Three months after the Wenzhou train disaster shocked the Chinese nation, Shirley Zhao returns to the scene to speak with the survivors
WENZHOU, China – When a high-speed train crashed into the rear of another train on the evening of July 23 while crossing a viaduct in the suburbs of Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, China, Li Yu was in one of the carriages that plunged from the viaduct. It was the Mainland’s first fatal high-speed train collision, killing at least 40 passengers and injuring at least 191 people. But Li was lucky. The 43-year-old businessman escaped with a fractured right foot, several lacerations to his head and temporary amnesia.
As news of the tragedy spread throughout China, Li was rescued from the wreckage and taken to a Wenzhou hospital. With blood covering his face and most of his hair singed off, he was ushered into a lift with a doctor, his wife, who failed to recognise him. It was not until 24 hours later that she and his relatives found him through Weibo, where millions of netizens were microblogging about the disaster.
Immediately following the crash, rail officials hastily covered up rescue operations and the government clamped down on negative media coverage. These two incidents created a wave of criticism from both online communities and state-run newspapers, and confidence in both Beijing and the national rail system was severely rocked. It was a decisive moment in a socially troubled year for China.
Now, more than three months after the accident, Li is gradually completing his physical rehabilitation, but he is still putting the pieces together in his mind about what actually happened.
“It may be a good thing that I don’t clearly remember,” Li tells Time Out from the hospital’s rehabilitation room, “because it hasn’t been my worst nightmare every night. My physical wounds will recover, but it’s the psychological trauma that may never go away. Now I don’t dare to go anywhere. I’m afraid of taking planes or trains. Even when I’m sitting here, right now, I fear the walls will collapse. These things happen all too often in China.”
According to Li, the China Railway Ministry has paid for his hospital treatment but has not given him any compensation. He says the amount of compensation ranges from RMB10,000 to RMB200,000 according to the severity of the injuries, and can only be given after victims leave their hospitals.
“The first question most people ask when they see me is ‘how much is your compensation?’” says Li. “I say it will probably be around RMB100,000 but they are surprised and say ‘what? That’s too little! It’s impossible!’ Sometimes I’ve been too embarrassed to tell people the possible true amount.” Li feels angered and dissatisfied with the compensation deals dished out by the ministry and, together with other victims, plans to take legal action. “It is too unfair,” he says. “I need to give myself a satisfactory answer or my heart will never be at ease. We have only one wish: let the Railway Ministry go broke and let new ministry leaders in.”
But Li is finding it difficult to hire a lawyer. “No lawyer in Wenzhou will take our case,” he says. “I heard people say it’s because the Wenzhou government gave local lawyers instructions not to consult or take any cases related to the train crash. Now we are considering consulting lawyers in Beijing or Shanghai.”
A similar situation is also happening to Jin Xiannai, whose younger brother, Jin Xianyan, and nephew, Jin Yangzhong, were both killed in the accident. He has tried and failed to seek similar legal advice. “Lawyers don’t dare to take our case,” claims Jin, 40, who lives in Pingyang, a town on the outskirts of Wenzhou. “The town government told us that whoever we take the case to, we won’t win.”
Jin’s family was compensated for RMB1.8million (HK$2.2m), but he wants the local government to take care of his sister-in-law and his brother’s remaining son, who is just 11 months old. “My mother has asked me to just let it go,” says Jin, “but I feel I must do something. We need justice.”
Like the community as a whole, Li and Jin are angered that few Wenzhou media outlets dared to report their stories. According to Jin, after the accident, the Railway Ministry and the relatives of the dead met ‘four to five times’, but the ministry did not allow the media to attend the meetings. He tells Time Out that once he invited a local reporter to cover one of the meetings, but the reporter rejected the offer, shrugging ‘I can’t go’.
Jin says he was visited by a Guangzhou-based reporter. The reporter took him to a motel room to conduct the interview and asked Jin not to identify him as a reporter, but rather as ‘one of my relatives’.
Time Out spoke with a local reporter. “Who told you we didn’t cover the victims and their family members?” asked the reporter defensively, who wished to remain anonymous. He insists that local reporters ‘interviewed several victims and their relatives’.
In the week following the Wenzhou disaster, several national newspapers posted a notice from Beijing’s Central Propaganda Bureau on Weibo. The notice instructed all media in the Mainland to ‘rapidly cool down’ the reporting on the accident, and not to publish any stories and commentaries on the accident except positive stories and information from the government. Later, editors from several state-owned newspapers posted stories on Weibo which had been censored, or ‘spiked’, by the bureau. These posts immediately went viral and spawned a backlash of criticism from millions of citizens.
“Our reporting focused on the rescue attempts, the blood donations, the recovery of the injured and the like,” says Lu Junmin, news editor of Wenzhou Metropolis Daily. “We didn’t encounter any difficulty or pressure in reporting. Wenzhou is a small city; it’s not us but the government that has the resources to investigate.”
An official from another media organisation in Wenzhou, who agreed to comment only if Time Out withheld the name of organisation, stated: “Hong Kong media is more open than media in the Mainland, but the train crash is a sensitive issue here. Sometimes reporters can’t write what they see, because what they see may only be a part of the big picture and not the truth. There are rules and requirements. They should do as their leaders say what they can do and what they should do.” Time Out asked to speak with the organisation’s reporters, but was refused. Reporters and staff ‘would be affected’, said the official.
Liu Xiangnan, a Beijing-based journalist who arrived at Wenzhou on the eighth day after the crash and stayed for 57 days, was on a high-speed train himself while talking with Time Out on his cell phone. “About a week after the accident, many reporters affiliated with news organisations were forced to leave Wenzhou,” says Liu. “I thought I should go there because at that time I was a freelance journalist, so it should be more convenient for me to report from the site. When I reached Wenzhou, there were only three to four reporters left, either independent or for websites. Almost all [national and regional] reporters for print media were gone.”
Liu thinks the government-restricted media coverage on the crash fuelled ‘unprecedented criticism’ online. “The issue was getting too much attention that other issues cannot compare to,” says Liu. “Almost every post on Weibo was about the crash. It was like there would be a revolution soon. Since then the media coverage has cooled down; citizens have become less focused on the accident.”
At present, mainland media has only followed the treatment of two-year-old Xiang Weiyi, the youngest survivor and the last to be pulled from the wreckage. They are also awaiting the soon-to-be-released findings of a government investigation panel, which had been postponed from a mid-September release date because, according to Xinhua, the Mainland’s central news agency, ‘many more technical and managerial problems need to be investigated and analysed.’
But the anger remains raw in Wenzhou. “All those who are responsible [for the accident] should be executed,” says Jin. “This will set an example for future leaders. It was their carelessness and their mistakes that caused this accident. How cruel they are as leaders. We need to make sure the same thing won’t happen in the future. You can’t joke with people’s lives.”
Additional reporting and images: Michael J Jordan