Ever since China’s much-vaunted high-speed rail line between Beijing and Shanghai opened on June 30, it has been open season for criticism. Much of the criticism has stemmed, of course, from very real malfunctions and delays, which have happened daily since July 10, and have been reported in real time on Chinese social media.
The other problem has been extremely poor public relations and transparency on the part of the Ministry of Railways. Only on July 13, after days of crippling delays that left passengers stranded in hot cars without air conditioning, did the ministry step out with an apology. But the apology seemed insufficiently contrite to many Chinese. It was just a single line: “As for the inconvenience caused to passengers by late train arrivals, the railway ministry expresses regret.”
It was the brevity and inadequacy of that apology that actually made many headlines, like this one at QQ.com: “Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail Again Experiences Malfunction: The Ministry of Railways Apology is Only One Sentence.”
The malfunctions and missteps continue this week. Consider, for example, this article in today’s Legal Mirror, in which railway ministry spokesman Wang Yongping (王勇平) — who on July 7 said emphatically that Chinese high-speed rail technology was far superior to Japan’s — suggests it is normal for the rail line to experience difficulties for 2-3 months while it is working out the kinks. Web users asked on social media whether the ministry thought Chinese passengers are lab rats.
Beyond all of these questions about technology, service and public relations, however, looms the much larger question of government responsibility and corruption. The powerful former head of the Ministry of Railways, Liu Zhijun (刘志军), was knocked from his perch back in February and jailed on corruption charges. Zhang Shuguang (张曙光), a deputy chief engineer of the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail, who has been called “one of the founders of Chinese high-speed rail technology,” was removed from his post shortly after to face corruption charges — and it has since been alleged in Chinese media that Zhang has 2.8 billion US dollars in overseas bank accounts.
I’ve wondered in recent days how Chinese media have been able to report with such relative impunity on the perceived failings of such a high-profile national project, which was linked in no uncertain terms last month with the prestige of the Chinese Communist Party itself. The answer may lie, somewhat strangely, in the fact that this is now such a political hot potato. In other words, in China’s topsy-turvy political climate of the moment, where various factions are vying for power and for the heart of the agenda, it may be that no one is ready to come to the defense of the embattled high-speed rail line.
So it may be that, within reasonable limits, it is now open season on the high-speed rail. And that the railway ministry is very much on its own.
On that note, we turn to a recent in-depth report published in Guangdong’s Southern People Weekly. The piece looks at how former railway minister Liu Zhijun was able to push through his own objectives, however wasteful and unnecessary, and disregard dissenting expert opinion. While one expert in the piece notes the more open atmosphere for expression in China today, the story of China’s high-speed rail does yield unfortunate comparisons to the way the Three Gorges Dam project was pushed ahead decades earlier against strong opposition from experts.
And it is now generally known, of course, that the bill for the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail surpasses that of the Three Gorges Dam.
“High Speed Under the Shadows“
July 18, 2011 (posted July 21)
By Chen Yanwei (陈彦炜) and Liu Xinran (刘欣然) in Beijing and Chengdu
Intern, Xiao Siyu (肖斯予)
The most basic problems with the high-speed rail aren’t about the ins and outs of the project, about whether it is fast or slow, or about the length of the operating line. They are about the level of openness and secrecy in the process of decision-making and debate.
In 1964, the world’s first high-speed passenger train line opened between Tokyo and Osaka in Japan, its top speed reaching 200 kilometers per hour. The high-speed rail became a symbol of the rise of the new Japan. Shinji Sogō, the man who was called the “father of high-speed rail” ultimately did not attend the opening ceremony of the Shinkansen, as he had resigned his position [as president of Japan National Railways] owing to “deception and neglect of duties.” [NOTE: Sogō resigned over concerns about cost overruns for the Shinkansen.]
Before this, the 1950s had brought the heyday of air and automobile travel, and railways were seen at the time as “a sunset industry.” Japan’s high-speed rail project had faced opposition from a number of forces domestically. As the fourth president of Japan National Railways, Shinji Sogō employed underhanded means to get things done, concealing much information [about the project] and utilizing resources for other projects, forcibly pushing through the building of Japan’s Shinkansen.
A half century later, this same drama was replayed in China. China’s fierce proponent of the high-speed rail, the former head of the Ministry of Railways Liu Zhijun (刘志军), who has been dubbed the “father of China’s high-speed rail,” failed in the same way to appear at the opening ceremony for the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail. Four months earlier, he had experienced a dramatic change of fortunes, falling from his high post.
A road maintenance worker by background, Liu Zhijun was bold in thinking and in action. In March 2003, he was formerly appointed as minister of railways, and as secretary of the ministry’s Party committee. On assuming office, Liu Zhijun introduced the idea of “leap-forward development” (跨越式发展). His eight years in the position can be regarded as the era of the Great Leap Forward for Chinese railways. Some have even called Liu Zhijun “Great Leap Liu.”
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?
On January 7, 2004, after an executive meeting of the State Council passed in principle the “Mid to Long-term Plan for the Railway Network” (中长期铁路网规划), railway construction [in China] entered the fast lane. This included the construction of “four horizontal and four vertical” special passenger lines, and the later controversial high-speed rail was also kicked off from this point. In fact, these special passenger lines or inter-city fast trains were really high-speed rail lines, but to avoid sensitivities the Ministry of Railways called them “special passenger lines” (客运专线).
According to [official] figures, in the past five years China has made capital outlays of 20.6 billion, 120 billion and 50.1 billion yuan for three lines respectively, the Beijing-Tianjin High-Speed Rail (京津高铁), the Wuhan-Guangdong High-Speed Rail (武广高铁), and the Zhengzhou Xi’an High-Speed Rail (郑西高铁). Meanwhile, with a total investment of 220.9 billion yuan, the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail has surpassed the 203.9 billion yuan spent on the Three Gorges Dam project, becoming the country’s biggest engineering project. And 220.9 billion yuan is just an unrevised general estimate. Generally speaking, the revised estimate should be even higher.
When the the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail was formally approved, ten years had already passed since the original 1997 feasibility report on the project had come out. Within those ten years the debate continued over whether to utilize wheel-on-rail technology or maglev technology for the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail.
In the early 1980s, Shen Zhiyun (沈志云), an academician both of the Chinese Academies of Science and Engineering, attended an academic conference at Cambridge University and had the opportunity to take the high-speed rail [in England], and only then did he realize “just how many years behind others China was.” France, Germany, Italy and other European countries all followed Japan in a wave of high-speed rail construction.
Shen Zhiyun still remembers that after 1994 the Ministry of Railways used three years to revise the “Feasibility Report for the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail,” and this was passed in principle by an executive meeting of the State Council in 1997. “At the time we talked about sending the feasibility report up right away for approval, so that the next session of government could approve and initiate it. The premier at the time, Li Peng (李鹏), and the vice-premier, Zhu Rongji (朱镕基), both signed off on it. The result was that at the next session, Zhu Rongji became premier, and I remember very clearly that at the June 6 general meeting of the Chinese Academies of Science and Engineering, he came to give a report and suddenly started talking about ‘why the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail needed to use thirty year-old rail technology rather than using the latest maglev technology.’ From that time on there were two camps on the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail — the wheel-on-rail camp and the maglev camp.
Shen Zhijun couldn’t understand those who advocated the building of maglev trains as building maglevs would require much higher investment that high-speed rail, power dissipation would be much higher, prices would be three times that of the high-speed rail and transport capacity would be about half. “There was no reason at all in the contest between maglev and wheel-on-rail over ten years. Not even Germany bothered with maglev. Later, Shanghai built a maglev line and incurred losses of around 300 million yuan. “Right now, this is the only commercially operating maglev train line in the world.”
Shen Zhijun is one of the high-speed rails biggest supporters.
Shen Zhijun is now 82 years old, and he is an academician at both the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering. He lives at the foot of E’mei Mountain on the campus of Southwest Jiaotong University. “Before long the time you waste on [train] journeys will be cut in half,” Shen Zhijun says, pointing off to an empty plot of land outside the university gate. “The Chengmianle High-Speed Rail will have a station here, and as soon as outsiders step off the airplane they be able to get on it directly. In just 20 minutes they can get to E’mei to relax and have a cup of tea.” In the plan, the journey from Chengdu to Beijing will also take just eight hours.
After Liu Zhijun fell from his post, the questions and criticisms of the high-speed rail came out in droves. One question has been why the high-speed rail has not relied on [China’s] own proprietary technology but has rather spent massive amounts to bring in technology from overseas.
Shen Zhijun mentions that the “Star of Cathay” (中华之星) brought in technology from [Germany’s] Siemens, but China was working on its own train called the “Star of the Plains” (中原之星). “Various factories were all producing [trains for the “Star of Cathay”], perhaps around 25 different types, and all had their problems. All of these trains have been tested with me here. There was a [train] by one factory that could reach 250 km/hr, but we tested it here and at 120 km/hr it was not OK. At various factories [producers], if it’s not this problem it’s that problem, so in the end we didn’t use the “Star of the Plains.”
When Shen Zhijun learned that [railway minister] Liu Zhijun had brought a number of high-speed trains back to China to “digest, absorb and make a transition,” he sought Shen Zhijun out and asked “whether or not [he] could spare a train to allow our lab to conduct research and development.” Liu agreed on the spot, saying “I’ll give you two trains.” After this, Shen again suggested that Liu create a national expert group spanning academies and [government] departments to focus on the research of high-speed train technology. Again Liu agreed immediately and demanded that Shen himself serve as head of the group. Ultimately, Liu Zhijun decided to invite participation under market rules from the latest technology [all over the world, including] Japan and Germany, and add to this “homegrown innovation.”
Seven years later, when Liu Zhijun fell from his post, a clamor of debate arose over “whether or not China’s possesses proprietary intellectual property rights” [for high-speed train technology]. Zang Qiji (臧其吉), a researcher at the Rail Technology Center (铁科院) of the Ministry of Railways, concluded that “proprietary intellectual property rights for high-speed rail [technology] is less than 20 percent.” The deputy chairman of the High-Speed Rail Office, Zhou Yimin (周翊民), who previously served as deputy chief engineer at the Ministry of Railways directly under Liu Zhijun, said: “Right now we are still far from true independence in development [of high-speed rail technology].” Another deputy chief engineer from the Liu era, Zhang Shuguang (张曙光), who also served as head of the Transport Bureau and had been called “the deputy chief engineer of China’s high-speed rail” and “one of the founders of Chinese high-speed rail technology,” once announced that “China had full proprietary intellectual property rights for high-speed trains.” This engineering official has subsequently been investigated for economic improprieties [NOTE: Some have alleged that Zhang embezzled funds from the high-speed rail project].
Shen Zhiyun is furious: “”We import the new technology as a whole, standing at the very front of in this field, and then we develop it. After our developments, we lead the world. Is there anything wrong with this? This does not lose face for us. They don’t have [trains] that can go 350 km/hr [overseas], but we can get up to 350 km/hr. Where can we copy a 350 km/hr train?”
Many people opposed the building of the high-speed rail. Shen Zhiyun doesn’t understand this. He sighs: “If we have something that’s faster, why wouldn’t we use it? If we have something that is better, why wouldn’t we use it? Migrant workers also need an increase of speed.”
“Developing third-generation train technology with speeds of 350-400 km/hr is the global tide of the development of high-speed rail in this century. So when some people say there’s no need to go that fast, that’s not actually the case. Increasing speed is an everlasting issue in transportation. Of course faster is always better, so long as you ensure high efficiency and safety.”
Of course, Shen’s views are rebutted by Zhao Jian (赵坚), a professor at the Management Institute of Beijing Jiaotong University, one of the most stalwart members of the party opposing high-speed rail.
[Zhao Jian says:] “France’s Concord had a speed of 2,000 km/hr, and you could travel leave Paris at 6pm and arrive in New York in six hours, so it was only 3pm, with time savings translating into high economic savings. So why was the service suspended? Because France and England provided subsidies to the project for 27 years, and it couldn’t continue to be subsidized.” [He adds:] “France’s high-speed rail claimed last year that it was profitable, but it was subsidized by the government to the tune of one billion Euros, so these profits are meaningless. So [we can see that the rule of] faster is better doesn’t hold for transportation.”
“Not a single high-speed rail line should be built in China!” Zhao Jian says.
In 1993, Beijing Jiaotong University organized the research of a high-speed rail line from Beijing to Shanghai, and the university brought together teachers from various institutes and departments. “They all believed it should be built, but I thought it shouldn’t be built,” [Zhao Jian says]. In 1994, Zhao Jian published an article in China Railways magazine opposing the construction of the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail. “At that time things were still pretty democratic in China’s railway sector, so different perspectives could still be voiced. And perhaps at the time no way paid any attention because I was only an assistant professor.”
In 2005, [railway minister] Liu Zhijun began working on “special passenger lines.” [Zhao Jian says:] “No one was really clear about what the special passenger lines were or what their target values were. At the end of 2005, the Beijing-Tianjing High-Speed Rail was almost ready to go into service, and there were a number of issues they wanted our institute to spend some time one. It was only then that we discovered that they were building it with a speed of 350 km/hr in mind, and this was incompatible [with existing tracks].”
“At the time we thought there were problems, and we later contacted the railway ministry about this and learned that the problems were pretty substantial (问题比较大). So I wrote an article published in China Business Herald and Comprehensive Transport offering a different view on the building of high-speed rail. I sent this at the same time to the State Council and the Ministry of Railways, but there was no response at all.”
In building the Beijing-Tianjin intercity line, [railway minister] Liu Zhijun consulted no one at all. According to Zhao Jian’s understanding, in the beginning Liu Zhijun’s special passenger lines were to have a top speed of around 200 km/hr, but this was constantly adjusted upwards, until finally it became 350 km/hr.
After 2008, Zhao Jian’s articles [criticizing the high-speed rail] could be seen only in a handful of publications, including Caijing magazine, New Century [under editor-in-chief Hu Shuli after she left Caijing and launched New Century] and Comprehensive Transport.
But many foreign media referred to Zhao Jian’s viewpoints, including The New York Times, the Washington Post, Time magazine and the Financial Times, so that Zhao Jian’s views did attract the attention of high-level government officials. An exclusive interview [Zhao did] with Hong Kong’s Yazhou Zhoukan was given an official reply by vice-premier Zhang Dejiang (张德江) and sent directly to the Ministry of Railways.
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.
Tan Zhenhui didn’t discuss the exchanges with Zhao Jian after he got back, but after some time had passed said to him: “If you write things like this, it will affect the ability of the university to get [research] topic [grants from the government].” To which the unbending Zhao Jian responded to the university president: “Compared to the damage to our country, this impact is something that should be borne, don’t you think?” The president said nothing more.
“University leaders were probably under a lot more pressure than me. Liu Zhijun mentioned my name at many meetings,” Zhao Jian says.
Eventually, Liu Zhijun invited Zhao Jian personally for a chat. Zhao Jian recalls that Minister Liu was very polite, but he didn’t listen to the opinions of others. “He spoke himself for a whole hour about why China had to build special high-speed passenger lines. He wouldn’t even let you get a word in edgewise.”
Just as Shen Zhiyun cannot understand those who oppose high-speed rail, Zhao Jian cannot understand the way his academic contemporaries have “jumped on the bandwagon” to support high-speed rail and kept their silence: “Something so crystal clear, and why is it that only a few of us have said anything at all?” The opposing camp also includes Hua Yunzhang (华允璋) and Yao Zuozhou (姚佐周), who have served as chief engineer of the Shanghai Railway Bureau and vice-chairman of the Special Design Institute (专业设计院) of the Ministry of Railways respectively.
“Liu Zhijun provided research grants to Peking University, Tsinghua University, various transportation universities and the Development Research Center of the State Council, and as a condition of media exchanges he demanded that no none speak out against high-speed rail,” Zhao Jian says.
[He adds:] “Liu Zhijun encouraged me to go and understand and research high-speed rail. He didn’t specify a research area, nor did he interfere in any way, but he provided no materials whatsoever relating to this research.” Zhao Jian later got in touch with the Science and Technology Office (科技司) of the Ministry of Railways to define his research topic. That topic was: The cost of building and operating high-speed special passenger lines against their operation efficiency and benefits. “I think this is how scholars should be,” [Zhao Jian says]. “They should have their own viewpoints.”
Zhao Jian’s research report was submitted to the Ministry of Railways in March this year. By this time Liu Zhijun had already fallen from his post as minister and become a prisoner.
“The speech environment today is a lot more relaxed than in the past. It can’t be compared to the era of Huang Wanli [when Huang and others tried to oppose the building of the Three Gorges Dam]. And after all I’ve been able to affect unfolding developments. The new minister has assumed his post. Now the [projected] speeds for a number of high-speed rail projects have already been reduced, and high-speed rail lines already in operation are using a mixed operational mode [high-speed and normal speed].”