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Long Ride for Justice

Lea Cao had his first inkling that something was wrong when he got a long-distance phone call from relatives in southeastern China.

His family members in Fuzhou phoned Cao in New York to say that his parents and brother had failed to arrive at the local train station as scheduled on the night of July 23, 2011. The train was already three hours overdue, and they were worried.

“At first, I wasn’t concerned,” Cao recalled, since delays are not uncommon for trains in China. Even the newly opened high-speed train on which his family was traveling had been known to run late.

What the relatives said next, though, sent a chill down Cao’s spine. “They said there might be some kind of accident,” he told Caixin.

Cao later learned that his family had been victims of China’s deadliest high-speed rail crash. Two bullet trains on the Ningbo-Taizhou-Wenzhou line had collided and derailed outside Wenzhou, in Zhejiang province. Four cars had fallen from the railroad viaduct.

ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images
This photo from July 23, 2011 shows rescuers working at the accident scene on a bridge in Wenzhou.

The morning after the crash, Cao got word from the U.S. consulate in Shanghai that his father had died. After twelve hours, a consulate representative called again to say his mother, too, had died and that his brother was in the hospital.

The accident dubbed by the media “7-23” left forty dead and more than 200 injured.

Cao’s father Cao Erxing and mother Chen Zengrong were the only Americans killed. His brother Henry Cao was severely injured.

Now, more than a year later, many victims and their survivors reportedly have been fully compensated for their losses by the Ministry of Railways, which operated the trains and the rail line.

But Cao is still working on his family’s claims in hopes of reaching what he says would be a fair settlement with the ministry.

Lawyers in the United States and China have gotten involved, and so far, the ministry has not made an offer that Cao’s family can accept.

Compensation claims have been filed for Cao’s brother, a father of four who is recovering from the accident but walks with a limp. And Cao is seeking death benefits for his parents, whose bodies are being stored in a hospital morgue’s deep-freeze in Wenzhou.

Family Tragedy

Cao’s parents immigrated to the United States in the 1980s from Chang-Le, in the Fujian province countryside, where they worked on communal farms in the 1960s and ’70s. After moving to New York, they held down small jobs to support the family, and eventually found work as janitors at LaGuardia Airport.

They raised Henry, 32, who before the crash worked as an e-commerce entrepreneur in Colorado. He and his wife had three children under age eight when the tragedy occurred. Six months later, their fourth child was born.

Cao, 29, is a doctoral candidate studying library sciences at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. An accomplished academic, he teaches part-time and has earned several scholarships, including one from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Cao’s parents and brother had taken a month-long trip to China, stopping in Shanghai and Beijing as part of a package tour. They were heading to visit Fuzhou relatives when the crash occurred. At the time, Cao was house-sitting in New York for his parents and finishing his thesis.

In the wake of the consulate’s calls, Cao along with his brother’s pregnant wife, an aunt and an uncle tried to fly to China but were delayed five days while awaiting visas.

Eventually they found Henry in critical condition at the Wenzhou Ren Min Hospital No. 2, the destination for several crash victims. He had lost a gallon of blood, had six broken ribs and a fractured ankle. A ruptured kidney and spleen had to be removed.

The medical staff told Cao his brother had been five minutes from dying when he reached the hospital. Officials said his father had been declared dead at the crash site, and that his mother had died after reaching the hospital.

Based on hospital records, Cao learned two hours had elapsed between the accident and the time when Henry and his mother arrived at the hospital. A few weeks later, he traveled the distance himself and determined that under normal circumstances and even in traffic, the trip takes only fifteen minutes.

When the crash occurred, Cao said, his mother had been carrying US$6,000 in a belt purse. The money was never found. “It’s not that we’re concerned about the money,” he said. “But we are worried that looting might have been a factor in her death.”

Relatives requested an autopsy for the mother and asked police to investigate the case of the missing purse. Cao said officials told him they couldn’t satisfy the requests because of “chaotic” conditions surrounding the train collision.

In a separate interview with Caixin, Yang Feng, a Shaoxing city native who had also lost his family in the crash, said he had arrived at the scene within a few hours of the accident, but was only able to find the unrecognizable body of his wife three days later at the morgue. He had early on been a vocal critic of the government’s “ineffective rescue efforts” and “sluggish follow-up.” Yang lost his wife and their unborn child, as well as three other relatives.

A report issued by the National Administration of Work Safety last December, however, stated that the fire department started rescue efforts at the scene twelve minutes after the crash. At the same time, the Wenzhou Health Bureau designated eleven hospitals for the injured, and assigned medical specialists and staff for emergency response.

Feeling Pressure

At the Wenzhou hospital, Cao said he came under intense pressure from officials who wanted him to sign for the quick disposal of his parents’ remains. Among those breathing down his neck were groups of Wenzhou local government officials and rail ministry representatives.

Ministry officials especially were in the line of fire, as the deadly crash had dealt a fresh blow to the ministry’s image. An investigation ordered by the State Council later faulted the ministry for the crash, saying it failed to adequately manage a contract for a track signaling system on the Wenzhou line that had technical flaws. The official investigation report named fifty-four people responsible for the incident, including former railway minister Liu Zhijun and deputy chief engineer Zhang Shuguang.

At the time of the crash, however, the ministry was already reeling from an early-2011 corruption scandal that led to the ouster of Liu Zhijun, the agency’s minister, and heavy debts incurred during an enormous, eight-year effort to crisscross the country with bullet trains while developing a bullet-train industry.

Against the backdrop of the ministry’s post-crash scramble to again salvage its reputation, Cao’s pleas for the government to help cover his family’s medical and death costs seemed to fall on deaf ears. The officials’ sole concern, he said, was cremation. “I have no doubt that high-speed trains in the long run are a positive development,” Cao said. “But in the short run, what they did to get to where they are, is not so positive.

“I prioritized taking care of my brother, because there was nothing I could do for the deceased,” Cao says. “But the officials were very concerned about the remains [of his parents], wanting them resolved as soon as possible.

“There was a lot of pressure to get my parents’ bodies out and have them cremated.”

Reading the officials’ intentions and determination, Cao asked his Fuzhou relatives to return to their homes, citing fears of how “China uses relatives to pressure people.”

Both Wenzhou government officials and railway officials refused repeated requests by the family for a funeral service in Fuzhou before returning the remains to the United States, he said.

“We wanted to transport my late parents back to Fuzhou for a service at the place of their birth, and then get them back to New York for final burial,” Cao said. “From what I gathered after making formal and informal requests to them, they would only allow two options—cremate and move the ashes, or move the remains directly out of the country.

“They refused to let the bodies leave Wenzhou for a Chinese destination, even if only temporarily.”

Hitting a dead end, Cao returned to the United States in September to care for family business while the morgue stored his parents’ remains and his brother stayed in the hospital in the care of an aunt. Henry returned to the United States a few months later.

We’re All Chinese

Victim compensation was a controversial and widely publicized issue in the months following the bullet train tragedy. Outrage was a common reaction after the ministry originally offered 500,000 yuan per victim, so the amount was later raised to 915,000 yuan.

The law says in this case compensation for a death or injury should be twenty years’ worth of wages, which the ministry based on Zhejiang urban residents’ average annual income of 27,359 yuan.

By law, the 915,000 yuan total also includes 15,000 yuan provision for funeral expenses, 50,000 for “emotional damage,” and a 303,000 yuan one-time compensation package that covers child support, elderly support, accident insurance, luggage issuance, and families’ accommodation—all based on local cost averages.

Cao says his family does not dispute the ministry’s calculations, but has an issue with the wage levels used as a base.

“In accord with Chinese law, we are asking for twenty years’ worth of wages for my parents, injury compensation for my brother, and dependent care for his family,” Cao said. “But it should be based on our domicile ... which is the United States.”

In initial talks about compensating for the deaths as well as Henry’s medical and personal costs, he said railway officials tried to use Zhejiang wage and cost-of-living figures “since we’re all Chinese.”

A ministry spokesman at a post-crash press conference in Wenzhou said that all foreign travelers aboard the ill-fated trains would get the “same compensation payment” as the families of Chinese victims.

In addition to the American victims, an Italian named Assunta Liguori died in the accident. Her parents rejected a rail ministry compensation offer, according to The New York Times.

One of the victim’s relatives Caixin had spoken to, Yang Feng, confirmed that they already received the 915,000 yuan payout from the ministry.

Cao’s interpretation of his family’s compensation rights has support from Donald Clarke, a law professor at George Washington University who runs a blog called Chinese Law Prof.

The government is legally supposed to “compensate according to the average consumption expenses of the place where the victim lived,” Clarke wrote in an email response to Caixin. “The fact that they (Cao’s relatives) live in a different country shouldn’t matter; the law doesn’t make any exception for other countries.”

A law expert in China, who asked not to be identified, has a different perspective. He said the professor’s calculations agree with Chinese law, but that in the Cao family case the ministry can legally cover multiple deaths with a single payout under the Tort Liability Law. Furthermore, he said, the two-year-old tort law “has greater authority” than the law that covers wage-living cost calculations.

Clarke agreed the tort law takes precedence but says certain “things ‘may’ be done this way” and that “doesn’t mean they ‘have’ to be done this way.”

“Just because the Ministry of Railways got more than 30 Chinese victims’ families to agree on a single amount doesn’t mean that it should bind those who didn’t agree,” said Clarke. “The only interpretation that makes sense is that when someone sues, the court may, if it wishes, handle compensation in this way.”

“Whether the compensation should be based on the location of the court (the Chinese standard), or the domicile of the foreign victim (American standard), it’s a disputable, legal question that should be decided by the court,” said lawyer Ding Jinkun of the Shanghai-based DeBund Law Offices.

Cao said ministry officials have recently “simply stopped talking about how the 915,000 yuan was calculated” but have stated “flatly that it is what” they will only offer to compensate his parents’ deaths.

And in the case of his brother’s injury and dependent care claims, Cao said the ministry has yet to respond to his requests, which have included relevant documents and cost estimates.

“So far, the only thing that Chinese officials confirmed they would cover based on actual costs is the transportation of our parents’ remains back to the U.S., which would cost US$20,000 each,” he said.

Cao and his brother have only recently returned to China in hopes of settling the dispute, as well as to take home his parents’ remains. With their New York-based lawyer Robert L. Lieff as well as local legal counsel, they are once again at the negotiating table, with representatives from the railway ministry’s 7-23 workgroup.

Ministry officials declined Caixin’s requests for comment. A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, Nolan Barkhouse, told Caixin that American officials are aware of the compensation issue and have been in touch with Cao’s family.

Cao’s family twice appealed to the U.S. Embassy for “assistance in seeking to ensure that the family receives fair and adequate treatment from the Chinese authorities.” Although officials, Cao said, initially refused to intervene, a representative from the consulate is now present at meetings between Cao and the 7-23 workgroup.

For Cao, his life is on hold while he fulfills his family responsibilities.

“Filial piety is the cornerstone of Chinese social structure,” Cao said. “My mother always asked me to stand by my brother and assist his family when the need arises. I owe it to my parents to carry out their last wishes.”

Chen Qiaolin and Wang Xiaoqing are Caixin staff reporters.