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Whither this speed?

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2011-07-27 11:07

Whither this speed?

The train collision on July 23 may be the perfect symbol of China's problems in its dash to modernity, Raymond Zhou suggests.

When a high-speed train was stalled, allegedly by a bolt of lightning, common sense dictated that later trains waited. Tragedy struck when a second train rear-ended into the stalled one, derailing several carriages and killing at least 39 passengers. It could be the result of a technical glitch or human error, or a combination of both. But before the investigation report comes out, a lot of people are asking: "Why so fast?"

It is the first time one senses a fundamental shift in public sentiment toward speed. We do not want high speed; we want safety over speed.

However, the railway authorities did not seem to notice. The first thing they announced when their officials arrived at the crash site was, the railroad would be cleared for normal operation by 6 pm on Sunday, less than 24 hours after the accident. (Owing to bad weather, traffic resumed on Monday morning on that section.)

"Why the rush? Couldn't they give more time for rescuers to sift through the wreckage and make sure everyone, dead or alive, was accounted for?"

Public anger flared when a 2-year-old girl was pulled from the wreckage, reportedly at the insistence of the local police chief, who refused to shove the wreckage off the elevated road, and hours after the railroad authorities declared there was no sign of life.

Hurtling to put high-speed trains into operation, the rail department has already reneged on its promise of punctuality and other miscellaneous services.

And now it has sacrificed safety, that most essential quality of public transport. It was criticized when it substituted the popular overnight services with the faster and more expensive bullet trains between Beijing and Shanghai. The Nanjing South Station had to put its tiled floors together hastily, with the paving done haphazardly, so as to be ready for its opening on the grand day of July 1, a day fraught with political meaning.

For three decades, China has prided itself on its mantra of "faster and higher". Our GDP overshoots others by many times. Our high-rises pop up as if powered by testosterone. Our cityscape takes on new forms every few years. We had been stagnant for too long. We have to catch up. We don't want to be left behind in this era of globalization.

In this madness for speed, we tend to forget that faster and higher do not necessarily equal better. Of course, living standards have risen for most of us, but if we stop to contemplate the costs, we will be shocked.

Besides the environmental costs, there is the unaccounted-for price of mental health that is often left out of the equation. When we feel dizzy by the world that is whizzing by, when we get nostalgic about the simple life we used to lead in dilapidated homes (which was actually not that good, if one is objective), it could be signs that growth is a bit too fast for comfort.

Whither this speed?

We Chinese always want to get ahead of the neighbor. If our neighbor's kid has a score of 98, we want ours to get 99 or 100. Does the higher score reflect his or her higher ability? We don't really care that much. On a national level, we want to accumulate the biggest tally of gold medals at the Olympics. Does that speak of the bigger picture of the country's fitness and sports? It's just an afterthought.

We even want to have all those trivial and strange conquests that belong to the realm of Guinness World Records - not for fun, mind you, but for bragging rights. We are pursuing speed for the sake of speed, or for the sake of vanity.

Other countries also try to "keep up with the Joneses", but nowhere is this as pronounced and concerted as here in China where it is an obsession - from the highest official to the lowest footman.

In this relentless drive for growth and wealth, collisions are bound to occur. Of these, the one between development and a citizen's right to their homestead is probably the most acute, and the one between development and the ecology, the most sustained. The old order is crumbling, and the new is not yet ready. There is a vacuum that scamsters and demagogues are only too happy to fill.

Rules and regulations are often tossed aside as an inconvenience. Look at this report from last year from the Railway Ministry's own newspaper: Some German specialists were hired to train the drivers of bullet trains. They said they needed three months to complete a training course. But they were told they had only 10 days to do the job. It became the ego trip of the rail department that they could turn out drivers in 10 days while in Germany they needed as long as three months, to the extent this report was spread far and wide as a token of its achievement.

The report said the German experts were dumbfounded. In retrospect, the report sent chills down the spines of many Chinese. Who benefits from such haste? Surely, not the passengers. Realistically, it enhances only the self-glorification of a few people and departments.

High speeds will take us to our destinations in a shorter time. But not every trip is intended to save time. We take a ramble in a park at a leisurely pace, to stop to enjoy the flowers and the lake. We sit in the gazebo to enjoy the singing of opera by elderly fan groups. We need time to slow down and unwind. Even for functional journeys we have ways to fill our time with meaningful activities such as reading and listening to podcasts.

We don't really need the frenzy of non-stop acceleration, especially when higher speed comes at higher risks to safety. Accidents are sadly unavoidable. But that is no excuse for those errors that occur as a consequence of lax management or under-tested facilities.

It is time we paused to reflect on the purpose of the journey that is life. We work to live, not live to work as has often been promoted. Our roads are supposed to take us to happy reunions and tender caresses, not to heartbreak and endless tears.

When we slow down, we'll notice that life is not always a car race. Our skyline may take on new shapes, but our conscience should remain in shape. Our trains may derail, but many of us tenaciously hold on to our old morality, our sense of good versus evil.

Wenzhou, the city in which the accident took place, is known for its "ruthless" merchants who wreck havoc with property markets everywhere, but this time its people - from its migrant workers to its police officers, from its volunteers to its government officers - showed their humanity.

Money has not corrupted this city. For all its bulging wealth, one thing has remained constant - its good heart. And that does not need any change of track.