AUTHORITIES SAY THAT none of the 123 passengers and nine crew aboard a China Eastern Airlines flight MU5735 that plunged into a Guangxi hillside on March 21 survived.
Rescue teams have identified 120 of the victims so far through DNA analysis. The search for human remains and plane wreckage continues in the steeply wooded and rain-sodden area.
The crash is China’s most deadly aviation disaster in nearly three decades.
State media report that the second ‘black box’, the flight data recorder, has been found. The first, the cockpit voice recorder, was recovered earlier. It was reportedly badly damaged, but aviation officials said on March 26 that data is being downloaded and analysed.
SUPPLY CHAINS, ALREADY under heightened stress because of the Ukraine conflict, face a new challenge from the latest Covid-19 lockdowns.
Congestion in the Yantian and Shekou container terminals at Shenzhen and the terminal in Hong Kong is at its worst in five months, leading to further delays in shipping to export markets.
Approximately 174 container ships are anchored or loading in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, the most since October 21 last year in the aftermath of Typhoon Kompasu.
The same is shaping up in Shanghai. In the north, the lines of vessels waiting to get into Qingdao port in Shandong were double the length mid-month that they were at the end of February.
The Omicron variant’s challenge to China’s zero-Covid strategy is making the congestion worse than that typically seen around Chinese ports after the Lunar New Year. The delays will have a ripple effect as shippers re-route cargo and loadings to other ports. Longer delays will also push up freight rates.
As well as affecting port operations, lockdowns have hit production, with factories being temporarily shuttered or allowed to operate under strict restrictions.
While Shenzhen has just eased its lockdown, Hong Kong is battling a fearsome outbreak of the Omicron variant. Shanghai, which handles more tonnage than either of the two southern shipping hubs, is still seeing a rise in infections. Although denied by authorities, rumours of a coming complete lockdown are circulating.
THERE ARE NO reports of survivors from the Kunming to Guangzhou flight that plunged into a forested hillside near Wuzhou in Guanxi on Monday afternoon with 123 passengers and nine crew on board. Nor, as of Tuesday, had any bodies been recovered, according to state media.
China’s first fatal civil aviation accident in more than a decade has understandably caused widespread shock.
Some 2,000 rescuers who have reached the mountainous district are searching for the aircraft’s flight-data cockpit-voice recorders, assisted by drones. Aviation experts hope the ‘black boxes’ will reveal the cause of the tragedy. However, the high speed of impact may have destroyed them. (Update: At least one of the black boxes has been found, authorities said on March 23.)
The airliner involved, a Boeing 737-800 that was less than seven years old, and the airline, China Eastern Airlines, have strong safety records.
It is too early to speculate on the cause of the accident. Yet, the aircraft essentially nosediving into the ground from a cruising altitude of around 9,000 metres, as shown in the graphic above from the flight-tracking website, FlightRadar 24, suggests an extraordinarily untoward incident, rather than the sort of design problem that caused the worldwide grounding of the Boeing 737 Max after two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) will handle the investigation. As the aircraft was US-made, the US National Transportation Safety Board has appointed an investigator for the crash. It will assist the CAAC, ‘if asked’.
China Eastern has grounded its Boeing 737-800s fleet. Of the more than 4,200 of the aircraft in service worldwide, Chinese airlines account for 1,177. The CAAC has urged an immediate two-week-long safety overhaul of civil aviation.
Since the unsafe flying days of the 1980s and 1990s, China’s civil aviation had become remarkably safe thanks to investment in new aircraft and strict safety rules imposed after two flights crashed within a month in 2002, with a combined loss of 234 lives.
Last month, the CAAC said that Chinese airlines had set a world record on February 19 by operating without a major accident for 100 million flying hours, stretching back to August 2010 when a Henan Airlines flight from Harbin crashed on approach to the airport in Yichun in Heilongjiang province.
DIESEL FUEL SHORTAGES are following China’s widespread electric power shortages as factories turn to diesel-powered generators to keep production going and wholesale prices higher than retail ones cause refineries to cut back production.
Petrol stations in many parts of China are reportedly rationing diesel, with lorry drivers reporting having to wait days in some cases to refuel, being limited to small quantities or being charged extra to fill up.
Lorries are the often overlooked underbelly of supply chains, so these latest fuel shortages and prices rises will put further pressure on already strained global supply chains.
Wholesale prices of petrol and diesel have risen by around one-fifth over the past month. They are now above government-set retail prices, leading to production cutbacks at refineries, as at power plants when coal and natural gas prices jumped.
Diesel output was down 4.4% in the first nine months of this year compared to the same period a year earlier, although it ticked up in September. Reserve inventories have been run down by about one-fifth. Meanwhile, retail prices have increased by 30% this year. Export supplies are being diverted to the domestic market.
The power and fuel shortages are pushing up producer prices — by a record 10.7% in September — although this has yet to work through to retail prices. Consumer price inflation rose just 0.7% in September.
In part, consumption is being depressed by lockdowns to contain a new wave of Covid-19 outbreaks that have spread to 11 provinces over the past ten days.
THIS WAS PERHAPS inevitable. As the novel coronavirus, Covid-19, spreads globally (nearly 90,000 cases in 67 countries, according to the World Health Organization), China has introduced restrictions on incoming travellers from virus hotspots, specifically South Korea, Japan, Iran and Italy.
Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong will now require them to undergo a 14-day quarantine to prevent the virus from being re-imported. Authorities are also calling on overseas Chinese intending to return home or visit to reconsider their plans.
Confirmed cases are increasing faster outside the country than in now, with the 125 new cases reported today the fewest in the past six weeks, even accounting for the return last month to the narrower definition of infection used in diagnosis. Four out of the five foreign cases are in the four countries on which the new restrictions have been imposed.
As the United States belatedly ramps up testing for the virus, likely leading to an increase in reported cases there, Beijing may have to mirror Washington’s denial of entry to foreign nationals who have visited China, and now other countries, in the 14 days before arriving in the United States, restrictions sharply criticised by Beijing.
THR USEFUL MAP above is produced by The Mercator Institute for China Studies, the German think tank that is the largest in Europe with an exclusive focus on China.
There has been a sharp uptick in recent weeks in expressions of concern by US politicians outside the traditional China-hawks about Beijing’s long-term plans to expand its global power through infrastructure development and finance and by building up its military.
In February, The Mercator Institute published a report suggesting that Europe should have similar concerns about how Beijing is expanding its influence in Europe in support of those aims through the use of ‘sharp power’ — the offensive use of soft power tools aimed at political and economic elites, media and public opinion, and civil society and academia.
THE GIANT TRAFFIC-STRADDLING bus that caught this Bystander’s somewhat skeptical eye last year (see above) has gone the way of many an idea that was too innovative for its own good. Nowhere.
Technical and financial shortcomings seem to have done for it, according to press reports. Latest reports say the test track is being dismantled.
Last year, shortly after the (very) short test run of a prototype Transit Elevated Bus (TEB) in Qinhuangdao, the Beijing News reported that the main investment promotor for it was Huaying Kailai, an asset management company blacklisted in 2015 for conducting illegal finance activities. The Global Times said the firm, part of the Huaying Land Group, also ran a peer-to-peer financing scheme that promised high returns but risked running out of cash.
Claims of cooperation agreements between the bus’s maker, TEB Technology Development, and municipal governments appear to have been as spurious as purported orders from three countries in Latin America.
Update: Police have arrested 32 people in connection with the failure of the TEB, including the CEO of TEB and founder of Huaying Kailai Asset Management, Bai Zhiming, and 31 Huaying Kailai employees.
A GIANT TRAFFIC-STRADDLING bus (seen above) has caught the world’s attention, but it may be a different public transport technology that has the lasting impact.
The day after a prototype 2 metre-high Transit Elevated Bus made its inaugural test run along 300 metres of track in the northeastern city of Qinhuangdao in Hebei province, China’s first fully indigenous super capacitor (‘supercap’) tram rolled off the production line in Zhuzhou in Hunan province.
Both tick several boxes for China: road-congestion reduction, green transport that will lower carbon emissions and cutting-edge technology.
The electric-powered Transit Elevated Bus can carry 300 passengers, with, its manufacturers say, up to four of its 21 metres long by 7.5 metres wide units eventually being able to be strung together.
It runs along a track that can be laid on an existing road and sweeps over the traffic below (or at least over vehicles low enough to fit under) at speeds, it is said, that will eventually reach up to 60 kilometres per hour. It is touted as being like a subway system without the need to build the tunnels, thus reducing construction costs to a fifth of that of constructing a new subway line.
The super capacitor tram (seen above) does not have the futuristic look of the elevated bus. It looks like, well, a tram. Built by the electric motor division of the giant state-owned rolling stock manufacturer CRRC Corp., ZELC, the tram can carry up to 380 passengers and travel at 70 kilometres per hour. Its key feature is that its batteries can be fully powered in 30 seconds — i.e. while it is stopped to take on or put off passengers — so there is no need to install unsightly fixed lines above the track to provide the power.
The technology is at least a decade old and lets trams run for up to 5 kilometres on a single charge. Centenary-less supercap trams using technology from Germany’s Siemens are already running Guangzhou. Nanjing will be next. China’s cities have 5,000 kilometres of tram track with plans to have half as much again by 2020.
But why bother with tracks at all? Super capacitors can also be used to charge electric buses. ZELC has already developed a prototype in Ningbo, a bus that still travels on the road rather than over it.
The corruption trial of Liu Zhijun, the disgraced former railways minister who dipped his hand deep into the honeypot of China’s rapid expansion of its high-speed rail network, has been overshadowed by the Bo Xilai affair. Yet it is arguably a purer test of President Xi Jinping’s stated intention to crack down on corrupt officials as it doesn’t carry any of the political theatre of the Bo case.
Liu becomes the most senior official to be sentenced since Xi came to power, though the investigation and arrest of the 60-year old former railways minister predates that. A Beijing court convicted Liu of accepting 64.6 million yuan ($10.5 million) in bribes between 1986 and 2011, though this Bystander suspects that isn’t even the half of it. By some estimates 3% was skimmed off China’s 2 trillion yuan buildout of its high-speed rail system.
Liu’s sentence of death with a two-year reprieve is effectively a life sentence. Sufficient deterrent, not just for what Xi called the powerful “tigers” but also for the low-ranking “flies” that the anti-corruption drive is targeting? More cases of both kinds being brought to court would help, but institutional reform is needed to break the systemic grip of graft.
We will study and formulate a plan for reforming the railroad system in accordance with the principle of separating government functions from enterprise management and state asset management.
This followed a World Bank working paper that outlined how the powerful and monstrously large ministry could be broken up. One of its key recommendations has been taken up: putting the oversight and planning for rail under a revamped transport ministry with multi-modal responsibilities for coordinating transport. Operations are going into a separate corporation, a likely prelude to sell-offs. (State media announcement of the ministry’s dismantling.)
China’s is the only significant rail network in the world where the railways ministry makes policy, builds and owns the infrastructure, operates the services and regulates the system. Beyond the obvious conflicts of interests, which have shown themselves most prominently in the scandal-plagued build-out of the high-speed rail network, China’s rail system is just so massive it is beyond the management of a single entity.
Taking on breaking up the railways ministry in isolation would have been a tough political ask for the new leadership. The ministry has long successfully defended the autonomy of its turf. But the combination of the scandals with the high-speed rail build-out and the desire for a less corrupt and more efficient government overall as necessary for the next stage of China’s economic development changed the political calculation. The “gold bowl that will never break’ has, at last, done so, and China’s transport system will be the better for it.
It also sends a signal that the new leadership is serious about taking on structural reform. That it has only managed to pick off some of the (relatively) easier targets–dismantling railways, consolidating coastal patrol agencies and promoting food and drug safety–but not made as much headway in areas such as financial markets and energy shows where some of the political constraints on it still lie.