The crash at Wenzhou.
Train passengers hurried across Beijing South Station at the final call to board bullet train D301, heading south on the world’s largest, fastest, and newest high-speed railway, the Harmony Express on the morning of July 23, 2011. It was bound for Fuzhou, fourteen hundred miles away.
Beijing South Station is shaped like a flying saucer, its silvery vaulted ceiling illuminated by skylights. It contains as much steel as the Empire State Building and can handle two hundred and forty million people a year, thirty per cent more than New York’s Penn Station, the busiest stop in America. When Beijing South opened, in 2008, it was the largest station in Asia; then Shanghai stole the crown. In all, some three hundred new stations have been built or revitalized by China’s Railway Ministry, which has nearly as many employees as the civilian workforce of the United States government.
When the passengers for D301 reached the platform, they encountered a vehicle that looked less like a train than a wingless jet: a tube of aluminum alloy, a quarter of a mile from end to end, containing sixteen carriages, painted in high-gloss white with blue racing stripes. The guests were ushered aboard by female attendants in Pan Am-style pillbox hats and pencil skirts; each attendant, according to regulations, had to be at least five feet five inches tall, and was trained to smile with exactly eight teeth visible. A twenty-year-old college student named Zhu Ping took her seat, then texted her roommate that she was about to “fly” home on the rails. “Even my laptop is running faster than usual,” she wrote.
For the Cao family, in the sleeper section, riding in style was a mark of achievement. The parents had immigrated to Queens, New York, two decades earlier and worked their way up to stable jobs as custodians at LaGuardia Airport. They put two sons through college, became American citizens, and now found themselves back in China on a tour, posing for pictures in matching hats, standing ramrod straight beneath Mao’s portrait at Tiananmen Square. Their next stop would be a reunion with relatives in Fuzhou. This was the first vacation of their lives. Their son, Henry, who ran a camera-supply business in Colorado, was returning, for the first time, to a country that he had been raised to remember as poor.
Until now, China’s trains had always been a symbol of backwardness. More than a century ago, when the Empress Dowager was given a miniature engine to bear her about the Imperial City, she found the “fire cart” so insulting to the natural order that she banished it and insisted that her carriage continue to be dragged by eunuchs. Chairman Mao crisscrossed the countryside with tracks, partly for military use, but travel for ordinary people remained a misery of delayed, overcrowded trains nicknamed for the soot-stained color of the carriages: “green skins” were the slowest, “red skins” scarcely better. Even after Japan pioneered high-speed trains, in the nineteen-fifties, and Europe followed suit, China lagged behind, with what the state press bemoaned as two inches of track per person—“less than the length of a cigarette.”
In 2003, China’s Minister of Railways, Liu Zhijun, took charge of plans to build seventy-five hundred miles of high-speed railway—more than could be found in the rest of the world combined. For anyone with experience on Chinese trains, it was hard to picture. “Back in 1995, if you had told me where China would be today, I would have thought you were stark raving mad,” Richard Di Bona, a British transportation consultant in Hong Kong, told me recently. With a total investment of more than two hundred and fifty billion dollars, the undertaking was to be the world’s most expensive public-works project since President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, in the nineteen-fifties. To complete the first route by 2008, Minister Liu, whose ambition and flamboyance earned him the nickname Great Leap Liu, drove his crews and engineers to work in shifts around the clock, laying track, revising blueprints, and boring tunnels. “To achieve a great leap,” he liked to say, “a generation must be sacrificed.” (Some colleagues called him Lunatic Liu.) The state news service lionized an engineer named Xin Li, because he remained at his computer so long that he went partly blind in his left eye. (“I will keep working even without one eye,” he told a reporter.) When the first high-speed line débuted with a test run in June, 2008, it was seventy-five per cent over budget and relied heavily on German designs, but nobody dwelled on that during the ceremony. Cadres wept. When another line made its maiden run, Liu took a seat beside the conductor and said, “If anyone is going to die, I will be the first.”
That autumn, to help ward off the global recession, Chinese leaders more than doubled spending on high-speed rail and upped the target to ten thousand miles of track by 2020, the equivalent of building America’s first transcontinental route five times over. China prepared to export its railway technology to Iran, Venezuela, and Turkey. It charted a freight line through the mountains of Colombia that would challenge the Panama Canal, and it signed on to build the “pilgrim express,” carrying the faithful between Medina and Mecca. In January, 2011, President Obama cited China’s railway boom in his State of the Union address as evidence that “our infrastructure used to be the best, but our lead has slipped.” The next month, the governor of Florida, Rick Scott, blocked construction of America’s first high-speed train, by rejecting federal funds. Amtrak had unveiled a plan to reach speeds comparable to China’s by 2040.
Train D301 sped south and east across emerald-green paddies toward the coast. To Henry Cao, who was seated beside a window in the last compartment of the second car, the train seemed to float, describing long elegant turns and shuddering now and then with the whump of a train going in the opposite direction. As the sun set, a summer storm was gathering, and Henry watched lightning flicker across the clouds. He stretched out on the fold-down bed in his carriage. At his feet, his mother sat upright. She had short, wavy hair, and wore a blue-and-white striped shirt. She’d lived nearly half her life in America, but she retained the habits of a Chinese traveller, and she carried more than ten thousand dollars in cash, as well as gifts of jade jewelry, in a fanny pack. Her husband sat across from her, with his iPhone. He captured a wobbly snapshot of the digital speedometer at the end of the carriage; it showed the kilometre equivalent of 188 m.p.h.
Miles ahead, something unusual was happening. At 7:30 P.M., on the outskirts of the city of Wenzhou, lightning struck a heavy metal box beside the tracks. The box, the size of a washer-dryer, was part of a signal system that lets drivers and dispatchers know where trains are. Because tunnels block a radar signal, trains rely largely on hard-wired equipment like the box beside the track, which helps drivers and dispatchers talk to each other and controls a machinelike traffic signal, giving the drivers basic commands to stop and go. When lightning struck the box, it blew a fuse, which caused two catastrophic problems: it cut off communication and froze the signal on the color green.
At a nearby station, a technician picked up garbled signals from the tracks and ordered repairmen into the storm to investigate; meanwhile, he reported the problem to a dispatcher in Shanghai named Zhang Hua. The train carrying the Cao family was still miles away, but D3115, also bound for Fuzhou, with a thousand and seventy-two people aboard, was ahead of D301. Zhang called D3115 to warn the driver that, because of the faulty signal, his train might shut down automatically. In that case, he should override and run it at a cautious speed until he reached a normal section again. As predicted, the computer brought the train to a halt, but when the driver tried to get it moving it wouldn’t start, despite repeated attempts. He called Shanghai six times in five minutes, but couldn’t get through. On his train, a passenger uploaded to the Web a picture of the carriage in darkness and asked, “What happened to this train after that crazy storm?? It’s running slower than a snail now. . . . Hope nothing is going to happen.”
Zhang the dispatcher was juggling ten trains by now. Hearing nothing further from D3115, he may have figured that it had re-started and moved on. The train carrying the Cao family was already half an hour late, and at 8:24 P.M. Zhang cleared it to go ahead. Five minutes later, the driver of the first train finally succeeded in re-starting his engine and began to inch forward. When his train reached a normal section of track, it suddenly appeared on screens across the system, as if from nowhere, and a dispatcher saw what was about to happen. The train behind it had a green light and was charging down the track. The dispatcher alerted the driver: “D301, be careful! There’s a train in your zone. D3115 is ahead of you! Be careful, will you? The equipment—” The line cut off.
The driver of D301, Pan Yiheng, was a thirty-eight-year-old railway man with a broad nose and wide-set eyes. In the final seconds, Pan pulled a hand-operated emergency brake. His train was high atop a slender viaduct across a flat valley, and immediately ahead of him was train D3115, moving so slowly that it might as well have been a wall.
The collision impaled Pan on the brake handle, and it hurled Henry Cao into the air. His body tensed for impact. None came. Instead, he was falling—for how long he couldn’t tell. “I heard my mother’s voice shouting,” he told me later. “And then everything went black.” His carriage and two others peeled off the tracks, tumbling sixty-five feet to a field below. A fourth car, filled with passengers and spewing sparks, was left dangling vertically from the edge of the viaduct. Henry awoke in a hospital, where doctors removed his spleen and a kidney. He had shattered an ankle, broken his ribs, and suffered a brain injury. When he was alert enough to understand, he learned that his parents were dead. In the chaos of the rescue and recovery, his mother’s ten thousand dollars had also disappeared.
The Wenzhou crash killed forty people and injured a hundred and ninety-two. For reasons both practical and symbolic, the government was desperate to get trains running again, and within twenty-four hours it declared the line back in business. The Department of Propaganda ordered editors to give the crash as little attention as possible. “Do not question, do not elaborate,” it warned, on an internal notice. When newspapers came out the next morning, China’s first high-speed train wreck was not on the front page.
But, instead of moving on, the public wanted to know what had happened, and why. This was not a bus plunging off a road in a provincial outpost; it was dozens of men and women dying on one of the nation’s proudest achievements—in a newly wired age, when passengers had cell phones and witnesses and critics finally had the tools to humiliate the propagandists.
People demanded to know why a two-year-old survivor was found in the wreckage after rescuers had called off the search. A railway spokesman said it was “a miracle.” Critics jeered, calling his explanation an “insult to the intelligence of the Chinese people.” At one point, the authorities dug a hole and buried part of the ruined train, saying they needed firm ground for recovery efforts. When reporters accused them of trying to thwart an investigation, a hapless spokesman replied, “Whether or not you believe it, I believe it,” a phrase that took flight on the Internet as an emblem of the government’s vanishing credibility. (The train was exhumed. The spokesman was relieved of his duties and was last seen working in Poland.)
Within days, the state-owned company that produced the signal box apologized for mistakes in its design. But to many in China the focus on a single broken part overlooked the likely role of a deeper problem underlying China’s rise: a pervasive corruption and moral disregard that had already led to milk tainted by chemicals reaching the market, and shoddy bridges and highways built hastily in order to meet political targets. A host on state television, Qiu Qiming, became the unlikely voice of the moment when he broke away from his script to ask, on the air, “Can we drink a glass of milk that is safe? Can we stay in an apartment that will not fall apart? Can we travel roads in our cities that will not collapse?”
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao had no choice but to visit the crash site and vow to investigate. “If corruption was found behind this, we must handle it according to law, and we will not be lenient,” he said. “Only in this way can we be fair to those who have died.” People didn’t forget Wen’s pledge as the first deadline for the investigation came and went, and they continued to demand a fuller accounting. At last, in December, authorities released an unprecedented, detailed report. It acknowledged “serious design flaws,” a “neglect of safety management,” and problems in bidding and testing. It also blamed fifty-four people in government and industry, beginning with Great Leap Liu. The Minister’s name became a byword for “a broken system,” as the muckraking magazine Caixin called the Railway Ministry, a testament to the political reality that, as Caixin put it, “since absolute power corrupts absolutely, the key to curbing graft is limiting power.” When I spoke to an engineer who worked on the railway’s construction, he told me, “I can’t pinpoint which step was neglected or what didn’t get enough time, because the whole process was compressed, from beginning to end.” He added, “There is an expression in Chinese: when you take too great a leap, you can tear your balls.”
Scandal, of one kind or another, has become the backbeat to China’s rise. Never have the citizens of the People’s Republic learned so much about the perks of those who run it. The combination of wealth, technology, and epic indiscretion has pulled aside the curtain that once protected Communist Party leaders from scrutiny.
That became clear in February, when a police chief fell out with his Party patron, Bo Xilai, and fled to the American Consulate, with a career’s worth of knowledge about murder and embezzlement at the highest ranks of the Party. The police chief, Wang Lijun, received no protection—he was tried as a defector and a taker of bribes—but his tales could not be untold: Bo Xilai, a political titan once destined for higher office, was expelled from the Party for taking “huge bribes,” abusing his power, and “other crimes”; his wife was tried and convicted of poisoning to death the family’s British fixer. Bo’s downfall also laid bare the myth of the humble public servant. At a time when his official salary was the equivalent of nineteen thousand dollars a year, his extended family acquired businesses worth more than a hundred million dollars, according to Bloomberg News. The Bo saga gave rise to other rumors, about other Party bosses, and though censors kept as much off the Web as they could, each new tale sounded less startling, less the exception than the rule. In September, overseas Chinese papers reported what Beijing gossips had been whispering for months: the son of a close aide to China’s President, accompanied in the predawn hours by two women in states of undress, had totalled a black Ferrari on an expressway in the capital. For the Party, as it prepared to anoint a new slate of leaders to run the country for the next ten years, the timing was excruciating.
The Railroad Minister, Liu Zhijun, did not initially look like a prime candidate for a dramatic public disgrace. Bo Xilai was a Beijing Brahmin—the tall, camera-ready son of a Party boss. Liu was a farmer’s son, small and thin, with bad eyesight and an overbite. He grew up in the villages outside the city of Wuhan, and left school as a teen-ager for a job walking the tracks with a hammer and a gauge. He had an innate sense of the path to power. Good penmanship was a rare skill in the provinces, and Liu perfected his hand, becoming a trusted letter writer for bosses with limited education. He married into a politically connected family and was a Party member by age twenty-one. He was a tireless promoter of the railways and of himself, and he ascended swiftly, heading provincial bureaus on his way to the seat of power in Beijing. By 2003, as Railroad Minister, he commanded a bureaucratic empire second in scale and independence only to the military, with its own police force, courts, and judges and with billions of dollars at his disposal. His ministry, a state-within-a-state, was known in China as tie laoda: Boss Rail.
Liu kept his hair in an untidy black comb-over and wore a style of square horn-rimmed spectacles so common among senior apparatchiks that they are known as “leader glasses.” A colleague of Liu’s, a railway staffer who worked closely with him, told me, “Ever since the revolution, most Chinese officials look alike. They have the same face, the same uniform, even the same personality. They work step by step, and they are content to sit back and wait for promotions. But Liu Zhijun was different.” If it was possible to invest a railway job with glamour, he was determined to do so. He liked to convene meetings after midnight and make ostentatious displays of his work habits. Even as he approached the highest ranks of power, he never stopped flattering his superiors. When President Hu Jintao was returning by train to Beijing one summer, Liu hustled up the platform so frantically to greet him that he nearly ran out of his loafers. “I shouted to him, ‘Minister Liu, your shoes! Don’t fall!’ ” the staffer recalled. “But he couldn’t be bothered. He just kept grinning and running.”
Liu’s success benefitted his brother Liu Zhixiang, who joined the ministry and soared up through the ranks. He was wisecracking and volatile—the Joe Pesci character of the family. In January, 2005, he was detained for questioning about embezzlement, bribe-taking, and intentional harm regarding his role in arranging the killing of a contractor who sought to expose him. By then, he was vice-chief of the Wuhan railway bureau. (The victim was stabbed to death with a switchblade in front of his wife. According to an official legal journal, he had predicted in his will: “If I am killed, it will have been at the hand of corrupt official Liu Zhixiang.”) The Minister’s brother had arranged for himself such a healthy piece of ticket sales that he accumulated the equivalent of fifty million dollars in cash, real estate, jewelry, and art. When investigators caught him, he was living among mountains of money so large and unruly that the bills had begun to molder. (Storing cash is one of the most vexing challenges confronting corrupt Chinese officials, because the largest bill in circulation is a hundred-yuan note, worth about fifteen dollars.) He was convicted and received a death sentence that was suspended and later reduced to sixteen years. But, instead of serving his time in a facility for serious offenders, he was transferred to a hospital where he reportedly continued to conduct railway business by phone.
ack in Beijing, Minister Liu surrounded himself with loyal associates. The capo di tutti capi was the chief deputy engineer Zhang Shuguang, who once arrived at a railway conference in a fur coat and a white scarf and liked to describe his approach to negotiations as a “clasped fist.” For much of his career, he ran the passenger-car division, which gave him control over colossal spending choices. “It was all up to a nod of his head,” Zang Qiji, a retired member of the Academy of Railway Sciences, told me. Zhang had little experience with science, but he aspired to credibility and attempted to secure membership in an élite academic society by having two professors write a book in his name. (He fell short of membership by a single vote.)
Liu bet everything on high-speed railways. To preëmpt inflation in the cost of land and labor and materials, he preached haste above all. “We must seize the opportunity, build more railways, and build them fast,” he told a conference in 2009. Liu’s ambitions and Chinese authoritarianism were a volatile combination. The ministry was its own regulator, virtually unsupervised, and the Minister and his aides had no tolerance for dissenting voices. When professor Zhao Jian, of Beijing Transportation University, publicly objected to the pace of high-speed-rail construction, Liu summoned him and advised him to keep quiet. Zhao refused to back down, and the university president called him. “He told me not to continue to voice my opinions,” Zhao told me. The professor resisted, but his concerns were ignored—until the crash. “Then it was too late,” he said.
The obsession with speed was all-encompassing. The system was growing so fast that almost everything a supplier produced found a buyer, regardless of quality. According to investigators, the signal that failed in the Wenzhou crash was developed over six months, beginning in June, 2007, by the state-owned China Railway Signal and Communication Corporation. The company had a staff of some thirteen hundred engineers, but it was overwhelmed by demands on its time, and crash investigators discovered that those in charge of the signal performed only a “lax” inspection, which “failed to discover grave flaws and major hidden dangers.” The office in charge was “chaotic,” a place where “files went missing.” Nevertheless, the signal passed inspection in 2008 and was installed across the country. When the industry gave out awards for new technology that year, the signal took first prize. But an engineer inside the company subsequently told me that he was not surprised to discover that the job had been rushed.
There were other suspicious factors as well. In April, 2010, the chairman of Japan Central Railway, Yoshiyuki Kasai, said that China was building trains that drew heavily on Japanese designs. When Kawasaki Heavy Industries threatened to sue the Chinese for passing off its technology as their own, the Railway Ministry in Beijing dismissed the complaint as evidence of “a fragile state of mind and a lack of confidence.” Kasai also pointed out that China was operating the trains at speeds twenty-five per cent faster than those permitted in Japan. “Pushing it that close to the limit is something we would absolutely never do,” he told the London Financial Times.
In the last days before the crash, the rush to build the railways added a final, lethal factor to the mix. In June, the government had staged the début of the most prominent line yet—Beijing to Shanghai—to coincide with the ninetieth anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. A full year had been slashed from the construction schedule, and the first weeks of the run were marred by delays and power failures. According to a manager in the ministry, high-speed-rail staff were warned that further delays would affect the size of their bonuses. On the night of July 23, 2011, when trains began to stack up, dispatchers and maintenance staff raced to repair the faulty signal and ignored the simplest solution: stop the trains and regain the signal. Wang Mengshu, a scholar in the Chinese Academy of Engineering who was deputy chief of the committee investigating the crash, told me, “The maintenance people weren’t familiar enough with their jobs, and they didn’t want to stop the train. They didn’t dare.”
When the crash occurred, Great Leap Liu was no longer running the Railway Ministry. In August, 2010, the National Audit Office reviewed the books of a big state-owned company and came upon a sixteen-million-dollar “commission” to an intermediary in return for contracts on the high-speed rail. The intermediary turned out to be a woman named Ding Shumiao, who, perhaps more than anyone else, embodied the runaway riches created by China’s railway boom. Ding was an illiterate egg farmer in rural Shanxi—five feet ten, with broad shoulders and a foghorn of a voice. In the nineteen-eighties, after Deng Xiaoping launched the country toward the free market, she collected eggs from neighbors to sell in the county seat. That was illegal without a permit. The eggs were confiscated, and years later she still talked of her embarrassment. In time, she came to run a small, thriving restaurant, where she gave away food to powerful customers and exaggerated her own success. “If she has one yuan, she’ll say she has ten,” one of Ding’s longtime colleagues told me. “It makes her look more influential, and bit by bit people began to think that they could benefit from their friendship with her.”
Ding’s restaurant became a favorite with coal bosses and officials, and soon she was involved in coal trucking. Then she was “flipping carriages,” as it’s known in the railway business: working her connections to get cheap access to coveted freight routes and, according to Wang, the investigator, reselling the rights “for ten times what she paid.” She became friendly with Great Leap Liu around 2003, and, with her ties to the railway business, she prospered. Her company, Broad Union, signed joint ventures and supplied the ministry with train wheels, sound barriers, and more. In two years, Broad Union’s assets grew tenfold, to the equivalent of six hundred and eighty million dollars in 2010, according to China’s Xinhua news service.
Ding’s given name, Shumiao, betrayed her rural roots, so she changed it to Yuxin, at the suggestion of her feng-shui adviser. She was easy to lampoon—Daft Mrs. Ding, people called her—but she had a genius for cultivating business relationships. A longtime colleague told me, “When I tried to teach her how to analyze the market, how to run the company, she said, ‘I don’t need to understand this.’ ” Caixin chronicled her audacious social ascent. To gain foreign contacts, she backed a club “for international diplomats,” which managed to attract a visit in 2010 by Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Her lavish receptions drew members of the Politburo. She joined the lower house of the provincial legislature, and made so many charitable gifts that in 2010 she ranked No. 6 on the Forbes China list of philanthropists.
Ding was detained in January, 2011, suspected of taking kickbacks totalling sixty-seven million dollars, according to the Global Times. (The ministry also accused her of working her connections to get Liu’s brother transferred from jail to a hospital.)
Like many others, Ding knew something that government auditors uncovered only later: China’s most famous public-works project was an ecosystem almost perfectly hospitable to corruption—opaque, unsupervised, and overflowing with cash, especially after the government announced a stimulus to mitigate the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis. It boosted funding for railway projects to more than a hundred billion dollars in 2010. In some cases, the bidding period was truncated from five days to thirteen hours. In others, the bids were mere theatre, because construction had already begun. Cash was known to vanish: in one instance, seventy-eight million dollars that had been set aside to compensate people whose homes had been demolished to make way for railroad tracks disappeared. Middlemen expected cuts of between one and six per cent. “If a project is four and a half billion, the middleman is taking home two hundred million,” Wang said. “And, of course, nobody says a word.”
One of the most common rackets was illegal subcontracting. A single contract could be divvied up and sold for kickbacks, then sold again and again, until it reached the bottom of a food chain of labor, where the workers were cheap and unskilled. (The practice is hardly unique to the railways: in 2010, a rookie welder employed by an illegal subcontractor was working on a dormitory in Shanghai when he dropped his torch and set the building on fire; fifty-eight people died.) In November, 2011, a former cook with no engineering experience was found to be building a high-speed railway bridge using a crew of unskilled migrant laborers who substituted crushed stones for cement in the foundation. In railway circles, the practice of substituting cheap materials for real ones was common enough to rate its own expression: touliang huanzhu—robbing the beams to put in the pillars.
With so many kickbacks changing hands, it isn’t surprising that parts of the railway went wildly over budget. A station in Guangzhou slated to be built for three hundred and sixteen million dollars ended up costing seven times that. The ministry was so large that bureaucrats would create fictional departments and run up expenses for them. Procurement was a prime opportunity for graft. The ministry spent nearly three million dollars on a five-minute promotional video that went largely unseen. The video led investigators to the ministry’s deputy propaganda chief, a woman whose home contained a million and a half dollars in cash and the deeds to nine houses; her husband, who also worked for the ministry, was found to have a collection of gift cards—a discreet alternative to cash bribes. Other government agencies also had serious financial problems—out of fifty, auditors found problems with forty-nine—but the scale of plunder in the railway world was in a class by itself. Liao Ran, an Asia specialist at Transparency International, told the International Herald Tribune that China’s high-speed railway was shaping up to be “the biggest single financial scandal not just in China, but perhaps in the world.”
In most countries, the effects of kleptocracy are easy to predict: economists have calculated that for every point that a nation’s corruption rises on a scale of one to ten, its economic growth drops by one per cent. (Think Haiti under François Duvalier or Zaire under Mobutu.) But the exceptions are important. In Japan and Korea, corruption accompanied the nation’s rise, not its collapse. There is no more conspicuous case than the United States. When promoters of the first transcontinental railroad were found to have secretly paid themselves to build it—the 1872 scandal known as Credit Mobilier—the scale of plunder was described by the press as “the most damaging exhibition of official and private villainy and corruption ever laid bare to the gaze of the world.” Between 1866 and 1873, the country put down thirty-five thousand miles of track, minting enormous fortunes but also, as Mark Twain put it, displaying “shameful corruption.” (Twain’s novel “The Gilded Age,” written with Charles Dudley Warner, gave the era its name.) The excesses of the railroad boom led to the Panic of 1873 and subsequent financial crises, before political pressure to curb abuses gained momentum during the Progressive Era.
In China, as in the United States, corruption and growth flourished together. In the nineteen-eighties, a carton of Double Happiness cigarettes was enough to secure a job transfer or the ration coupon for a washing machine. But in 1992 China began to free up the distribution of land and factories for private use, and the corruption boom was under way. According to the sinologist Andrew Wedeman, in a single year the average sum recovered in corruption cases more than tripled, to six thousand dollars. Cartons of Double Happiness gave way to Hermès bags, sports cars, and tuition for children studying abroad. The larger the deal, the higher the cadre needed to approve it, and bribes moved straight up the ranks.
A writer I know named Hu Gang, a small, meticulous man of fifty, happened to be one of those doing the bribing. He was running an auction house, a business in which a single signature from a judge bestows the right to auction off buildings, land, and other assets and collect a hefty commission. Everyone seemed to be in on the take, Hu said. “So, I began to think, If they can do it, why can’t I?” Hu was a natural; he bribed judges—first with cigarettes, then banquets, then trips to massage parlors. He followed certain rules of his own: never bribe a stranger; time cash gifts for the fall, when tuition bills come around. Before long, he was juggling relationships with so many judges that he had to make three trips to the massage parlor in a single day. After five years, he had a nest egg worth a million and a half dollars. Then he was picked up in a routine crackdown and served a year in jail.
Officials and businessmen looked out for each other by organizing themselves into “protective umbrellas,” a step in what Chinese scholars have termed the “mafiazation” of the state. By 2007, the China scholar Minxin Pei found that nearly half of all Chinese provinces had sent their chief of transportation to jail for corruption. It was costing China three per cent of its gross domestic product; that would be two hundred billion dollars today—more than the national budget for education. Since then, the opportunities to steal have only diversified. This summer, the Modern Chinese Dictionary, the national authority on language, added a new word: maiguan, “to buy a government promotion.”
Today, the scale of temptation for members of China’s government is unlike anything encountered in the West. According to Bloomberg News, the richest seventy members of China’s national legislature gained more wealth in one year—2011—than the combined net worth of the United States President, his Cabinet, all the members of Congress, and the Justices of the Supreme Court. Bloomberg went a step further, and reported, in June, that the extended family of China’s incoming President, Xi Jinping, has tens of millions of dollars in real-estate and financial assets. The government has since blocked the Bloomberg Web site.
There are two basic views of how corruption will affect China’s future. The optimistic scenario is that it is part of the ambitious transition from Socialism to a free market, with highways and trains that inspire envy even in the developed world. In July, the U.S. Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, told a reporter, “The Chinese are more successful because in their country only three people make the decision. In our country, three thousand people do.”
The other view holds that the compact between the people and their leaders is fraying, that the ruling class is scrambling to get what it can in the final years of frenzied growth, and that the Party will be no more capable of reforming itself from within than the Soviets were. Last year, the central bank accidentally posted an internal report estimating that, since 1990, eighteen thousand corrupt officials have fled the country, having stolen a hundred and twenty billion dollars—a sum large enough to buy Disney or Amazon. The government has vowed that officials will forgo luxury cigarettes and shark’s-fin soup, but vigilant Chinese bloggers continue to post photographs of cadres wearing luxury watches and police departments with Maseratis and Porsches painted blue and white. Even Wen Jiabao, the Prime Minister, who will leave the Politburo next month, declared that corruption was “the biggest danger facing the ruling party”—a threat that, left unchecked, could “terminate the political regime.”
In February, 2011, five months before the train crash, the Party finally moved on Liu Zhijun. According to Wang Mengshu, investigators concluded that Liu was preparing to use his illegal gains to bribe his way onto the Party Central Committee and, eventually, the Politburo. “He told Ding Shumiao, ‘Set aside four hundred million for me. I’m going to need to spread some money around,’ ” Wang told me. Four hundred million yuan is about sixty-four million dollars. Liu actually managed to pull out nearly thirteen million, Wang said. “The central government was worried that if he really succeeded in giving out four hundred million in bribes he would essentially have bought a government position. That’s why he was arrested.”
Liu was expelled from the Party the following May, for “severe violations of discipline” and “primary leadership responsibilities for the serious corruption problem within the railway system.” An account in the state press alleged that Liu took a four-per-cent kickback on railway deals; another said he netted a hundred and fifty-two million dollars in bribes. He was the highest-ranking official to be arrested for corruption in five years. But it was Liu’s private life that caught people by surprise. The ministry accused him of “sexual misconduct,” and the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao reported that he had eighteen mistresses. His friend Ding was said to have helped him line up actresses from a television show in which she invested. Chinese officials are routinely discovered in multiple sins of the flesh, prompting President Hu Jintao to give a speech a few years ago warning comrades against the “many temptations of power, wealth, and beautiful women.” But the image of a gallivanting Great Leap Liu, and the sheer logistics of keeping eighteen mistresses, made him into a punch line. When I asked Liu’s colleague if the mistress story was true, he replied, “What is your definition of a mistress?”
By the time Liu was deposed, at least eight other senior officials had been removed and placed under investigation, including Zhang, Liu’s bombastic aide. Local media reported that Zhang, on an annual salary of less than five thousand dollars, acquired a luxury home near Los Angeles, stirring speculation that he had been preparing to join the exodus of officials who take their fortunes abroad. (In recent years, corrupt cadres who send their families overseas have become known in Chinese as “naked officials.”)
In the months that I spent talking to people about the rise and fall of Liu Zhijun, his story seemed to confound both his enemies and his friends. His rivals acknowledged that, unlike many corrupt officials, Liu had actually achieved something in office, and produced a railway system that, if the problems can be repaired, will ultimately benefit the nation. And his defenders found themselves awkwardly saying that he was doing nothing that his peers were not. Liu’s colleague, an affable former military man, told me that at a certain point corruption became difficult for Liu to avoid: “Inside the system today, if you don’t take bribes you have to get out. There’s no way you can stay. If three of us are in one department, and you are the only one who doesn’t take a bribe, are the two of us ever going to feel safe?”
Not long ago, I met a subcontractor for the railway, and I asked if things had been cleaned up since Liu’s downfall. He let out a humorless laugh. “They made a show of it, but it’s still the same rules,” he said. “They caught Ding Shumiao, but she’s just one person. There are many, many Ding Shumiaos.” Li Xue, as I’ll call him, is fifty-four, with a growl of a voice and a face weathered by life outdoors, but he was funny and relaxed when we met, and I liked him immediately. He’d spent his career blasting railroad tunnels—assembling crews, punching holes through mountains, and then moving on to the next job. He is a grandfather now, and proud of all that the country has built in his lifetime: “America always criticizes us for human rights,” he said. “It’s our weakness. But construction is our strength. We put people together fast. The bosses don’t have to listen to anybody but themselves.”
One weekend, Li invited me out to his latest job, in the rocky hills of Hebei Province, a few hours’ drive from Beijing. Over lunch, he talked wistfully about what he called a “golden age” a few years ago, when costs were lower and officials didn’t know how much they could earn on the side. “The bribes we pay now keep growing,” he said. “We’re the ones who get squeezed.”
We got into his black Audi sedan and climbed a road up into the hills, where we turned onto a rutted muddy track lined with cornfields and brick farmhouses. I asked if he enjoyed the wining and dining that comes with building tunnels. He shook his head. “It’s exhausting,” he said, and explained the taxonomy of bribes. “There’s the head of the department, and then the managers and the ones who run the warehouses. You’ve got to take care of them just like praying to the Buddha—you don’t pray, you run into trouble.” The hardest days were groundbreakings, when everyone who showed up expected a cut. “It costs us a fortune,” he said. Recently, he had turned over the entertainment duties to a younger colleague. “He really excels at it,” he said.
We reached a plateau, with excavators and bulldozers, and parked outside a tunnel into the hillside. Li introduced me to the explosives chief, a thin man in his twenties, with a coxcomb of spiky hair. I asked where he’d learned his trade. “Self-taught,” he said.
Li spat into the mud and handed me a hard hat. Inside, the tunnel was cool and dark, about thirty feet high, with a smooth ceiling, faintly lit by work lights along the edges. Li had dug ten tunnels in his life, and this would be the longest—two miles end to end.
After a while, we reached a group of eight workers in cotton shoes, hard hats, and military-surplus uniforms. They were wrestling a heavy iron frame into a side door in the tunnel. They groaned and heaved and slipped in the mud, in a scene illuminated by a single light bulb. It could have been 1912, instead of 2012. Li said that ten days earlier he had run into a problem: he hadn’t been paid by the subcontractor overseeing the tunnel, and now he had to lay off workers and stop digging. The Railway Ministry wasn’t as flush as it once was, and less money was trickling down to him.
“I’m thinking of quitting,” he said. “It’s getting harder and harder to make a profit. We get paid next to nothing, and now we can’t even get paid. Why should I keep doing it?” We walked on, and I could see my breath in the wan lights along the wall. Deep inside the tunnel, we could no longer hear the clanging of the workers near the entrance. Li seemed distracted. “The officials are getting greedier and greedier,” he said. “In the past, whenever we were working on a tunnel, the local officials visited the site. Now they just stay in their big, beautiful office and collect their money.”
Over our heads, the finished ceiling gave out, and mud and darkness lay ahead. For a second, all was silent, except for the sound of rushing water somewhere up ahead. “We have to stop,” Li said. “It’s dangerous past this point.”
Several weeks after the Wenzhou crash, the Railway Ministry announced a series of steps in the name of safety: it recalled fifty-four bullet trains, to test sensors that could cause trains to stop unnecessarily; it halted construction of new lines; and it ordered trains to slow down from a top speed of 217 m.p.h. to 186 m.p.h. But before long the railway boom resumed, and the first anniversary of the Wenzhou crash was tightly managed. The state press was ordered not to visit the scene, and survivors were warned to keep their mouths shut. When one of them, a man in his twenties named Deng Qian, tried to visit the site that day, he was tailed by police, who videotaped his movements. “Their message to me was clear: I am now their enemy, their threat,” he told me. “I think they will keep an eye on us forever.”
Henry Cao was struggling. He had spent five months in a Chinese hospital, recovering from broken bones, neurological damage, and the loss of his kidney and spleen. He could stay awake for only a few hours at a time, and he was easily confused. After returning to his family in Colorado, he had to close his camera-supply business. “I actually feel like I want to die,” he told me. “What’s the point of living when everything you tried to work for . . .” The government offered his family two hundred and eighty-four thousand dollars for his parents’ deaths, and another eighty-five thousand for his own injuries. In August, he and his brother Leo flew to China to retrieve their parents’ bodies. They asked to have a memorial in the ancestral village in Fujian, but the government forbade it; the parents were buried in a cemetery on Long Island.
The Wenzhou collision and the downfall of Liu Zhijun have come to symbolize some of the essential risks facing the Communist Party. The crash struck at the middle-class men and women who have accepted the grand bargain of modern Chinese politics in the era after Socialism: allow the Party to reign unchallenged as long as it is reasonably competent. The crash violated the deal, and, for many, it became what Hurricane Katrina was to Americans: the iconic failure of government performance. It is a merciless judgment. Gerald Ollivier, a senior infrastructure specialist at the World Bank in Beijing, pointed out that trains in China are still by far one of the safest means of transportation. “If you think about it, the China high-speed railway must be transporting at least four hundred million people per year,” he said. “How many people have died on the China high-speed railway in the past four years? Forty people. This is the number of people who die in road accidents in China every five or six hours. So, in terms of safety, this is by far one of the safest ways of transportation. The accident this past year was certainly very tragic and should not have happened. But, compared to the alternative of moving people by car, it is safer by a factor of at least a hundred.” And yet, in China, people are more inclined to quote a very different statistic: in forty-seven years of service, high-speed trains in Japan have recorded just one fatality—a passenger caught in a closing door.
China’s recent scandals seem to have hastened a moment of truth: the new Politburo will take office next month knowing that the people are not as content as before with what they have gained from the country’s rise. Over a generation, the Party has raised five hundred million citizens from poverty, and constructed a physical and economic world previously inconceivable. Yet people see no shortage of reasons to demand better: Beijing spends more today on domestic security, protecting the state from a daily parade of public grievances and unrest, than it does on foreign defense. Despite the efforts of the censors, Chinese people can go online and read that their leaders eat uncontaminated vegetables grown at remote, guarded farms, and breathe air that has been scrubbed by filters. The fall of Bo Xilai and Great Leap Liu dramatized the culture of entitlement run amok. For years, Liu and Bo dedicated themselves to enhancing their own prospects along with those of the nation. They lost their sense of proportion, and the question is whether their government has, too.
Liu Zhijun will go on trial. The date is a state secret, but the verdict is not. Ninety-eight per cent of Chinese trials end in conviction, and yet the most reliable predictor of Liu’s fate is that the Party has already embarked on one of its most enduring rituals. Just as technicians once airbrushed political casualties out of the archives and portraits, censors took to the Web last year to excise years’ worth of glowing news reports and documentaries that hailed Liu’s accomplishments, leaving behind only squibs about his arrest. Great Leap Liu has been expunged so thoroughly from the history of China’s achievements that you might never have known he existed.
Via The New Yorker