To achieve a great leap, a generation must be sacrificed – Liu Zhijun
I’m continuing my education on China and I recently came across a story that I thought worth sharing. It’s about a chap called Liu Zhijun aka Great Leap Liu aka Lunatic Liu aka Minister Liu.
For this post, I have borrowed heavily from Evan Osnos’ Age of Ambition‘ – one of the most enjoyable books I have read recently.
In 2003, Liu was made China’s Railways Minister. To give an idea of how big this job is/was, China’s railways alone employs around the same number of people as the entire US government does (over 2 million people). The Railways Ministry has its own police and courts amongst other things. It is the very definition of a fiefdom.
Great Leap Liu had very humble origins and he started his career inspecting rail tracks with a torch in the middle of the night. From there he rose to Minister through a combination of a frightening level of hard work (how he got the Lunatic Liu nickname) and unlimited ambition (also marrying a woman from a well-connected political family). When he was made Minister in 2003, he set a target to build 7,500 miles of high-speed rail by 2008. At that time, all the high-speed lines in the whole world were less than 7,500 miles.
So how did Lunatic Liu do?
1. Before his tenure came to an end in 2011, the annual budget controlled by Lunatic Liu’s ministry was well over $100bn. He managed to lay over 6,200 miles of high-speed track (more than the whole of Europe combined) while accumulating debt of almost $500bn. These are large numbers but the thing to note about high-speed rail is that, due to the speed of the trains, the lines have to be constructed practically in a straight line unlike normal rail. So if there’s a rock or mountain in the path of the line, it has to be blasted and tunnelled through. If there’s a valley, you have to build a bridge over it. And so on. These things significantly add to the costs.
2. I was in China last year and had the privilege of using the high-speed trains. It’s the real deal, no doubt about it. (See my notes here). The 5 hour plus journey from Beijing to Shanghai (and back) is the best train journey I’ve ever taken in my life. Vastly superior to anything here in the UK. And much cheaper too – the return ticket cost me around £50 at the time.
The scale of what has been achieved needs to be seen to be understood. Much of the credit for this has to go to Lunatic Liu who relentlessly drove the programme of construction forward by sheer force of will.
The photo below is one of the favourites I took – Shanghai Hongqiao Rail Station
3. The CRH-380A model is the crowning glory of China’s high-speed rail system. It is manufactured from start to finish inside China. In 2010, under the watchful eyes of Lunatic Liu, the train set a world record of 486km/hr in a test run. You can watch the video here.
4. The high-speed rail network now carries more than 2 million people everyday and connects over 100 cities in China. It is on course to lay 10,000 miles of track by 2020 based on current plans. The line from Beijing to Shenzhen is 2,400 kilometres in length – the longest in the world and cost about $70bn. It is due to extend into Hong Kong by next year.
There s much to talk about China’s high-speed rail system that one blog post cannot do it justice. But I hope you get the gist – every record possible has been broken by the Chinese in this project and Lunatic Liu played a huge role in making it happen.
In 2011, Lunatic Liu was sentenced to death after a trial for corruption. The sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment so he will likely die in prison. The thing about China is that once you have been expelled from the party for wrongdoing, the party scrubs all your achievements from the public records. Given that most media is controlled by the government, it is now almost impossible to find articles where Lunatic Liu was being praised.
So what did he do?
1. Last week a woman named Ding Shumiao aka Ding Yuxin was sentenced to 20 years in prison for corruption relating to contracts in the Railway Ministry under Lunatic Liu.
Chinese people derisively referred to her as Daft Mrs Ding. She changed her name to Yuxin apparently because Shumiao was a ‘village name’ that gave away her very very humble origins. She began her ‘career’ by selling eggs by the roadside and somehow built a multi-million dollar empire (worth $700m in 2010) spanning railway carriages and transportation after she had a buka that became popular with railway executives.
Because the Railways Ministry was so huge and dispensed billions of dollars in contracts, there was a feeding frenzy to get in on the action. Mrs Ding thus became a sort of middle woman who could arrange contracts for you for a fee. It was during a routine audit that someone spotted a payment of $16m to her company as a sort of ‘commission’ by another government-owned company that was trying to get contracts from the Rail ministry.
How did she get so influential with Lunatic Liu? She supplied him with women. In the corruption report against him, he was accused of having 18 mistresses across the country including TV stars and actresses. Mrs Ding appeared to be the one who made the hookups for him.
2. According to gist, depending on the kind of position you wanted, you could pay anywhere from $4,000 to $15,000 for a job with the Railways ministry (the $15k would get you a Supervisor position apparently). The whole ministry was so corrupt that people who had been no more than cooks in their lives were ‘engineers’ in the Ministry.
One promotional video for the ministry that was 5 minutes long ‘cost’ $3m to produce. When investigators went to the house of the person in charge of producing the video, they found $1.5m in cash and papers to 9 different houses.
3. Lunatic Liu had a younger brother called Liu Zhixiang who joined the Ministry under him and became the head of the ministry in a town called Wuhan. The younger Mr Liu was also deeply corrupt and took bribes for everything. In 2006 he was given a death sentence (also commuted later) for hiring people to kill a contractor who had threatened to expose him.
Unfortunately for him, the contractor wrote a will before he was killed which included the line ‘If I am killed, it will have been at the hand of corrupt official Liu Zhixiang’. The contractor was killed in front of his wife with a knife.
When Liu Zhixiang was arrested, he had so much cash n his house that some of it was starting to turn mouldy. In all, about $50m in cash and assets was seized from him – he was taking a cut of every railway ticket sold in his area apparently.
4. 5 months after Lunatic Liu was arrested, there was a devastating crash in a town called Wenzhou. The wiki page of the crash is here. The gist of what happened was that there was a storm and lightning struck a signal box while it was on green. Somehow, this then froze the light on green while disabling one of the trains that was in service in a tunnel at the time. Another train was coming behind it and of course was working on the green signal. Before it could be stopped, it rammed into the stationary train from behind and knocked it off the bridge where it was.
In all, 40 people died and almost 200 were injured. It emerged that the company that built the signalling system had done a rushed job and probably got the contract by paying Mrs Ding as you would imagine. Lots of people were fired after the investigation and the incident sort of confirmed what many people had feared with the pace of work under Lunatic Liu – things had been done too fast. There was a lot of soul-searching in China afterwards with people wondering if statistics were everything and how much human life mattered to corrupt government officials.
After the crash, speeds were reduced across the entire high-speed network
5. Lunatic Liu understood the art of sycophancy very well. He knew that as long as he was delivering targets, his bosses would be happy. When the first line to Beijing opened in 2008, it was almost 100% over budget. The Guanghzhou Station was supposed to cost $360m to build. In the end it cost 7 times that amount. But it remains a magnificent thing to behold with 15 platforms and used up around 3.7 million metric tonnes of cement (more than 30% of what Dangote cement produces in a year).
One time President Hu Jintao was passing through a station where Lunatic Liu was and it is said that he ran so fast across the station to meet him that his shoes came off but he continued running anyway.
Kawasaki Heavy Industries which developed the technology for Japan’s Shinkansen bullet trains complained bitterly that Lunatic Liu stole their technology and passed it off as Chinese made. They threatened to sue and it became a diplomatic incident before they backed down.
So there you have it. Feel free to search the internet for more of the gist as I have left out some things for word count reasons.
Note that in the year of the crash that killed 40 people, Chinese rails carried 400 million people. 40 people easily die on Chinese roads daily as the World Bank noted at the time. And as much as Kawasaki complained about technology theft, the Americans complained about the same thing many years ago when the Japanese began building their own train system.
Having read all that, I now invite you to take the poll below.
Merry Christmas and see you in 2015, God keep us.