Victims' Sons in Tough Fight for Redress After China Rail Crash
By Andrew Jacobs | The New York Times
August 28, 2012
Henry Cao has stark memories of the moment the high-speed train he was riding rear-ended another last summer in the eastern city of Wenzhou: the pleasantly hypnotic rocking that gave way to a jolt he likened to an earthquake, followed by blackness and the sensation of falling as the car plummeted 100 feet off a viaduct.
"We were flying like rag dolls," he said.
The crash killed 40 passengers, injured 191 and shook the nation's confidence in its ambitious high-speed rail system. Mr. Cao, 33, a Chinese-American importer from Colorado, barely survived; he lost a kidney and his spleen, and head injuries have left him mired in a perpetual daze, unable to stay awake for more than an hour or two. His parents, naturalized American citizens taking him on a triumphant tour of their native land, were killed.
As Mr. Cao has struggled to recover over the past year, he has found himself drained by a different sort of battle: trying to wrest compensation from the Ministry of Railways, an unbending government behemoth unaccustomed to dealing with determined foreign citizens.
This month Mr. Cao returned to China for the first time since the accident. He and his brother, Leo, came to collect their parents' remains and to press negotiations with the ministry. "They know how to wear you down," said Leo Cao, 30. "First they let you scream and yell, then they stall you, and finally they tell you vague and empty words. Now they say, 'You're lucky you're getting anything.' "
Their painful and politically fraught odyssey has highlighted the workings of an omnipotent ministry that employs more than two million people and rivals the Chinese military in size and influence. The experience has been disorienting for the Cao brothers, who left China as adolescents two decades ago. "This place is not how I remember it," said Henry Cao, speaking faintly as his eyes flickered and lost focus. "Everyone is rushing around to make money. Life here is cheap."
The ministry, which runs its own court system and is largely impervious to oversight, has long been dogged by accusations of corruption. A former rails minister, Liu Zhijun, who was fired five months before the accident, is expected to go on trial next month for charges of taking millions of dollars in bribes and other unnamed "disciplinary violations."
Zhang Kai, a lawyer who represented a passenger sentenced to three years in prison for slapping a train conductor, described the ministry as a "monster left over from the planned economy era" that resists reform or challenges to its authority. "It is common knowledge that the ministry is responsible for generating maximum profits while supervising itself," Mr. Zhang said.
In a report released in December, government investigators placed the blame for the Wenzhou accident on flaws in signaling equipment. Investigators say the ministry bypassed safety regulations in its haste to create the world's largest high-speed railroad network.
For the brothers' parents -- Cao Erxing and his wife, Chen Zengrong, both 56 -- the return to China was a capstone to lives of toil in New York City sweatshops and restaurant kitchens. The father and mother, neither of whom studied beyond middle school, had left Fujian Province with their boys, taught themselves English and earned enough money to buy a house in Queens. At the time of their death, they were custodial workers at La Guardia Airport.
"They finally felt financially secure enough to take their first vacation," Leo Cao said.
His father died at the scene, but his mother survived for two hours, leaving haunting unanswered questions. Did she receive adequate medical care? And who was heartless enough to swipe the $10,000 from the fanny pack fastened to her waist?
In the parlance of Communist Party euphemisms, July 23 has become a "sensitive anniversary" -- a day for newspaper editors and columnists to ignore. After a blizzard of coverage in the days after the crash -- including reports of a botched rescue and efforts to bury one of the train carriages -- the censors blocked discussions of the topic on microblog services. Last month, victims' families were warned against holding public memorials.
But the Cao brothers, ignoring such admonitions, have become thorns in the side of the government as they seek financial assistance.
In a series of meetings, ministry officials have offered them $280,000 for the death of their parents and $85,000 for Henry Cao's injuries, the brothers said. The Caos have requested a total of $5 million, based on what they say the three would have earned over 20 years of working in the United States.
Their lawyers say the ministry is ignoring a national law that bases compensation on accident victims' earning power in the area where they lived. The ministry is citing its own regulations that rely on prevailing wages in the province where the crash occurred.
"The representatives tell us there is no room for negotiation," said a lawyer for the brothers, Tian Jie. "Even they admit they don't know who makes the decisions."
Officials did not respond to a faxed request for comment, and repeated telephone calls to the ministry's office of public information last week were not answered.
Leo Cao said that his brother was too disabled to work and that the offered compensation would not go very far in supporting his four young children and paying for his medical expenses. "From the outside, my brother looks somewhat normal, but he's half the man he used to be," he said.
The ministry's minders stay in the same hotel as the brothers, paying for their accommodations and carrying their luggage. But they frequently call to find out where the brothers are. Negotiators have warned of "troubles" that might result from talking to journalists.
This month, as the brothers wept over their parents' coffins at a funeral home in Wenzhou, ministry employees huddled awkwardly. "If they lose track of us they get scolded," Leo Cao later said with weary resignation.
In the hours after the accident, ministry negotiators descended on morgues and hospitals even before the surgeons had finished stitching up the injured. Working in teams of four or five, they separated victims' families into different hotels and relentlessly hammered out deals that in the end were nearly the same: about $140,000 for each fatality.
For the past year, the Cao brothers have angered officials by refusing to remove their parents' bodies from the morgue. Leo Cao, who was completing a doctorate in information sciences at the time of the crash, said he had been partly overwhelmed by the medical needs of his brother.
But he also came to hope the delay might help persuade the ministry to compromise, and also allow a funeral service in the family's ancestral Fujianese village. Officials refused, perhaps fearful it would draw other disgruntled survivors.
Still, the brothers held a makeshift memorial service at the funeral home and then stopped at the site of the crash. Last Wednesday, they arranged for the bodies to be shipped to New York. The funeral, scheduled for Saturday in Queens, is expected to draw hundreds of Fujianese immigrants.
As the talks dragged on, Henry Cao became increasingly withdrawn, saying he was no longer interested in the money and wanted only to return home. He spent most of his last days in China in his hotel room, reading biblical stories that touch on suffering and redemption. "I want to move on," he said, staring at the floor.
But for now, his brother is determined to keep fighting and says he is prepared to file a lawsuit in Chinese court, even though several lawyers have advised him it would be futile. "It's not only about money," Leo Cao said. "I want justice."
Among the hundreds of photographs recovered from their father's iPhone from his first and final vacation in China, one image stands out: a shaky snapshot of the LED monitor that graced the carriage of their train boasting that it was moving at 303 kilometers an hour, or 188 m.p.h.
"My father was so proud of China's progress," Leo Cao said. "Unfortunately it was China's progress that killed my parents."
Mia Li contributed research from Beijing.