The corruption of government officials in China, as in a number of other countries, is a major concern and attempts to investigate and prosecute instances of corruption can generate a lot of public attention – particularly if a senior official or significant project is the subject of the investigation. This has been the case with the investigation of the Minister of Railways, Liu Zhijun.
On February 25, 2011, the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) published a decision removing Liu from office. Previously, sometime before February 12, 2011, he had been dismissed as the party chief of the Ministry of Railways, according to Xinhua, a state news agency. He was reported to have been dismissed for “allegations of severe disciplinary violations,” and has been put under disciplinary investigation by the Communist Party. He was replaced by Sheng Guangzu, formerly the head of the customs agency, who is also a former Deputy Minister of Railways.
Xinhua did not provide details about Liu’s “severe disciplinary violations.” The media claims that, among other charges, Liu is alleged to have taken a large amount of bribes related to rail construction projects, including high-speed railway projects, through a Shanxi businesswoman.
One of the reasons that the investigation has received a lot of attention is that the Ministry of Railways has enjoyed considerable privileges compared to most other central government departments and ministries. In 2008, the Chinese government set up a new “super” Ministry of Transport, which included the old Ministry of Communications and the Civil Aviation Administration, but excluded the Ministry of Railways. Rail transportation and construction continued to be the purview of the Ministry of Railways. This ministry has been heavily criticized for its monopoly, low level of efficiency, and corruption.
Liu’s corruption investigation raises questions about China’s huge investment in high-speed railways, which had been a favorite project of Liu. According to the Ministry of Railways, by the end of 2010 China had built 2,197 km of rail lines with the top speed of 350 km (about 217 miles) per hour. The new Minister has said that work to develop the network will continue.
I rode in one of the high-speed trains while visiting China recently. A one-way trip between Shanghai and Hanghzhou costs CNY131 (about US$20) (first class) or CNY82 (about US$12.50) (second class), and the 169 km (about 105 miles) journey took 45 minutes. The same trip takes about three hours by ordinary train, which costs CNY29 (about US$4.50).