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.