In the final seconds, Pan pulled a hand-operated emergency brake. His train was high atop a slender viaduct across a flat valley, and immediately ahead of him was train D, moving so slowly that it might as well have been a wall.
The collision impaled Pan on the brake handle, and it hurled Henry Cao into the air. His body tensed for impact. None came. A fourth car, filled with passengers and spewing sparks, was left dangling vertically from the edge of the viaduct. Henry awoke in a hospital, where doctors removed his spleen and a kidney.
He had shattered an ankle, broken his ribs, and suffered a brain injury.
When he was alert enough to understand, he learned that his parents were dead. The Wenzhou crash killed forty people and injured a hundred and ninety-two. For reasons both practical and symbolic, the government was desperate to get trains running again, and within twenty-four hours it declared the line back in business. The Department of Propaganda ordered editors to give the crash as little attention as possible.
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But, instead of moving on, the public wanted to know what had happened, and why. Illustration by Alessandro Gottardo. People demanded to know why a two-year-old survivor was found in the wreckage after rescuers had called off the search. The train was exhumed. The spokesman was relieved of his duties and was last seen working in Poland.
Within days, the state-owned company that produced the signal box apologized for mistakes in its design.
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Can we stay in an apartment that will not fall apart? Can we travel roads in our cities that will not collapse? Prime Minister Wen Jiabao had no choice but to visit the crash site and vow to investigate. At last, in December, authorities released an unprecedented, detailed report. It also blamed fifty-four people in government and industry, beginning with Great Leap Liu.
The combination of wealth, technology, and epic indiscretion has pulled aside the curtain that once protected Communist Party leaders from scrutiny. At a time when his official salary was the equivalent of nineteen thousand dollars a year, his extended family acquired businesses worth more than a hundred million dollars, according to Bloomberg News.
The Bo saga gave rise to other rumors, about other Party bosses, and though censors kept as much off the Web as they could, each new tale sounded less startling, less the exception than the rule. For the Party, as it prepared to anoint a new slate of leaders to run the country for the next ten years, the timing was excruciating. The Railroad Minister, Liu Zhijun, did not initially look like a prime candidate for a dramatic public disgrace. Bo Xilai was a Beijing Brahmin—the tall, camera-ready son of a Party boss. He grew up in the villages outside the city of Wuhan, and left school as a teen-ager for a job walking the tracks with a hammer and a gauge.
He had an innate sense of the path to power. Good penmanship was a rare skill in the provinces, and Liu perfected his hand, becoming a trusted letter writer for bosses with limited education.
He married into a politically connected family and was a Party member by age twenty-one. He was a tireless promoter of the railways and of himself, and he ascended swiftly, heading provincial bureaus on his way to the seat of power in Beijing. By , as Railroad Minister, he commanded a bureaucratic empire second in scale and independence only to the military, with its own police force, courts, and judges and with billions of dollars at his disposal.
His ministry, a state-within-a-state, was known in China as tie laoda: Boss Rail. They have the same face, the same uniform, even the same personality. They work step by step, and they are content to sit back and wait for promotions. But Liu Zhijun was different. He liked to convene meetings after midnight and make ostentatious displays of his work habits. Even as he approached the highest ranks of power, he never stopped flattering his superiors.
When President Hu Jintao was returning by train to Beijing one summer, Liu hustled up the platform so frantically to greet him that he nearly ran out of his loafers. He just kept grinning and running.
He was wisecracking and volatile—the Joe Pesci character of the family. In January, , he was detained for questioning about embezzlement, bribe-taking, and intentional harm regarding his role in arranging the killing of a contractor who sought to expose him. By then, he was vice-chief of the Wuhan railway bureau. The victim was stabbed to death with a switchblade in front of his wife. When investigators caught him, he was living among mountains of money so large and unruly that the bills had begun to molder.
Storing cash is one of the most vexing challenges confronting corrupt Chinese officials, because the largest bill in circulation is a hundred-yuan note, worth about fifteen dollars. He was convicted and received a death sentence that was suspended and later reduced to sixteen years. But, instead of serving his time in a facility for serious offenders, he was transferred to a hospital where he reportedly continued to conduct railway business by phone.
Back in Beijing, Minister Liu surrounded himself with loyal associates. He fell short of membership by a single vote. Liu bet everything on high-speed railways. The ministry was its own regulator, virtually unsupervised, and the Minister and his aides had no tolerance for dissenting voices. When professor Zhao Jian, of Beijing Transportation University, publicly objected to the pace of high-speed-rail construction, Liu summoned him and advised him to keep quiet. Zhao refused to back down, and the university president called him. The professor resisted, but his concerns were ignored—until the crash.
The obsession with speed was all-encompassing. The system was growing so fast that almost everything a supplier produced found a buyer, regardless of quality. According to investigators, the signal that failed in the Wenzhou crash was developed over six months, beginning in June, , by the state-owned China Railway Signal and Communication Corporation. When the industry gave out awards for new technology that year, the signal took first prize.
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But an engineer inside the company subsequently told me that he was not surprised to discover that the job had been rushed. There were other suspicious factors as well.
In the last days before the crash, the rush to build the railways added a final, lethal factor to the mix. A full year had been slashed from the construction schedule, and the first weeks of the run were marred by delays and power failures. According to a manager in the ministry, high-speed-rail staff were warned that further delays would affect the size of their bonuses.
On the night of July 23, , when trains began to stack up, dispatchers and maintenance staff raced to repair the faulty signal and ignored the simplest solution: stop the trains and regain the signal. Ding was an illiterate egg farmer in rural Shanxi—five feet ten, with broad shoulders and a foghorn of a voice. In the nineteen-eighties, after Deng Xiaoping launched the country toward the free market, she collected eggs from neighbors to sell in the county seat. That was illegal without a permit. The eggs were confiscated, and years later she still talked of her embarrassment.
In time, she came to run a small, thriving restaurant, where she gave away food to powerful customers and exaggerated her own success. Her company, Broad Union, signed joint ventures and supplied the ministry with train wheels, sound barriers, and more. She was easy to lampoon—Daft Mrs. Ding, people called her—but she had a genius for cultivating business relationships. Her lavish receptions drew members of the Politburo. She joined the lower house of the provincial legislature, and made so many charitable gifts that in she ranked No.
Ding was detained in January, , suspected of taking kickbacks totalling sixty-seven million dollars, according to the Global Times.