The Rise and Fall of China's Great Railway Boss

The death sentence of Liu Zhijun, who spearheaded the country's high-speed rail boom, signals the end of an era marked by boundless ambition.
liuzhijun.jpgFormer Railways Minister Liu Zhijun, in happier times. Liu received a suspended death sentence for his role in a bribery scandal this year. (AP)

Yesterday, Chinese state media reported that former Railways Minister Liu Zhijun received a suspended death sentence for accepting more than $4 million in bribes and helping 11 people receive promotions or lucrative contracts. By Chinese standards, these numbers aren't huge, and Liu seemed, on the surface, to be just another politician nailed in a corruption scandal. 

But Liu Zhijun wasn't just any politician and his department -- railways -- wasn't just any other portfolio. (Literally: China's rail network even had its own department, separate from the Ministry of Transportation). And though the evolution of the train system is just one story in the tapestry of China's recent economic history, no other subject better symbolized the country's boom -- and the risks associated with it -- than the railways.

By any standard, the transformation of China's rail network has been astounding. When Liu Zhijun assumed his post in 2003, he inherited a creaky system affectionately known as the "iron rooster." Though extensive -- after all, it serviced the needs of over a billion people and the world's fourth-largest country by land mass -- Chinese trains were slow, antiquated, and inefficient. Under Liu's direction, and the enormous financial backing of the state, China embarked on a high-speed rail construction project unmatched in scope and ambition around the world. Consider this: Until 2011, the train linking Beijing and Shanghai took no less than 10 hours, and usually much longer than that.  Now it just takes four. The train from Shanghai to Chengdu, capital of distant Sichuan Province, once required an arduous 30 hours. Now, this trip needs only 10. By last year, high-speed trains in China criss-crossed over 5,000 miles of land in the country, more than anywhere else in the world. 

China's rail explosion hasn't gone unnoticed elsewhere in the world. President Obama earmarked a record $8 billion for high-speed rail as part of the $787 billion stimulus package enacted in 2009, encouraging rail backers that, finally, the car-loving United States would embrace passenger rail. It hasn't happened. And while American politicians bickered and Tea Party activists roared their disapproval, China's high-speed rail plan continued apace, prompting the president to mention Chinese trains in his 2011 State of the Union address. The system that "Great Leap" Liu, so named for his boundless ambition, built almost perfectly encapsulated China's march to prosperity.

But beneath China's great railway expansion was a dark underbelly: there were reports of rushed construction deadlines, shady deals, and corners cut. As long as the trains kept running, nobody seemed to mind. But then on a summer night in 2011, two high-speed trains collided near the city of Wenzhou, killing 40 and injuring nearly 200. Beijing's propagandists rushed to quash the news, burying the explosive story in official media. But it was too late: passengers on the scene photographed and tweeted accounts of the crash, and within days China's government faced its worst public relations incident in years.

Matt Schiavenza is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is a former global-affairs writer for the International Business Times and Atlantic senior associate editor.

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