At 9:20 am on Wednesday, a subway tunnel under construction in Haidian (NW Beijing) collapsed trapping six workers. None are believed to have survived. The accident occurred during construction of the Number 10 subway line linking Haidian with central Beijing. Not surprisingly, the first response of the bosses from the China Railway 12th Bureau Group Co Ltd was to cover up the accident. Rather than call city emergency services, the on-site managers organized an ad-hoc rescue team, locked the gates of the site to prevent anyone from leaving, and then…wait for it…ordered the confiscation of all the workers’ cellphones. Unfortunately for the bosses, one worker managed to keep his and called the police–in his home province of Henan. Henan authorities called the Beijing police and by Wednesday evening, emergency workers were on the scene and the story had broken in the local media. Tragically, it was too late for the six men trapped underground.
What is surprising is the openess with which the state media has been reporting the incident. The People’s Daily English language edition carried the story on Thursday morning and has even included a photospread of the accident scene on its website. This morning, the China Daily ran a story on its website about the botched cover-up attempt by the site managers. The cover-up was also reported in yesterday’s edition of several Beijing Chinese-language newspapers as well. This is all particularly interesting given the recent annoucement of a new government policy to crack-down on “dishonest reporting” of accidents and deal harshly with mine-owners who try to cover up or hide accidents at their sites.
Granted the Haidian collapse has the makings of a PR headache for Beijing. All of the foreign coverage of the story featured the words “subway planned for the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing” as part of the first or second paragraph. Covering it up would would have been 1) nearly impossible and 2) just added fuel to the fire.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.