“Inside the murky plans of Great Leap Liu”

CMP has translated an editorial about high-speed trains and the Ministry of Rail, which has been taking a lot of heat for series of malfunctions on the newly-opened Beijing-Shanghai route. An interesting read if you’re wondering why you can’t go a few days without hearing about some new problem with the line:

It was Liu Zhijun who famously raised the idea of the “eight hours plan,” which meant that with the exception of Lhasa, Urumqi and other far-flung cities, the entire country from Beijing to all provincial capital cities, Hong Kong [SAR] included, would be linked by rail journeys not exceeding eight hours. The idea was that “by 2012, that the scale of railway lines in our country would increase from the current 80,000 kilometers to around 110,000 kilometers, with electrified and double-track lines accounting for 50 percent of the total. By that point, a comprehensive railway system will have begun to take shape in our country, with tight supplies of railway transport capacity being initially relieved. The phenomenon of ‘having difficulty in finding trains or tickets’ will have effectively been turned around.”

By the time 2011 rolled around, however, the problem of train ticket scarcity had still not been solved, and during the Spring Festival rush we saw many migrant workers taking motorbikes to return home. Shortly after the Spring Festival, Liu Zhijun fell off his horse. [The term “fall off the horse,” or luo ma (落马), is used in Chinese to talk in a non-specific way about officials, or executives, removed from or resigning from their posts].

How was it that these doubts [about how things were being handled within the ministry] could not be revealed openly while Liu Zhijun was in his post? As a major strategic national infrastructure project whose budget surpassed that of even the Three Gorges Dam project, how was it that there was no need to put it to a vote within the National People’s Congress? Even further, why was it that information about this project, with direct concern for the national welfare and the people’s livelihood, and expending massive resources drawn from taxpayer monies, could not be made public during the decision-making process and we subjected to public discussion? Why is it that even such basic figures as seat occupancy rates for the high-speed rail have remained a secret, so that even researchers in this area cannot access this information?

In early 2009, as high-speed rail was the subject of much talk in China, Zhao Jian went on a trip to India. India was a country, like China a major developing nation, that was generally recognized as a railway giant (铁路大国), with a railway network far surpassing that of China. Moreover, India was one of just two countries in the world operating its railways under a joint government-enterprise system (政企合一体制), the other such country being China. But all major investment projects in the railway sector in India, and even end-of-year business programs (年度经营计划), had to be submitted for deliberation by the Indian National Congress to await approval or rejection.

Zhao Jian learned that India’s Ministry of Railways planned to build a high-speed rail line from [India’s] largest city, Mumbai, to Ahmadabad [in the state of Gujarat], with a speed of close to 250 km/hr, forming an important part of the line from Mumbai to the capital of New Delhi, similar in length to the Shanghai-Nanjing section of the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail.

But a study by the well-known [infrastructure] consulting company Rites [under the Government of India] had found that this special passenger line was not commensurate with India’s national needs, with average incomes not sufficient to support the ticket prices [necessary for] the high-speed line; but if a special freight transport line were built, the return on investment would be around 11 percent. The Indian National Congress had ultimately approved a budget proposal for the construction of a 10,000-kilometer freight transport line. After he returned to China, Zhao Jian put the lessons he had learned in India into a published article, suggesting that China follow the lesson of India, building a special freight transport line rather than a special passenger line.

The article drew the attention of [railway minister] Liu Zhijun. On two occasions, Liu Zhijun sought Zhao Jian’s supervisor, former Beijing Jiaotong University President Tan Zhenhui (谭振辉) to ask, “What is all this about?” The old president had responded: “First of all, I did not encourage him to write [the articles]; second, we must permit scholars to express different views.” Unable to come to any understanding, Tan left [Liu’s office] just 10 minutes later.

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Filed under China, corruption, development

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