SHANGHAI – More than a year after a train crash in China left his parents dead and his brother disabled, Leo Cao still feels bitter grief, but also anger at what he sees as the real killer: corruption.
Leo left China as a 10-year-old when his parents closed their small hardware shop and sought a better life in the United States.
His first trip back, 20 years later, was to identify their bodies.
The Caos became U.S. citizens and worked hard to make their way in their new home, both adults taking jobs as caretakers at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, and saving up to treat themselves to occasional trips to their native land.
Before boarding the second carriage of train D301 in Beijing, bound for his ancestral province of Fujian, Erxing Cao proudly took a photo of a gleaming bullet train on his mobile phone. It was part of the largest high-speed rail network in the world, seen by Beijing as a symbol of China’s advance.
Hours later, the 56-year-old lay dead in twisted wreckage, killed instantly when his train smashed into another.
“He had a passion to see China develop and become a global power, but it’s the same development that pretty much killed him,” said his son.
His mother, Zeng Rong Chen, also 56, was pronounced dead at the hospital. A pouch with $10,000 in cash she was carrying vanished, haunting family members who fear looting may have delayed her medical treatment.
“I just hate to think that whatever my mother was carrying might have contributed to her death — if something might have happened between the crash site and the hospital,” Leo said.
His parents were among at least 40 people killed in the incident near Wenzhou on July 23 last year, China’s worst rail accident since 2008.
It put the spotlight on the country’s breakneck development — and rampant government corruption.
China has more than 7,700 km of high-speed rail lines and plans to more than double that by 2015. A new line between the northern cities of Dalian and Harbin is to open Saturday, to be followed soon by another between Beijing and the southern city of Guangzhou.
A government report on the Wenzhou crash blamed it on design flaws and poor management, saying former Railways Minister Liu Zhijun — architect of the high-speed system — was responsible for “irregularities” in design and safety.
He had been removed from his job five months before the accident, and days ahead of a Communist Party congress earlier this month he was formally expelled from the organization for “serious disciplinary violations.”
That cleared the way for his prosecution for taking massive bribes in return for awarding contracts, though a trial date has yet to be announced.
After the 18th Communist Party congress, Xi Jinping, the newly proclaimed head of the ruling party, said corruption could “kill” the country if not addressed. But while officials have vowed to tackle the problem, campaigns have stopped short of rooting out graft at the very top beyond a few individuals.
Leo sees institutionalized graft as the real culprit of Wenzhou, beyond a single individual.
“Corruption killed my parents — the rapid expansion (of the railway network) and the ‘business as usual’ system in China where bribes are a way to conduct business,” he Leo said during an interview in Shanghai.
“I have no personal qualms with that guy,” he said, referring to Liu. “It’s the system. The signal system went into operation without testing and that only happens when bribes are paid.”
Nearly 200 people were injured in the crash, among them his older brother, Henry Cao, 33.
The last thing Henry remembers before the collision was an uncontrollable jolting.
“The train car was shaking — lights were off — it felt like I was falling and I said a prayer,” he said. “Then I was in a dreamy state. It was like I was trapped in pain but I couldn’t escape.”
He lost his spleen and a kidney, among other injuries. Now he suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder and recently had part of his intestine removed because of complications.
“Looking at him breaks my heart. He’s half the man he used to be, mentally and physically,” said Leo, who is seeking what he deems fair compensation from the Chinese authorities.
The government’s Ministry of Railways offered $145,000 each for his parents — the same as Chinese victims — based on 20 years of the average salary in Zhejiang Province, where the crash occurred.
The ministry offered Henry Cao $85,000 based on his earnings from running a trading business — which has collapsed as a result of his injuries — and has refused an increase.
“We’re a humble family in the U.S. My parents were janitors. We’re not seeking the moon. What I’m doing is trying to get some compensation for my brother,” said Leo, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina.
He is now contemplating lodging a lawsuit through a Shanghai court, which he fully expects to lose. “Corruption killed my parents,” he repeated. “Unfortunately, I can’t take the Chinese to court for corruption.”