HONG KONG — On Monday night, a heavy rainstorm hit a chartered cruise ship, the Oriental Star, on China’s Yangtze River. The ship was on its way from Nanjing to Chongqing, a 750-mile journey. It sank within two minutes and the crew failed to send out a distress call. There were 456 people on board.
Over half of the passengers were aged between 50 and 80, many of them on a package tour. The youngest passenger was two years old.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived on the scene Tuesday to oversee rescue efforts. Chinese media said rescuers could hear calls or signals for help through the ship’s hull, so there was hope that some passengers are staying alive by keeping themselves within air pockets. Welders were attempting to slice open the Oriental Star’s hull. Meanwhile the water level has been lowered by adjusting the output of the Three Gorges Dam. Hundreds of police officers, paramilitary officers, and soldiers were mobilized for the rescue operation directed by Premier Li.
As of this writing, only 14 survivors have been brought ashore. That includes the ship’s captain and chief engineer, who apparently were being questioned by Chinese police about what went wrong. The captain claimed that the cruise ship was taken down by a cyclone or tornado, but many burning questions remained unaddressed: Why was the Oriental Star out on the river, given the weather conditions? Was it loaded beyond capacity? Why wasn’t a distress call sent out?
Occasional heavy rains and strong winds were disrupting the rescue operation. Bodies were being recovered near the cruise ship.
As rescue efforts continue, it’s difficult not to draw comparisons with the sinking of the MV Sewol in South Korea that killed more than 300 people in 2014, or the Costa Concordia’s capsizing in 2012 that killed 32. In both cases, the captain was put on trial and received a long prison sentence.
But for Chinese netizens, the disaster closer to home is a train collision that happened in Wenzhou in 2011. In that incident, two high-speed trains collided and derailed on the outskirts of the capital of Zhejiang Province. Forty were killed and more than 200 passengers were injured. Officials tried literally to cover up what happened by breaking up the wreckage and, well, burying it. This prompted a painful backlash in all forms of media, and the Communist Party’s censors attempted to reshape the conversation that was taking place online. Lightning strikes and design flaws, specifically a faulty signal system, were said to have been the causes of the accident.
Now, China’s rail expansion is as strong as ever, including lines connecting to foreign nations. It’s as if nothing had happened.
China’s infrastructure has been expanding rapidly, and with it has come convenience for those who wanted to explore their homeland. China receives tremendous inbound tourism, but domestic tourism is even more massive, contributing over 4 percent to the growth of the country’s GDP. Tour operators seem certain that they are far from reaching the peak. Middle class disposable income is constantly routed toward new branches of transportation that are opening up, whether by land, water, or air, along with the tour packages that take advantage of them.
Yet there remains an incredible concern—or lack of it—for travel safety. It’s not as obvious as issues relating to food safety incidents and carcinogenic air, but the implications are just as profound. An engineer with China’s Ministry of Railways has revealed that their lines are sometimes built without proper surveys, with unqualified labor. At times, upkeep for long distance buses and passenger boats is minimal, and operators try to push their vessels to the limits of their life-spans.
There remains much speculation regarding the circumstances of the Oriental Star, but this is an incredible opportunity to clean up shoddy operations within China’s tourist industry. The intense scrutiny that is often part of grand government projects needs to be applied to local, private operations as well.
Nearly a decade ago, I traveled through Shaanxi Province and drove on some paved rural roads. Every few hundred meters, there were hand-painted signs that said bu tai, advertising services for tire repair, along with cell phone numbers to call. Before reaching those signs, a series of deep potholes would materialize.
I later found out that the potholes were intentionally dug by locals so that they could blow out the tires of vehicles operated by drivers who were less than vigilant. The locals would then charge exorbitant rates for the repairs. I also found out that it wasn’t uncommon for speeding vehicles to hit one of those potholes and flip over, especially if the driver was drunk or unfamiliar with the roads of that area.
When I approached several local police officers to report this, they waved me off and said that the roads would be repaired soon. Nine years later, those conditions in Shaanxi have improved, but only after many travelers have been fleeced, vehicles have been damaged, and a handful of lives have been lost.
China should and can do much better.
Whether it is a general respect for their traveling countrymen, or responses to vehicular disasters, a superpower needs to do better.
Once the Oriental Star sank, mobilization of the rescue crew was rapid, but the officers who are in Jianli County say that they do not have sufficient manpower to mount the kind of rescue operation that is required. They believe that whether the remaining passengers can be saved depends on the weather (which hasn’t been cooperative) and a boost in rescue crew numbers.
The aftermath will likely be ugly, with stinging vitriol directed toward the captain and possibly even tour operators, but right now, the nation is focused intently on watching the rescue efforts and the few survivors who’ve made it out alive.