New subway cars compromise our values

We shouldn't be doing business with a country like China

I RIDE THE MBTA ORANGE LINE every single day. I’ve done so for the past 15 years. While I do get frustrated every so often with its service, it is still a reliable and affordable method of transportation for me and many other commuters in greater Boston. On top of that, it is also a way to travel that is low-impact on the environment and allows me to keep my carbon footprint low. Needless to say, I was very excited to learn that this fall we would be getting new Orange line cars. Now, not only would my daily commute  inevitably improve, but the new cars would be manufactured and assembled in the United States. So my commute would also be the product of good jobs and raising a domestic industry on the decline. I only wish that were the case.

Five years ago, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation awarded a bid to a Chinese-state owned rail manufacturer, China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation Ltd (CRRC) to build 284 new rail cars for the MBTA’s Red and Orange lines. The company significantly underbid the next closest bidder, offering cheaper trains and the promise to bring manufacturing jobs to the state. And Boston commuters, many of whom I represent along the Orange Line, would get much-needed, modern rail cars.

With tax dollars saved, and new rail cars and jobs on the way, MassDOT officials touted the deal as a win-win for everyone. Janice Loux, a MassDOT board member, said at the time: “This is a win for our riders, this is a win for our financial bottom line, and it’s a win for this authority.”

But at what cost?

When awarding the contract, MassDOT did not question giving taxpayer dollars to a company owned by the Chinese government. They did not question the implications of awarding a bid to a country that has systematically employed unfair – if not illegal – practices when it comes to manipulating economic activities. Nor did it say how it planned to address the new cybersecurity risks associated with smart, interconnected rail cars, especially when manufactured in country our national defense community calls our biggest cyber-espionage threat.

Most troubling, however, is that concerns raised about awarding the $566 million contract to a country with a long history of human rights violations went unanswered. In 2014, Chai Ling, a pro-democracy leader and participant in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, asked the MassDOT board to reconsider the decision, reported the Boston Globe: “Approving the contract would put a ‘stain on the record of the state that chose to be silent so tyranny of the Chinese government can continue,’ she said.”

The transit authority looked the other way, and so have other municipalities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia.

Five years later, China’s violation of human rights remain front and center in the news – most recently over the past month in Hong Kong. The Chinese government continues to stifle dissent, attack protesters, and use authoritarian tactics on its own people in order to maintain in control of power. In response, the US made the decision to blacklist several Chinese tech companies on rights violations.

There is no question that the bright shiny object of creating jobs is a powerful local economic lure, and CRRC successfully underbid competitors up to 50 percent to make it even more tempting. Our transit authority saved on the short-term costs for the initial sticker-price of these trains, which it continues to tout to its constituents. However, it failed to consider the hidden long-term costs of its decision and, most importantly, compromised our values as a country in the process.

Let’s manufacture – not assemble – the cars here. Let’s prop up an industry that needs our help. Let’s rebuild the economies of depressed regions and let’s give these men and women a fair and living wage. We have the power to say no and to do so backed by our American values. We should not give away our taxpayer dollars to an egregious violator of human rights. Instead, MassDOT invited China into our community in Springfield, Massachusetts (a region of MA that I come from) where CRRC’s largest U.S. facility is located.

Meet the Author

Michael Zwirko

City councilor at large/former mayoral candidate, City of Melrose
Taking caution surrounding business with the Chinese government, directly or through its subsidiaries like CRRC, is not unwarranted.  Transit authorities in the US are considering deals with CRRC because the upfront cost is significantly less, as we’ve seen. But do we really want to put our critical infrastructure, and the people who use it every day, in the hands of a regime with a history of human rights and worker rights violations, espionage, and cyber theft?

We cannot, in good conscience, continue to turn a blind eye towards China’s record on these issues in exchange for cheaper trains. My commute isn’t just a way for me to get to work each day. It reflects my commitment to the environment, fair wages, and taking care of our own. The consumer always has the power of the purse-string to press for these values and we should do so here. It’s not just bad economic and national security policy – it’s wrong, and we have the power to say enough.

Michael P. Zwirko is a city councilor-at-large from Melrose.