The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Trains, Nuclear Power Plants and Confidence

Posted in Energy and Human Security by NTSblog on September 13, 2011

On the recent NTS research trip to China I had a chance to use the new and now infamous Chinese high-speed train from Shanghai to Beijing. The fact that my journey was to take place just a few weeks after the Wenzhou crash made quite a number of people, both in Singapore and China, advise me against taking it. This public concern has brought my attention to the consequences that crash might have not only on the way in which people look at Chinese railways, but at the Chinese technological progress in general. For indeed, that tragic accident may have had an even more negative impact on the perception of the Chinese nuclear energy development program than the Fukushima incident.

On surface, nuclear power and trains might appear unconnected, but in reality they have much in common. Both high-speed train projects and nuclear power plants are considered to be “among the largest and most complex commercialized engineering projects. Both win attention and support from senior leaders on account of their role in economic development. And both impose safety risks that are too significant to be ignored.” According to some commentators, the train crash in China demonstrates that the country might simply not be “prepared” to deal with such sophisticated and potentially dangerous technology. Some observers point to the problems with rapid copying of foreign technology and the dangers of using various types of nuclear reactors. At the same time, Western journalists blame Chinese corruption and management style. For instance, according to Isabel Hilton, “high-speed rail has come to symbolise the cost-cutting and corruption that plagues China” and that such problems might ultimately lead the country to “disaster”, at least in the area of non-traditional security.


Yet, while it is perhaps true that China’s socio-political system suffers from the lack of transparency, mismanagement and corruption, there is no evidence that the train crash was caused by any of these. Similarly, there has so far been proof that the Chinese nuclear industry is corrupted or prone to “corner-cutting”.

Furthermore, as tragic as it was, the train crash in China led to far fewer deaths than numerous (sic) train crashes that had taken place in India in July alone. Yet, the observers seem to be more pessimistic about China’s progress rather than India’s lack thereof.  As ever, the train crash tells us more about cultural biases and pessimism about technologic progress, than anything else. In 1998, a disastrous high-speed rail accident happened in Eschede, Germany causing a great number of deaths and provoking serious doubts over the high-speed technology. But a careful, public and transparent investigation brought the confidence back and the high-speed trains have remained a very popular and safe mode of transportation.

Just like any other nation in the world, China should fight against corruption, nepotism and public mismanagement, but the lesson from the crash should be that  it should also focus on confidence-building measures that will sustain public’s faith in technologic progress. Admittedly, this task might prove to be very difficult without changes in the political system inherently hostile to transparency and openness.

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