China Seethes Over a Rash of Deadly School Bus Crashes

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Dong naide / Imaginechina via AP

Chinese pupils queue up to get on a school bus in Zouping county, Binzhou city, east China's Shandong province, 17 November 2011. China has ordered to conduct nationwide safety checks on school buses

More questions have emerged over the safety of China's school buses after at least 17 children were killed and dozens more were injured in a series of accidents this week. On Monday, a school bus carrying 41 students crashed into a roadside ditch in Jiangsu province, killing 15 and injuring eight. The same day, 37 children were injured when a school bus collided with a heavy-duty truck in Guangdong province. Just one day later, a similar crash took another two lives in the central province of Henan.

The deadly string of accidents followed hard on the heels of a draft for new school bus safety guidelines issued by the State Council. According to the guidelines, local governments will assume overall responsibility for school bus safety, with oversight from the central government. The Beijing government will also devise a license system for all school buses, require safety qualifications to be renewed once every six months instead of once a year and mete out punishment for any safety violations.

The new regulations were a somewhat belated attempt to assuage widespread anger over another deadly incident that killed 19 kindergarten students and two adults in Gansu Province last month. In the days following the accident, derisive posts flooded Sina Weibo, a popular Twitter-like service, blaming the government for indulging in lavish spending while skimping on public safety. "[Our government] can't afford a single school bus. How do we even start to talk about improving our education?" wrote Li Chengpeng, an influential blogger, on Weibo. "[The government] easily spends billions on overseas visits, government vehicles and reception banquets, and yet they have grudged on school buses for the past 60 years." Li's comment has been re-posted over 90,000 times in just a few weeks.

The criticism intensified when the Chinese government donated 23 buses to Macedonia in late November, a week after the Gansu school bus crash. Angry Internet users put up a sarcastic video of a popular children's song, featuring the lyrics like, "Where are the school buses? Where are the school buses? They are in Macedonian schools... in the dreams of Chinese kids."

As public outrage intensified, Beijing launched nationwide school bus safety inspections, focusing on the condition of the vehicles and the training of drivers, according to Xinhua. The Ministry of Education ordered another round of national safety checks after the accident in Jiangsu that killed 15. In late November, shortly after the Gansu accident and China's school bus donation to Macedonia, Premier Wen Jiabao pledged government actions to enhance school bus safety, which prompted the central government to draft the new safety guidelines.

But the country's concerned netizens are not convinced: "The problem is that they don't treat those children like human beings," wrote Wang Keqin, an investigative journalist with the Chinese newspaper Economic Observer, on Weibo. "[The Jiangsu accident] is the biggest mockery of the just-released safety guidelines."

The latest tragedies have fueled fears that the belatedly stricter standards are inadequate to prevent further accidents.

"In general, the guidelines put more emphasis on the government's safety inspection duties, but not enough on the importance of government investments," wrote Xiong Bingqi, deputy director on the 21st Century Education Research Institute and a regular commenter on education issues, on his personal blog. "Because there is a shortage in fiscal investment in rural areas, the schools have to resort to substandard vehicles. That's what ultimately caused the school bus safety problem."