Are we willing and able to work high-tech?

Updated: 2011-08-03 07:52

By Liu Shinan (China Daily)

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The modern - or so-called e-time - technologies have made our life and work easier and more comfortable. By simply pushing a button or clicking a mouse, we can accomplish almost any feat, from sending an instant message across the globe to navigating a spacecraft in the outer space thousands of miles away, from leaving our laundry to the care of an "all-able" washing-drying machine to keeping a whole rail transport system on schedule.

All these are achieved through smart electronic applications. However, they can be hazardous or even fatal if any glitch occurs.

Last Thursday, a subway train in Shanghai went in "the wrong direction", to Hongqiao instead of its intended destination of Hangzhong. Fortunately no collision occurred. The subway operator explained that the accident was caused by the "clogging of signals during the process of upgrading the CBTC signaling system".

The accident reminds us of the preliminary explanation given by the Ministry of Railways for the fatal train crash near Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, on July 23: A wrong signal light enabled a high-speed train to rear-end another that was stalled on a viaduct after a lightning strike.

Both accidents involved signal errors. Both subway and high-speed railway systems rely on an automatic signaling mechanism to schedule and control the running of trains. Such a highly automatic and digitized system has to be carefully designed and implemented so that no glitches occur and so that if something unexpected does happen there is an automatic correction or manual override to prevent an accident.

Regretfully, system errors were not prevented or corrected in either case. The fact that no casualty was caused in the Shanghai subway incident was purely good luck.

Both incidents point to a lack of effective and conscientious management and raise a number of questions. Were strict examinations and tests conducted on the signaling systems before they were put into operation? If so, how did the problems slip through the examination process? Was it because the testing technicians were incapable or because some malpractices were involved in the examination process?

Investigations are still going on in both cases. If the signaling systems are proven to be flawless, the problem must have been with the operating companies' use and maintenance of the systems. Which then raises the question of whether their own technicians are qualified for their jobs and whether they conscientiously carried out their duties.

After the two accidents, people have mainly questioned the transport authorities' attitude toward passenger safety and human lives. They even point the finger of blame at corrupt government officials. These questions undoubtedly deserve to be asked and the suspicion is completely reasonable given previous evidence of corruption.

But there are other problems that deserve our attention - the poor capability and work ethics of the management and technical staff, for instance. These two factors are causes of many mistakes and disasters.

The application and management of modern technologies require professional proficiency and a conscientious work attitude. In reality, however, many managers and employees in government departments and State-owned enterprises, especially monopolies, prove to be incompetent or lazy. They grudge taking pains to learn new technologies and hate to sacrifice time and energy to ensure a job is accomplished properly. Such attitudes naturally result in lax performance and poor product quality.

These people may not be as detestable as corrupt officials but the consequences of their behavior may be no less serious than those resulting from the behavior of their unscrupulous colleagues. There are a number of such people in government departments and State-owned enterprises. There may be abundant reasons accounting for their existence but nepotism and bribery are definitely the main ones.

As fatal accidents alert us of the urgent necessity to crack down on corruption, there is also the urgent need to get rid of incompetent and lazy government workers.

The author is assistant editor-in-chief of China Daily. E-mail:

(China Daily 08/03/2011 page8)