Over the course of the last 25 years, the rail industry in China has undergone dramatic developments, with commuter train speeds increasing seven-fold from approximately 30 mph to 217 mph. Expansion of the rail network has allowed for even the most remote locations in China to be accessed. Such rapid development has however come at a cost, with the project tarnished by bribes, corruption, and catastrophe. In 2011 a collision resulting in the death of 40 people, that hospitalized almost 200 more, brought into question the ethical acceptability of China’s high speed rail (HSR) project.
Take China’s High Speed Project Off the Rails!
From a utilitarian standpoint it can be argued that the HSR project should be stopped in its tracks as the project places the pleasure of few above the pleasure of many by consuming funds and excluding China’s less wealthy citizens. It is estimated that HSR will have cost China $300bn by 2020 and some argue that this money will only bring pleasure to a few of China’s more wealthy citizens.
The average Chinese worker would have to pay roughly three quarters of their daily wage (58 Renminbi) for a one-way, half hour journey from Beijing to Tianjin; a journey few are likely to be able afford on a regular basis. The needs of the few “high flyers” should not be placed in front of the many and one side of the utilitarian approach to this problem would be to discontinue the project in favour of funding investment into other sectors, such as healthcare, that will bring pleasure to a greater number of people.
The Chinese government are deaf to this and continue with a project that is ultimately an expensive “trophy” rather than investing in healthcare advancements that could benefit the entire nation. Some would argue that in attempting to compete and keep up with neighbouring countries like Japan, China is ignoring the will of its own people.
Corruption was rife within the culture of the project as well. The former Chinese minister of railways, Liu Zhijun, received the death penalty under Chinese law for creating an atmosphere of corruption by accepting bribes and embezzling money from the project. It is estimated almost $US 200 million in bribes were taken and paid to Zhijun, while another official, Zhang Shuguang misappropriated around $US 2.8 billion.
The Chinese people criticized the government for quickly calling off the search and cleaning up the scene of the 2011 Wenzhou train crash and not doing their best to check for survivors amongst the wreckage. Critics suspect the government of trying to cover-up essential evidence of the crash which may show the truth of the projects shortcomings. According to China Digital Times, the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China warned editors to report the crash less often and with less attention. The media outlets were warned “Do not question, do not elaborate”.
The clear knowledge of wrongdoing and unlawful behaviour demonstrated in covering up the crash and the corruption amongst officials shows the project is unethical from a deontological perspective.
In such an atmosphere as China’s where corruption is rife, it is debateable whether the HSR project should continue as it gives many a platform with which power can be abused once again and established laws broken with little regard for what’s right or wrong.
High Speed Rail: The Express Route of China’s Development
Adopting a utilitarian approach, it can be argued that the HSR project provides an enormous benefit to everyone living in the country. It is common knowledge nowadays that China is one of the largest economies in the world. However, as recently as 1981, the poverty rate was around 88 %. These days, this figure sits below 2 % and some of the credit for this must surely be attributed to the development of HSR in the country, which begun in the early ‘90’s.
The developments allowed for people living in the outer reaches of China to travel into bigger cities in search of jobs, education and a lifestyle which they would never have achieved otherwise. The introduction of an expanded rail network also allowed companies to export their products further across the country, and indeed the continent, adding further benefit to the population. What’s more, inter-city travel times have now been dramatically reduced, further improving the efficiency of the movement of personnel, goods and services across the country, all of which boost the national economy.
While it’s undeniable that the HSR project in China has been affected by some quite significant ethical issues along the way, it also cannot be argued that those overseeing the project have dealt with the issues faced in a timely and effective manner. Those guilty of corruption and receiving bribes were removed from their positions immediately and the crash, while tragic, drew attention to important safety issues that were subsequently addressed, ensuring the HSR development as a whole was safer in the future.
The cost of the project thus far, although huge, accounts for an extremely small proportion of China’s GDP, which is estimated to be comfortably more than 11 trillion US dollars. There is therefore obviously no need to worry about a lack of government funds to be spent elsewhere on arguably more important issues, as there is a wealth of resources available to China anyway.
The usage of deontology, and more specifically Kantianism, also reasons that the commissioning and continuation of HSR development is ethical. Kantianism refers to how a decision’s intention determines its ethical quality, regardless of the outcome. In this case, the development of the rail system aims to develop transportation in China. This allows people in the rural and less developed areas to be able to travel to cities in search of employment, which will improve standards of living for those people.
Considering the huge disparities in standards of living between the rural and urban areas of China, the government’s decision to continue the rail development is therefore ethical as it is born out of good intentions.
Group 39: Jacob Humphries, Isobel Yeuk Lam Ho, Callumn Pope, Marvin Lee Yao Hui