not used properly
    3. A little more advanced system should easily be able to automatically stop the system in the event of a sudden loss of power, as has been the case for decades with factory production lines.

    One of the most common reported failure modes of the new Beijing Shanghai HSR line is sudden loss of electrical power. Whether the system was hit by lightning, or lost power for another reason, a train will end up stopped on a track. It is not relevant how robust a system is against lightning strike or how reliable it is otherwise. The net result will be the same, a stopped train a a track. What is absolutely mandatory is that a loss of power will immediately cause a local system stoppage, to allow authorities to assess the situation and decide on next steps, safely. Any properly done DFMEA would have made this requirement a condition which must not be allowed to happen, perhaps with triple redundancies using separate mechanisms, designed to aircraft safety standards due to the speeds possible.

    For example:

    1. Satellite based GPS,
    2. Track-based sensors, and
    3. (Dialed vs. Actual) speed sensor alarm.

    Clearly, their system did not meet this level of safety tonight.

    DFMEA = Design Failure Mode Effects Analysis; A strict, disciplined procedure to prioritize and engineer countermeasures against identified risks of any safety system.

    While it is a terrible tragedy that tonight’s collision happened, it might be considered somewhat better that it happened on a first generation “D-level” train system and not on the most recent 350 kpm system. The kinetic energy involved with even a rear-end collision at 350 kph would most surely have resulted in total loss of life of all parties on-board, as if two aircraft collided. The relevant energy relationship is speed-squared, so 2x speed = 4x energy. Hopefully, the accident investigation will identify what the failure mode is, root cause it, and enact a system-wide fix before putting the system back on line. This is what I expect would happen in a truly modern nation. I will state emphatically, that loss of power in the first train is NOT the root cause of tonight’s collision, blame it on lightning or whatever. The root cause will lie somewhere with what should have been the safety warning/stop system, and whether it was equipped or not.

    Until what I mentioned above is properly addressed, I suggest to take airplanes when traveling between distant cities. Please feel free to pass this message, WITHOUT USING MY EMAIL ADDRESS (cut/paste the text) to people you care about.

    Follow-up:

    I read today that after the lightning struck the front train, it lost all power, thus rendering the warning/stop system inoperative. This failure mode does not change the assertion above, it just means that the engineering countermeasures to the DFMEA risk was poor for such a high consequence event. However, the news that the train system was equipped with a warning/stop system does help isolate the root cause towards the warning/stop system’s robustness against a “loss of power” event, regardless of cause.

    Potential countermeasures:
    Reliance on:
    1. on-board and track-based powered systems warning systems,
    2. isolated battery power back-up, and
    3. software reaction to sudden loss of tracking signal towards a safe-biased choice (stop until it is known why a tracking signal is lost)

    would be workable ideas. Airliners get struck by lightning, but most survive and maintain power for landing. It is just a poor response to a loss of tracking signal, to continue running the system at full speed in order to find out why the signal was lost. In this case, such an attempt to identify the cause worked, by colliding with it.

    Further ramifications:
    However, since a warning/stop system is already in place, the time/cost resistance to fix or replace the insufficient system will be high. At this point, based on what little I have learned, I would continue advising to not ride the HSR until the problems are properly addressed. It is clearly not up to operating trains which could run at 250-350 kph, with sudden loss of power being a known system failure-mode, now with multiple input causes (lightning strike and reliability).

    This is a serious design weakness of the HSR system, as lightning strike of an elevated track should be considered a regular event (big mass of steel raised above the surrounding terrain, with sharp angular corners for shapes tend to attract lightning more than the surrounding fields). I had designed lightning interrupter devices to protect transformer stations against lightning strikes, so I have some expertise in this area too.

    I would suggest that a fully automated system should be used, so that software logic and sensors will shutdown a system based on a set of conditions. Such a system would be much more reliable than a “monkey in the middle” system, which sets off alarms, and requires communications between humans to achieve shutdown. How many times have we seen bo’ans sleeping on the job? An automated system would cost more, but not be prohibitive based on my ideas of how it can be done using existing equipment. However, the funds for such a system could have been lost due to the corruption.

    This then, leads me to continue my doubts as to the safety engineering practices used by Chinese companies to design cars and in future, airplanes. The cars, I have first hand experience and can write with expertise. DFMEA should be done at the front of programs, to provide guidance to design the rest of the systems from the starting point of safety. In Chinese SOE’s, DFMEA are seen as bothersome checkboxes which must be filled in order to go to production. By the time problems are found, they are either difficult/costly to fix, or not practical to fix, so some other lesser system is used, as was the case in this crash.

    This can’t be safe,

  9. FOARP says:

    I don’t think it takes a university degree to learn how to drive a train, and perhaps Li had had experience with other similar trains, but somehow I doubt it. Yes, the People’s Daily piece looks like hubris of the most extreme kind.

  10. joseph james alvaro says:

    You are doing a great work in exposing the corruption and lies of the CCP. I follow your efforts whenever I can and greatly appreciate your insight as the ‘avant garde’ in critical commentary on the mainland media.
    Thank you for your courageous efforts. They do not go unnoticed and are applauded.
    Joseph James Alvaro
    Hong Kong

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