Train Crash Heightens Safety Concerns over China Exports

By Michelle Yu
Michelle Yu
Michelle Yu
August 16, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015

A mangled train car is hoisted away after the deadly Wenzhou collision of two trains on July 24, in China. (ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)
A mangled train car is hoisted away after the deadly Wenzhou collision of two trains on July 24, in China. (ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)
Experts agree that the deadly July 23 train crash has put an end to China’s ambitious plans to export high-speed railway (HSR) technology and equipment to other parts of the world. This is just the latest and most sensational of many horror stories in which poor quality has damaged prospects for exporting Chinese goods. At the root of this stubborn quality problem across China’s major exporting industries lies prevalent corruption and the Chinese authorities’ blind pursuit of political achievements.

HSR Export Dream Crashes

Beijing had successfully branded its high-speed railway network as a symbol of the “China Model.” The regime’s propaganda touted the HSR as fast, low cost, and large, both a symbol of national pride and a miracle to the rest of the world.

“In as short as five years, China completed the high-speed railway development that took western countries 40 years,” said an article on a Ministry of Railways-sponsored site published 15 days before the train crash that claimed at least 40 lives. “Overnight, we have stunned the world.” Such language and tone dominated propaganda about the HSR development.

Taking the HSR abroad had also been given political and nationalistic significance. Party mouthpiece Xinhua called the export of HSR, “the calling of the world and the longing of China.” The export was said to announce the arrival of “a ‘China Era’ in which China exports and leads the trend of the world’s HSR development.”

For a while China seemed to be quickly approaching this goal. Official media say that China-made locomotives, high-speed trains and their components are used in more than 50 countries and regions, and that China has signed agreements or memoranda of understanding for bilateral rail cooperation with more than 30 countries, including the United States.

But further progress with conquering the world HSR market will come very slowly, if at all, after the recent train crash that battered potential buyers’ confidence. “Their chances of selling high-speed trains are zero,” said Edwin Merner, president of Atlantis Investment Research Corp. in Tokyo in an interview with Bloomberg. “I don’t think they can ever get confidence back.”

Safety Issue Across Exporting Sectors

The HSR case is not the first time China’s overseas opportunities have been dimmed by safety concerns. While China became the world’s largest exporter in 2010, global consumers have grown more wary about risks of consuming China’s products and services.

An April Economist report said Chinese businesses and products quickly lost their halo in Africa due to poor quality and management. Though trade is still growing, so is resentment.

“Chinese construction work can be slapdash and buildings erected by mainland firms have on occasion fallen apart,” the article said. Examples include a Chinese-built hospital in Angola that was forced to shut down after cracks appeared in the walls within a few months of its opening, and an 81-mile road in Zambia being quickly swept away by rains. In addition, the Chinese imported to Africa, along with products and services, corruption and business malpractice.

As a matter of fact, the majority of China’s staple exporting industries have experienced safety scandals in overseas markets.

For example, its second largest export industry (based on 2011 volume), apparel and accessories, has been plagued by recalls due to safety concerns. In 2010, 58 percent of the European Union’s non-food recalls were produced in China, consisting mainly of clothing, textile, and fashion items. Chinese media said the frequent recalls threatened the survival of many Chinese manufacturers.

Furniture, China’s seventh largest exporting item in the first seven months of 2011, also had its share of scandals. In 2008, European media reported that thousands of consumers suffered serious allergic reactions due to the toxic gas emitted by China-made sofas.

The most notorious of all China’s safety issues are probably toxic foods and toys, both among China’s top export goods. While toxins have been found in almost all types of foods in China, including rice, cooking oil, milk, and many other staple foods, Americans may be most impressed by the toxic pet foods that killed thousands of U.S. dogs and cats in 2007.

In the same year, large amounts of China-made toys were found containing lead, which caused millions of recalls worldwide. After the United States barred lead-contaminated toys, a recent Associated Press investigation found Chinese manufacturers replaced lead with cadmium, an inexpensive, dangerous metal known to cause cancer.

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