Home > Analysis, media, Opinion > National Geographic gets in on anti-China defamation

National Geographic gets in on anti-China defamation

Criticism of China’s high-speed rail development is rampant, but I must take exception to Ian Johnson’s recent piece in the National Geographic. Before his article even begins, the defamatory lede reads: “Engineering blitzkrieg continues despite financial and human toll.” For Westerners, ‘blitzkrieg’ conjures Nazi aggression during WW2 as they trampled their way around Europe in domination. America’s NASA program had her human toll too in the Challenger disaster in 1986. I wonder if Johnson would dare to characterize the U.S. shuttle program as “engineering blitzkrieg.”

As a Pulitzer Prize winner, supposedly representing the cream-of-the-crop journalism in the West, Johnson shows us how easily it is to suspend intellectual faculty in dishing out cheap shots. What is even more disappointing is the National Geographic, whose mission is to “inspire” us about our world, in fact does the opposite. I find the gridlock in launching the Los Angeles to San Francisco high-speed rail project a sign that America has lost her ways. Seemingly, every project of significance in American society is politicized. Americans seem to have given in to mediocrity, allowing their politicians to show no result at the end of the day. Despite it’s flaws, couldn’t there be something in China’s high-speed rail project to learn from?

When Johnson writes, of the rail program:

It’s an engineering blitzkrieg meant to awe the Chinese people and show off the nation’s new industrial might.

His narrative is rather odd. If he simply said that there are many criticisms of China’s high-speed rail system development being too aggressive, that’d be an objective observation. However, compare China’s high-speed rail safety record against the Japanese, the Germans, or even the Americans, the Chinese system is very safe.

Aside from the Nazi reference, we are told the project is meant to awe the Chinese people and show off to the rest of the world? What about the simple fact that China desperately needs infrastructure to help move people as well goods around the country?

What are we to make of the rapid Internet development that has taken place in the last couple of decades in the United States? Is that “blitzkrieg” and to show off to the rest of the world too? What an idiotic statement to make!

He continues:

Less impressive have been the costs—financial and human. Last year two events happened that continue to shake the railway system and China as a whole. One was the detention of China’s once powerful railway minister, Liu Zhijun, an old-style communist central planner who rolled out the high-speed network like a general using human-wave tactics.

Certainly, the Wenzhou crash was a wake-up call to examine the project’s development closely. How is China shaken as a whole? America has the resilience to deal with the Challenger disaster, the Katrina debacle, and certainly future mishaps. Can’t China be allowed to have a few of her own and be resilient too? If America can have her Rod Blagojevich’s, can’t China be allowed to have a few of Liu Zhijun’s?

And, what in the world is “human-wave tactics” when it comes to high-speed rail development?

Honestly, I couldn’t read the article further. National Geographic have inspired me in the past. However, I felt betrayed. I now wonder when it portrayed other peoples, other societies, and rest of our world, did it filter through a political agenda? Behind the gorgeous photography, is there selection bias?

It’s really too bad. Our world has many inspirations, but this National Geographic article clearly shows it found none.

  1. albinosprouts
    October 15th, 2012 at 23:04 | #1

    human-wave tactics? I think words like that betray western tropes/stereotypes about Asians in general and are entirely offensive. Just boycott national geographic. Jealous self-aggrandizing western culture makes another appearance: Any achievement of China or Japan or Korea is just a huge human-wave tactic and uncreative to boot. The sad thing is how far behind the west actually is: they killed three continents worth of people and took loot from all the original civilizations, they have no excuse for their current mediocrity.

  2. October 16th, 2012 at 01:32 | #2

    I don’t know if this is defamation. Defamation has the connotation that it’s intentional smearing. I don’t know if it is. I think it’s more just simple bigotry.

    Another line you didn’t emphasize: he talked about Chinese in Africa developing engineering projects as part of its effort to project diplomatic power. Hmm, maybe. But what about people to people relations building, cooperation – the helping each other to increase people’s livelihood?

    When Westerners rummage around the world, they are trying to help. Why Chinese help others, it’s all just about Chinese expansionism.

    You are right yinyang that this is a politicized piece But in a way, this guy is just a product of the times. It’s natural to become radeologicalized (my word, meaning: radically angelically ideological) because the West has been so powerful. There is a lot more in the article that we can criticize … but we all have lives … short lives … and only have so much time analyzing others’ blind spots.

  3. October 16th, 2012 at 07:42 | #3


    True, simply compare the coverage of the Wenzhou HSR crash and that of the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia. If the latter was Chinese, they will say how the corruption, incompetence and China’s system caused the ship to run aground. And they will probably end the article by saying how the excess of the cruise ship lifestyle symbolizes the ills of China. And to top it off they will say how problem in Chinese culture is not suited to the modern world. lol

    Btw, here are some documentary of huge engineering projects undertaken in China recently. Wacthing them, I am glad I am no longer in the engineering consultation business. You are so right to say National Geographic is doing a great diservice to its readers. They are overlooking the engineering ingenuity and innovation undertaken by the various engineering teams to build better infrastructure.


  4. October 16th, 2012 at 16:05 | #4

    First, not sure if the word “blitzkrieg” carries any negativity. Agree with Allen here, it’s probably not defamation. Actually I wouldn’t even call it bigotry but rather just simply the author being uninformed. Bret Stephens of WSJ called China’s HSR was to impress outsiders, now that may be called bigotry, but first and foremost it’s sheer stupidity. Like to make a few points:

    * When Deng visited Japan in 1978, he told his lieutenants that China needed HSR. Now if China wanted to impress her people or even outsiders, she would simply contract out to maybe Japanese, Germans, or French in the 90s to build a couple of the urgently needed lines like the one between Shanghai and Beijing. No, those railroad-heads wanted to internally debate, research, refine the engineering processes and techniques. For instance, the Pudong Maglev line was a trial to see if the technologies could be used nationally. It would appear to be a white elephant but in reality it served a much greater strategy. Once the debate of maglev vs. wheel-based was over, the Chinese railroad heads finally built the Beijing to Tianjian line as more or less an operational demonstration line.

    Once the railroad heads learned what they had to learn, they started building the whole network in a blitzkrieg fashion. Since China has been able to internalize the whole process, the per unit cost is a fraction of the Taiwanese line that was build by the Japanese. To the uninformed, it seems like China was in a hurry in the past several years — but in reality China had been pondering the ideas and concepts for decades before the recent great alacrity.

    * The safety record. The Japanese HSR, Frech HSR and Chinese Gaotie all have perfect safety records. They are similar: dedicated tracks, same speed between stations, one type of engines, etc., and more expensive. The Wenzhou accident happened on a Dongche line, on which many types of engines and various trains with different speeds including cargo trains run. In China, Gaotie typically is designed with a top speed at 350/380 kmph, and DongChe at 250 kmph. Dongche is like Germany’s ICE, which also has a checkered safety record.

    Gaotie is a lot more expensive than Dongche. If money is not an issue, all lines should be Gaotie. Since in the real world money is an issue, a $1 goes in Gaotie at a place, means the same $1 can’t go to a somewhat longer Dongche, or an even longer traditional line somewhere else. So if you have to compare passenger railroad safety between countries, you have to compare the systems as a whole. Basically is China or Japan making its Shinkansen or Gaotie so safe that it starves the funding to the other lines and makes them less safe? By that logic, in the past decade, the Chinese railroad has been about twice as safe as the Japanese railroad.

    Even with the less sterling safety of ICE and Dongche, they are one to two orders of magnitude safer than general aviation as a while in America, which is the safest means of transportation. The real human toll in this case, is the inability of building HSRs in the several corridors with super-congested highways and airways in the US, financially or otherwise.

    * The human wave bit is simply retarded. The building of these lines is all about engineering precision and proficiency. I can provide a load of data just to impress… For instance, the designed allowed sinking of the Beijing/Shanghai track base is 5 millimeter every 100 years! If any segment of the lines doesn’t mean the requirement, it will be torn down and rebuilt. Recently such a case happened (in a different line), and for some reason it was reported in the West as the HSR tracks collapsed. In short, if you only read reports in the West, you may come away with the idea of that China is building its HSR will legos, but in reality it’s a relentless pursuit of perfection on steroid (to differentiate from Lexus’ tagline).

    * Financial toll? Anybody care to research the actual financial performance? Does the author know that the BJ/SH line was profitable in the 1st year after interest payment and amortization, which is simply mind-boggling for an infrastructure project of this scale?

    * Last but not least, humans make errors, especially in complicated engineering systems most people don’t have a clue about. For instance, the recent bridge ramp collapsed in Harbin. For those who pay attention to the facts, which for brevity of this comment I won’t get into, it’s a pretty clear cut case of truck overweight problem that plagues China and requires a hard and serious solution. Yet I don’t understand why the media and the uninformed people started the witch hunt of corruption. My first reaction of the case of Big Dig ceiling collapse, which also occurred not long after the tunnel was completed. Equally the media and the public wanted to hang the contractors before the investigation completed and all the facts came in — let’s face it, most of the public can’t probably correctly parse the investigation report anyway. The public witch hunts such like this are jacking up the cost of the infrastructure building indirectly — and people wonder why the US is stuck with increasingly crumbing and less safer old infrastructure…

  5. October 16th, 2012 at 17:50 | #5

    Good analysis. Judging from the golden weekend traffic jams at road, airport, railway/bus station, China’s basic infrastructure is woefully inadequate compare to even Russia. However, we have so many wise assed economists saying China is overbuilding.

    I read that the Harbin ramp collapsed because it was crossed by 4 trucks that have double the allowed weight. Of course, this point to another problem in China. In fact, the US used to have the same problem until the govn’t set up weighting station everywhere.

  6. Zack
    October 16th, 2012 at 19:10 | #6

    this is incredibly disappointing coming from National Geographic-a station i had long considered objective and free from bias, given its focus on scientific subjects.

  7. October 16th, 2012 at 21:12 | #7

    Allen/Jxie – I am probably less fair calling the piece defamatory. To me, bigotry and defamation belong to the same cesspool.

    Appreciate jxie fleshing out the argument.

    When China was fighting inflation, there were regions within China where vegetables were rotting while at the same time the same vegetable prices were shooting through the roof at other regions – – all because human and cargo traffic were competing for transport. So, indeed, as Ray illustrate with the peak travels around golden week or spring festival etc, we only need to look at the lines at train stations across China.

    Zack – it’s the same phenomenon Western climate scientists are polarized around party allegiance. Recall the science journal, Nature, trying to put its weight behind stupid accusations on Yi Shiwen.

  8. colin
    October 16th, 2012 at 21:27 | #8

    Very informative!

    It’s amazing how shallow western reporting of china is. There’s no way anyone can learn these things by following the western media.

  9. pug_ster
    October 17th, 2012 at 07:20 | #9

    Actually, this kind of material is not surprising from National Geographic. I wrote a similar complaint about it in 2009 in Foolsmountain regarding the Uyghur protests in that same year. This is what typical western propaganda is all about. This has benefited people many times over yet this so called Pulitzer prize winner who sits back and complain while America’s HSR can’t even go more than 100mph.

  10. October 17th, 2012 at 07:37 | #10

    Wow, thanks for that analysis. Where did you get data on the HSR’s financial performance? Is it publicly available? Can you post a link or two if possible?

  11. October 17th, 2012 at 19:31 | #11

    @Mister Unknown

    This contains a lot of data. A few data points:

    * The first year passenger count was 52.6 million.
    * The first 6 months revenue was 7 billion yuan, and in July it was 1.86 billion yuan. The full-year revenue will easily be more than 10 billion yuan (the rough level of cash flow positive, i.e. after operational cost, interest payments, but before amortization).
    * Even the staunchest opponent of HSR, Zhao Jian, admitted that in the first year the SH/BJ line would be profitable after interest payments and amortization, though as he pointed out, not yet paying back the principal of the outstanding loan (total at 110 billion yuan): 武广高铁未来的营业收入,虽然足以覆盖贷款利息、折旧费用和委托运营费用,但无法偿还贷款本金,无法实现真正盈利。”赵坚介绍,“京沪高铁、京津城际等也存在同样的问题,虽然京沪高铁开通一年,运送旅客超过5000万人次,但其营业收入无法偿还贷款本金。所以未来铁道部会面临严重的偿还铁路建设贷款本金的压力。I don’t know any infrastructure projects done by the public or by private companies have met Zhao Jian’s standard the first year in the long cycle, certainly not Interstate Highway System, Shinkansen, or Verizon’s FiOS network (some of the most successful examples).

  12. October 17th, 2012 at 22:25 | #12

    And, next time I am in Shanghai or Beijing, I plan to take the high-speed rail. So we get a better sense of scale – just on that line alone, there are roughly 90 trips a day! That’s probably around 45 bullet trains. (See schedule.)

  13. N.M.Cheung
    October 18th, 2012 at 19:55 | #13

    I wouldn’t call the article defamatory, although it contain words like human waves and blitzkrieg which remind people of Korea War and WW II which was very unfortunate. I think he was trying to illustrate the speed and some low tech aspects that was taking place unlike the construction of Second Avenue Subway in NYC which progresses a snail’s pace taking forever. In the article he reemphasized the criticism on Wenchow train crash which Chinese internet more than covered. He also mentioned that the financial aspect is not really that serious as some lines more than covered the cost. But he also mentioned some positive aspects that also occurred to me when I rode those trains last 2 yearts. I took the high speed train from Beijing to Tianjing last year at 350 km/hr (before the crash, it was lowered to 300 km/hr after.), it took less than 1/2 hrs and seem to have train every 15 minutes. I took the Beijing to Shanghai train earlier this year at 300 km/hr and counting airport commute time was almost same. The cost is much cheaper than air and is causing semismic waves on the airline industry, forcing ticket prices to plunge. The one criticism is some first class seats were empty ( it almost double the regular ones.), and some realignment of first/regular are in order. The meg/lev train was nice, it travels at same speed as train (300 km/hr), capable of up to 500 km/hr, but expensive, about 50 yuan or 8 dollars. It’s not that expansive but compare with subway which cost only a few yuans and goes to the same place with about 25 minutes longer. I also took the Xinning to Lhasa train which is much slower and poorer qualitywise. The important point being those trains knit China much closer. Internal tourism has exploded. Now anyone has access to scenic mountains one only dreamed before. Migrant workers has poured into Tibet (which is one criticism from West) and Sinkiang. I think the Chinese Government built up the infrastructure for precisely this reason.

  14. October 19th, 2012 at 01:03 | #14

    Thanks yinyang for the excellent review and jxie for the informative analysis.

    Whether “defamatory” is the best word or not, I fully share yinyang’s comment that “I wonder if Johnson would dare to characterize the U.S. shuttle program as “engineering blitzkrieg.” ” The answer is clear: He wouldn’t. So, if we disregard bigotry or racism and other objectively objectionable intentions, why the difference?

    Oh well, jealousy perhaps? After all, The US produced the ONLY modern high-rises in the history of structural engineering to have collapsed FREE FALL due to fire or external impact. One of them (Building 7) was not even hit by anything. Severely bombed buildings in Iraq did not fail in this dramatic manner. Yet their National Building Code was not reviewed to prevent recurrence, and none of their research labs is working on understanding this mysteriously “anti-Newtonian” phenomenon. I would not regard them qualified to comment on other countries’ engineering achievements, period.

    It is a pity that many Anglo-American journals I once enjoyed have collapsed with the empire dream, moral facade, and self-confidence. The National Geographic is just one of the latest.

  15. JJ
    October 19th, 2012 at 23:37 | #15

    China actually has one of the safest train records:

    China: 876.22 billion passenger-km/year, 317 deaths over 20 years. This is one death per 55.3 billion passenger-km.

    Japan: the UIC claims 253.55 billion passenger-km/year, which only includes JR companies. Figures including private railroads and excluding subways range from 360 to 395.9 billion passenger-km; I believe the higher number since it is slightly less dated. Over 20 years there have been 154 deaths, so this is one death per 51.4 billion passenger-km. Including subways would put Japan on a par with China.

    EU-27: 386.24 billion passenger-km/year (presumably mainline only), 603 mainline deaths over 20 years. This does not include 155 deaths from a fire on a funicular. This is one death per 12.8 billion passenger-km, or 1 per 10.2 billion if the funicular fire is included. This varies a lot by country: the safest European countries, such as France and the Netherlands, are on a par with China and Japan, but the EU average is pulled down by Germany (due to Eschede) and the periphery.

    South Korea: 31.3 billion passenger-km/year, 93 deaths over 20 years. This is one death per 6.7 billion passenger-km. Here the mainline-only rule is a problem because a) the Seoul subway is even more integrated with commuter rail than the Tokyo subway, and b) a subway fire in Daegu killed 198 people.

    India: 838.03 billion passenger-km/year, 2,556 deaths over 20 years. This is one death per 6.6 billion passenger-km.

    US: 27.26 billion passenger-km/year (both Amtrak and commuter rail), 159 deaths over 20 years. Note the rate is more than twice that of China per capita, let alone per rail passenger. This is one death per 3.4 billion passenger-km.

    Source: Comparative Rail Safety

  16. October 20th, 2012 at 13:14 | #16


    Here are a few problems with this one:

    * Fatality stats in many countries prior to the advent of the Internet ubiquity might not be very good. It’s better to compute only the last decade.

    * The passenger-km numbers are for the last available year, not for the last 20 years. For countries with faster railroad passenger growth, this method overstates their safety records.

    * The US’ deaths include non-passenger railroad deaths, e.g. those killed at railroad crossings, deaths in cargo train collisions, etc.

    I am shamelessly plugging my own computation as being better.

  17. October 23rd, 2012 at 10:07 | #17

    A long but interesting read: Boss Rail by Evan Osnos.

    There are some minor issues with the facts, such as that Henry Cao’s camera couldn’t possibly snatch the km equivalent of 188 mph (300 km/h) because for D301 both the train type (early version of CRH2) and the track type top out at 250 km/h. There are many instances the author chose a debatable version, for brevity sake I won’t get into them. Here are my main issues with it:

    1. Safety record. It did quote Ollivier, a WB infrastructure specialist, near the end that the Chinese HSR is still a very safe means of transportation. I wish that the author compared the Chinese railroad safety record with its international peers, and probably more importantly given the readers being mostly Americans, the safety record of American mass transportation systems.


    With so many kickbacks changing hands, it isn’t surprising that parts of the railway went wildly over budget. A station in Guangzhou slated to be built for three hundred and sixteen million dollars ended up costing seven times that.

    The station in Guangzhou has to be the Guangzhou Southern Station, given the cost. Though the real amount is off, it was true that the final amount was several times higher than the initial estimate. The station project was funded by both the MoR and the Guangzhou government. Initially it was meant to be a no-frills railroad station connecting a few railroad lines and a subway line, but eventually it was drastically scaled up to a transportation and commercial hub mostly by the Guangzhou municipal government — because the additional economic activities and real estate developments this brings out are very lucrative. In a way the MoR just tagged along for the ride.

    A more honest assessment of the cost overrun or not, would be the example of the Beijing/Shanghai HSR line, see my comment. The line’s final cost was near 30% overrun from its initial budget (with no adjustment of inflation). To compare to it, better examples in the US wouldn’t be the California HSR because it’s still in a pipedream stage. A better comparison would be the Big Dig project, the cost overrun with adjustment of inflation was 188%.

    My point isn’t beating down the US to make China look good, but rather — China has many problems and needs their own solutions, some of which are very hard. However, don’t dilude yourself to think Americans have the answers to the Chinese problems, or the American system is the solution to the Chinese problems.

  18. October 23rd, 2012 at 10:20 | #18

    BTW, Liu Zhijun is such a special and complex character, who is not unlike Shinji Sogo. Years later Sogo is remembered fondly by the Japanese. I think as years go by, Liu will be remembered kindly by the Chinese as well.

  19. October 25th, 2012 at 12:41 | #19


    Regarding the calculations, I also pointed out to the author of that blog post that the passenger-km data is based on the latest year, not the last 20. I recalculated using World Bank data on passenger-KMs (also very incomplete & rough), but took the blogger’s data on deaths (I assume major fatal accidents would be well-documented for the most part with or without the widespread use of the internet). The blogger’s numbers were off, but directionally correct from what I can tell. China & Japan both topped the safety standard (with Japan slightly ahead) at 1 death per 33.5/33.6 billion passenger-km traveled, followed by everyone else (that was measured).

    Some people on that blog commented that it isn’t fair to compare Chinese rail safety to that of the US, since rail is not the primary method of long-distance commute for most Americans, therefore there will be fewer passenger-km traveled. Given the small denominator, every death will make America’s safety record look worse than it is. I think that is a perfectly valid point. Of course, if we were to compare America’s primary mode of long-distance transport (driving) to that of China (rail), it’ll make the US look even worse, since their highway death rate is about 1 per 100 million passenger-miles, which comes to 1 per 163 million passenger-KM traveled.

  20. October 25th, 2012 at 19:52 | #20

    @Mister Unknown

    Your calculations, if you used that blog’s numbers, would be for the most recent 2 decades. Mine were for the most recent 1 decade. The bulk of the Japanese fatalities occurred during the Amagasaki crash in 2005, at a total 107 deaths. For them, the fatality number spreads thinner in 2 decades than 1 — or in other word, the Japanese railroads were safer in the 90s and the 00s.

    The reason why I picked 1 decade instead of 2 is the potential data quality issue with the old data. Even you are a cynical type, it’s very hard to make a case that the real fatalities of an accident can’t be fudged, in the era that everybody has an Internet-capable camera phone. Moreover, I actually spent quite a bit time searching by each year to see if there was a railroad accident accounted for in the Wiki page.

    Yes, the Chinese railroads are 100s times safer than the American roadways, which are safer than the Chinese roadways. The safest sub-category in long-distance travel in the US is carrier-based aviation, which is several times less safe than the Chinese railroads; the general aviation as a whole is between 1 to 2 orders of magnitude less safe.

  21. October 27th, 2012 at 10:14 | #21

    Well, to be fair. He is not more corrupt than many ministers in Japan, Korea, Taiwan who pushed through many new projects that are beneficial. However, we still need to set the bar higher.

    Deng Xiaoping’s loved Puer tea, yet he can afford to drink only a glass a day. When he go out he has no motor escort, his sweaters are so worned there are holes in them. If not for those statesmen who sacrifice selflessly, China would be like India.

    However, Liu Zhijun has a scumbag of a brother who is also in the railway ministry, I suspect he is responsible for some of the worst corruption.

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