Learning from Public Reaction to the Wenzhou Train Collision

Sitting outside of a small bar on a tree-lined street, I recently had a conversation with a group of well-informed expats about the reaction of Chinese citizens to the recent Wenzhou train crash.

Wenzhou train crash painting
Beautiful imagery created by Beijing illustrator Zeeko

I had just returned from a vacation in the U.S. and had been oblivious to the social media firestorm (on Sina Weibo) that followed the July 23rd tragedy. I was catching up, asking what element of this story had caused it to go viral, and seemly take on a political dimension. Was it the loss of life? The failure of the heralded new transit system? The government’s response to the tragedy? Or the human drama of a child miraculously pulled from the wreckage alive?

I began to see how the threads of this story intersected, and how, carried by the rising tide of social media, it had ensnared the public consciousness. Each of my friends at the bar related stories of impassioned discussions they had witnessed among their Chinese friends and colleagues about the issue. The public interest around the story was not surprising to me, but the degree of public outrage – and the unusually pointedness of the criticism – generated by it somehow was.

What made this event so different from other human tragedies in recent years (like mine disasters) which presented seemingly similar questions of economic development versus safety?

As one of my friends pointed out, part of the answer is symbolism. The high speed rail system was a prominent symbol of a safe, modern, high-tech China, that the government carefully portrayed in promotional rhetoric. This tragedy dealt a severe blow to that image. Recent subversive art using the iconography of the train system (like this street graffiti piece, shown below) shows how former symbols of progress have been recontextualized within the public backlash.

Wenzhou crash graffiti
Street graffiti depicting the doomed Wenzhou bullet train, photographed in Shanghai

The Wenzhou crash fractured an idyllic image of China’s future in which many citizens were emotionally invested. Through the cracks in this bright dream, broader public anxiety and frustration has begun to vent, like hot gas once trapped below tectonic plates.

When a story goes viral, it enters a feedback loop, in which media coverage begets public attention which begets additional media. Eventually this cycle wanes, as the media half-life of the story is reached, and public attention cannot be sustained by the diminishing emotional fuel. In the case of the tragic July 23rd crash, this process could take quite some time. It feels like this event has penetrated China’s public consciousness in an uncommon way.

Wenzhou crash t-shirt design
A custom t-shirt design related to the Wenzhou crash which has been in heavy circulation on Weibo

This is a personal essay about the author’s experience learning of the Wenzhou tragedy second-hand. If you haven’t read about the Wenzhou train crash and would like more details, check these links out:

as well as opinion and analysis here:

34 thoughts on “Learning from Public Reaction to the Wenzhou Train Collision”

    • Type much marcus?

      “When a story goes viral, it enters a feedback loop, in which media coverage begets public attention which begets additional media. Eventually this cycle wanes, as the media half-life of the story is reached, and public attention cannot be sustained by the diminishing emotional fuel.”

      and we are right back where we started more or less. tight post

      • Sascha,

        There should be an objective way to measure when a news story has crossed the threshold of ‘going viral,’ and when it no longer is. Then you could compare which stories were able to hold public attention for a longer time.

          • maybe i didn’t understand after all —

            peep that hypermodern story, there is a graph in there toward the bottom from a professor who measures the impact of Weibo vs. Traditional media – basically different outlets have their own market, impact and effect.

            Miya’s comment below touches on that too: this middle/upper class is affected by the train crash and their particular media outlet explodes, but the lower classes have their media outlets too, newspapers and TV – those outlets were blocked in order to keep the classes separate …

            that professor’s graph is something of an objective measure: he doesn’t actually say what the units in the graph represent though, stories? views per thousand? million?

  1. on top of the symbolism connotation, the Chinese middle class suddenly realized, in the system that value speed, growth and face more than the people, morality or truth, their lives is not more valuable than famers in the anti-demolishing battles or mine workers, accident could happen anytime on anyone, their death could be no more dignified then farmers or workers. the gov could easily turn rescue work into the maintaining of stability (维稳), they are not good at rescue but they are good at maintaining stability, they are not bothered to solve problems of people, but they could legitimately and easily resolve conflict with enemy.
    it is not surprising that this collision triggers so much anger and discussion in media and ppl, an outbreak of anger against corruption (google Liuzhijun), rising price, public transport accidents(esp. gao tie) and disappointment about the fate of being an ordinary Chinese (well it happened same time as Norway..) as well as the rotten system. usually when ppl dont trust the system and its mouth /throat, they seeked alternative ways of knowing the “truth”, now the alternative becomes the premier source of info for many ppl, thus what really happens, opinions, analysis, rumors and questions that spread on weibo, together with the collectiveness of users, the interaction of media had weibo had a massive impact on discussion in public realm and the event itself.

    • Miya,

      I think you make a good point- that the social class of the victims may have something to do with the public outcry. Chinese netizens on Weibo may identify with the victims of the train disaster more than victims of industrial accidents, so the safety concerns hit closer to home.

  2. I tried to buy a Dongche ticket to Beijing on July 28th but they were all sold out. Clearly people are still riding high-speed rail. Moreover, rail remains the only option for migrant workers low-income families and college students to travel about China. Driving a car or riding in a car is infinitely more dangerous than taking a train. This is a perfect example of an isolated incident that netizens were able to rally behind to direct their (ever-boiling) rage against the party.

    Yesterday I flew home from Beijing and was reading the complimentary Global Times article which had some carefully phrased rebuttals to the public outcry. They referenced a high speed rail crash in Germany in the 90s and claimed that the Germans never lost faith in the industry and high-speed rail remains the most common means of transit. The writers also pointed the finger at India for its high rate of train fatalities and incredibly slow railways. This was a polite way to call out India as “Suckers”.

    Funny coincidence, the woman sitting next to me on the airplane used to be a manager of the train department in Chengdu. She was well-traveled (on her way home from a trip to Russia and Mongolia) and told me that trains in China are “Bu anquan…”

    • That is an interesting point Elias.

      During that conversation at the bar, I suggested that perhaps this event did not necessarily indicate systematic problems within the Chinese railway system, and could be just an typical (albeit tragic) setback in the course of developing a national transportation system.

      I was rebuked for that statement, and rightfully so, since I don’t have the expertise to speak about whether or not systematic problems (technical or administrative) exist in the railway system, or can be identified because of this incident.

      However, as you suggest, one high profile mishap does not change the fact that railway travel in China is statistically still a pretty safe way to get around.

      • You are right in saying that statistically railway travel in China is still very safe. 200,000 pasengers per day, 4 years, is about 280M people to 40 deaths.
        There have also been a lot of high profile train crahses in other countries, eg Germany and the UK (the Potter’s Bar train crash – also a signal failure), so this is nothing out of the ordinary, especially as it is a new system.
        Having said that, as there was talk of a cover-up, it is possible there is something more serious wrong. If it is a problem with the tracks or trains, it could be very expensive to fix. Fixing signaling is relatively cheap and easy, fixing thousands of km of high speed rail is very expensive and will take many years. If it is a problem with the rail, the first thing they will do is slow the trains down, which will limit the chance of further crashes. Has the time the train takes increased since the crash?
        Having had a look, they slowed the max speed before opening, and now the journey time is about 40 mins longer than that speed (although this could be due to more stops – I don’t know if the stops were included in the original time):
        By my calculations the G (fast) trains are currently running at about 260kph. Of course it’s still fast, but it may well be that the tracks were never and will never be capable of sustained use at 350kph.

    • Why would any state or people want to go through the horror of a “spring” as defined by Western pundits?

      Egypt and Libya are aid dependent failed states about to cough up their oil resources and then face starvation. Pakistan, and Af-raq, where the US has been trying to “induce a spring” for years are shattered, bloody wrecks.

      All a spring does really is destabilize a state and transfer control of vital resources from the junta to foreigners (usually corps, notice the stock market is the only thing rising in the US).

      It sure as hell does not lead to a happy free democratic civil society with tidy suburbs and a pudgy middle class.

      If we remember, the US has the Chicago meatpacking horrors during our Industrial Revolution and the railroad across the country to the West was soaked in the blood of Native Americans. Soaked. and it took solid reporting and a slow enlightenment and economic growth over generations before people in the US felt secure enough to NOT use rat meat or cut corners that might result in dangerous accidents.

      An entire culture has to emerge over time for a “spring” to do anything but be a reset button back to chaos.

      so although spring sounds so cool and although I call for it whenever I get angry enough to scream, if you step back from how cool it sounds, you’ll see that a spring in China would suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck for Chinese and for us:

      Chaos, death, breakdown.

      There was an old billionaire Chinese guy with an American passport on weibo last week asking everyone to just take their time, change will come and I spent all afternoon calling him an a-hole. But he’s probably right. Each and every incident like this is a small spring, with another million people aware of the truth and perhaps bringing that awareness into their daily life, with their kids even.

      And that’s what leads to the suburbs that Will Hutton is dreaming of when he tosses out China Spring

      • Great points Sascha. As much as we would love to see political reform happen overnight in China,it just doesn’t work that way. The senior leaders in the government calling for gradual change are also the people who can still recall the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. I think they know a thing or two about the kind of havoc that ‘revolution’ can inflict on society.

        So who are guys like Will Hutton to call for a “China Spring”? I am really tired of these western pundits using every incident to argue that China is on the brink of a revolution. I just don’t see that. Most of my Chinese friends are too busy saving up to buy their first apartment and car or taking vacations in Sanya and Lijiang.

        Sure most people are rightly infuriated about the Wenzhou train accident and the handling of the aftermath but the relative lack of censorship to the public reaction proves to me that change is already happening…it might just be too gradual for those outside China to see.

    • I do not agree with his statement. Mr. Hutton’s article dramatically overstates the threat that public dissent over this event poses to Chinese leadership. His suggestion that there will be a Chinese spring, should be examined for what it is – a VERY radical prediction.

      His exaggeration of the significance of this event as a harbinger of the downfall of the Chinese government is a classic case of confirmation bias (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias.) He gravitates to information – the most pointed public criticism, the most egregious faults of Chinese government – which support his underlying philosophical position, that the Chinese system has rejected the principles of the European enlightenment and is destined for collapse.

      I agree that social media and authoritarianism are rather incompatible, and to the extent that the growth of social media fosters dissent, it will continue to be a source of tension between reformers and Chinese leadership. But the suggestion that an implosion of the political system could be coming soon is preposterously far fetched and displays a deep misunderstanding about the Chinese citizenry. Stability and growth are bread and butter political issues in the Chinese consciousness, and the Chinese government has performed remarkably well in these areas in recent years. Volent upheaval is something that a clear majority of Chinese people oppose. Even among the harshest critics of the government, the majority would probably prefer to see reform rather than revolution.

      So I identify with Adam’s reproach for pundits like Mr. Hutton- his tone rings of a sort of armchair political science that is is clearly out of touch with the situation on the ground. The West is experiencing a certain romance with the idea of ‘a Spring’ at the moment, which might be why pundits like Mr. Hutton are being flippant about the notion. But as Sascha explained, there is a lot of suffering and hardship inherent is that kind of social transformation, and it does not have a widespread appeal in contemporary China.

      • I have to agree Eli, this event has zero possibility of causing a ‘spring’. The only time people will do anything is when their personal standard of living is put on the line. In developing countries this generally means economic failure. In the west we now see more complex issues, perhaps in part brought on by too much free speech and too little education.

        But I do think just the idea of a ‘spring’ has had a huge impact. It’s now a buzzword, I have heard, even in some Chinese discussions. It has perhaps changed the way people think. This seed could quickly grow if an event that really damages people’s lives. With the world economy at the moment it does look dangerous.

        I also agree that the majority want slow changes, or even none at all, but I think you underestimate how quickly this could change.

        • I think that there is some truth to that. ‘A Spring,’ has become a meme, popping up increasingly frequently in discussion and public consciousness. That could certainly effect the likelihood of such a thing occurring somewhere, but not enough to supersede the fundamental political conditions.

  3. I don’t understand why the designers chose to build a train and tracks that look like skeletons. That’s just a media nightmare waiting to happen.

  4. every single one of you is a lil b*tch.

    “steady as she goes” means getting shafted until you die. there is no incentive for leadership to bend any further than they are forced to bend. break em. that’s the only way. And when the breakers turn into pigs, break them too.

    educate as you break, but never stop breaking.

    • Hahahaha! REVOLUTION!, dude you are too funny. That comment was a classic.

      I love the way that you start by insulting your audience, follow up with some unpunctuated platitudes, segue into your revolutionary strategy, (‘break em’) and finish with a veiled threat towards the people who might be inclined to join you. You haven’t event rallied your troops and you’re already getting ready to purge the ranks!

      You’re like Robespierre, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximilien_Robespierre), only modern, less articulate, and of no consequence to history.

      • FOOL!

        I am the force that through the green drives the flower! Platitudes are what reformers type out from cozy living rooms (or offices)as the corruption of society grows ever deeper.

        There will be no slow improvement toward a better society, just a jostling of the system to accommodate new rich and new poor. The actual human social system will never be the equal, happy free society people write about.

        It is fun to scream revolution, but the truth is that all the great sociologists throughout history were extremely revolutionary. I would argue that Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Jesus and Muhammed were all extreme revolutionaries who saw that the “wheel” or “heaven and hell” or whatever you want to call the circle we humans find ourselves in was destructive and never-ending UNLESS you revolutionized your mind.

        Its much harder to do the above than it is to slowly wait for “things to get better,” and as we grow older, revolution just seems like a bad idea.

        but its the only way.

        and my friend, who is of more consequence to history, the revolutionary martyred and reviled in his time or the bureaucrat who slowly but surely implements his ideas?

        • Thank you for your response REVOLUTION!,

          I know its tough for you to subject your revolutionary spirit to the hegemony of grammar and punctuation, but I appreciate your effort.

          You are my brother, and I come with empathy. I too want to see social change- with the earnest yearning of an elk burrowing through the sharp snow in search of tender green seedlings that signal the coming spring.

          But when you say “there will be no slow improvement towards a better society,” you sound like a lazy, dickish elk, who doesn’t know very much about the history of social reform in elk society.

          I may be misreading you, but I take from your statement, “its fun to scream revolution,” that you think its fun to scream revolution. Certainly more fun that working for gradual positive change. Probably our best bet as humans is to break apart the stable society forged by generations, and pretty much start over according to the ranting of some guy who starts his pitch with, “‘every single one you is a little b*tch.” Buddha, Lao Tzu, Jesus nor Muhammad could have said it any better.

          • Sascha, your clever empty statements don’t impress me.


            cherry pick all you want, can you refute the second part of my dickish elk statement: “…just a jostling of the system to accommodate new rich and new poor.”

            the only difference between inequality in the time of Solon and inequality today are the gadgets we play with. And that’s what i’m here to remind you of, yes by calling you out as a lil b*tch who probably hasn’t dropped a freestyle rhyme in months. You should flow more often my man and feel the truth again. Revitalize that revolutionary spirit with some stream of consciousness.

            history teaches us that human nature is repetitive and predictable and the only way to break free is to … break free.

            Now when I say scream revolution, i mean it metaphorically as in: when the Chinese Railway Bureau tries to cover up death by burying train cars and offering up blood money, you don’t just go on weibo and shout, or pop up a you rush their office, grab the boss and make him face the people. Power bows down to power only. Even salt marches are power plays.

            your answer:

            “yeah right dude. even I wayway got silenced”

            but you should listen to watch you really said:

            “It feels like this event has penetrated China’s public consciousness in an uncommon way.”

  5. Yeah- there is going to be some jostling. No one said it wasn’t going to be a bumpy ride.

    Revolutionize your mind- I agree with that bro. But after that we’ve got to roll up our sleeve and put in some work. If you want to take peyote and sit around writing in your dream journal thats fine- I can see the appeal. But its going to take a little more to change our socio economic system.

    By the way, I love your retro-jargon. The way you make epithets out of ‘reformer,’ and ‘bureaucrat,’ makes me feel like we are at a costume party and you are dressed as Prince Henry dressed as an SS officer. Is it possible that you are a post-modern satirist and not a bizarrely fascist liberal? ‘

  6. I think this post has generated more debate than the crash itself, which has already left the station otherwise known as ‘consciousness’.

    Social media phenomenons aside, perhaps had their been a more widespread graphic representation of the tragedy, maybe it would have had a more indelible effect.  Maybe not.
    There are parallels between this, and the current riots in London, of which there is infinitely wider coverage.  Both events have incited a powerful public reaction, but the ultimate judgement lies in a peoples ability (or willingness) to confront it’s government, and the authoritative figures elected to enforce it.  Just as the Chinese governing officials did a stand up job of shutting down media attention, UK government will be swiftly shifting attention to the violence, away from the very causes that served to incite it.  There’s even talk of martial law being made imminently, which even as I say it is a deeply shocking prospect.

    This is most definitely a class issue too.  A rising middle class will do little to risk it’s own comfortable, priveleged position.  Again we can draw parallel with the UK.  Ealing residents in London (incidentally my old neck of the woods!) were out in force last night, trying to deter looters and vandals from damaging property in the area.  I doubt even a few of Ealing’s middle classes will have stopped to ask why there may be frustration from the working classes, directed at their multi-million pound homes.

    China is eons away from any such reaction from either classes.  The working class are intimidatingly uninformed, and the middle classes are not secure enough to demand any repatriation, so the two remain at safe distance from one another, leaving ample ground for government to feed the disconnect.


Leave a Comment