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Trains and Corruption in China, Part II

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We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. — Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854).

The Railway station at Peking, China (Keystone View Company, Meadville, Pa., c1931). (Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

In 2011, I wrote a guest post on the topic of trains and corruption when China‘s then Minister of Railways, Mr. Liu Zhijun, was removed from office for taking bribes relating to rail construction projects, in particular the building of China‘s high-speed railways.

Last month, Liu, “the father of Chinese high-speed railways,” was convicted in the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate Court and sentenced to the death penalty with a two-year reprieve, which usually means the death penalty will be commuted to life imprisonment after two years.  The court found that from 1986 to 2011, Liu helped eleven people to gain promotion, obtain government contracts, and get other favorable treatment in railroad transportation arrangements, and that he had taken bribes and other gifts worth 64.6 million yuan (about US$10 million).

When Liu was removed from office in 2011, he was replaced by Sheng Guangzu, then head of the customs agency.  Before joining the customs agency, Sheng had worked in the railroad system for his whole career and was a Deputy Minister of Railways.  Sheng actually became the last railways minister of the People’s Republic of China (so far) because, following Liu’s downfall, the powerful Ministry of Railways was dismantled.

Peking railway station c.1912 (Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division).

Here’s an interesting coincidence in the history of the Ministry: in 1911, exactly one hundred years before Mr. Sheng’s appointment as the Minister of Railways, another Mr. Sheng, Sheng Xuanhuai, became the final minister of railways in China’s last imperial dynasty.  This Mr. Sheng was appointed head of the Board of Posts and Communications, a ministerial rank in the Imperial Cabinet responsible for railways.  Sheng Xuanhuai’s term was short: the Qing dynasty ended in the same year.  In fact, Sheng’s efforts during his term may have touched off the crisis that eventually led to the overthrow of the dynasty.  This was described in the online edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica:

… and he then attempted to bring the railway system under national control by consolidating and expanding local railroad projects that had been initiated by gentry and merchant groups in the provinces.

The provincial interests, however, felt that this move represented a conspiracy on the part of high government officials to sell out China to foreign imperialist powers.  Thus, shortly thereafter, rioting began in the western province of Sichuan and spread throughout the country.  Finally, on Oct. 10, 1911, a revolt in the central Chinese city of Wuhan set in motion the events that brought down Sheng’s plan and the dynasty and ended 2,000 years of imperial rule.

Today, the former Minister’s business functions are carried out by a wholly state-owned company, the China Railway Corporation.  Mr. Sheng Guangzu was appointed head of this gigantic state-owned enterprise.  In addition, he still enjoys his ministerial ranking.  Investment into the expansion of high-speed railways continues, which apparently is still in his charge.  The building of railways continues to be a very big deal, just as it was a century ago.

Shanghai Railway Station, 2012. (Source: Flickr user Mr Thinktank.)

Update: This was originally published as a guest post by Laney Zhang. The author information has been updated to reflect that Laney is now an In Custodia Legis blogger.


  1. Thank you, this was a well-written, beautifully illustrated post.

    I read the news about the former Railway Minister’s conviction in Xinhua or Caixin last month. I also read. via Reuters. that the wholly state-owned China Railway Corporation (odd, that it is named “corporation”) would assume the responsibilities of the former Railway Ministry. I don’t understand how this will alleviate the problem that the Railway Ministry was subject to though, of corruption, lack of transparency and accountability, etc.

    I didn’t realize that China Railway Corp. would be led by the same official who was the final (post-Qing dynasty) minister of the now-dissolved Railway Ministry. Won’t the problems of the past be perpetuated?

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