WUKONG Danger signals in China's
high-speed graft By Wu Zhong,
HONG KONG - The Chinese
proverb "When a turnip is pulled out of the
ground, some soil will inevitably come with it,"
certainly applies to China's crackdowns on
official graft, with the associates of guilty
parties often soon implicated in the crime.
So in mid-February, when Beijing dismissed
railway minister Liu Zhijun on suspicion of graft,
it was widely expected that more railway officials
would soon face similar charges.
last week Chinese media reported that Zhang
Shuguang, deputy general engineer of the Ministry
of Railway and director of its Transportation
Department, had been suspended pending an
investigation by the Chinese Communist Party's
(CCP's) anti-graft watchdog.
Zhang, 56, an
associate of Liu, was regarded as the "father of
China's high-speed railways".
He supported Liu's plans for "leapfrog
development" by building a $300 billion high-speed
rail network covering 16,000 kilometers by 2015,
and for China to build state-of-the-art bullet
trains, according to China Daily.
of the case are shocking the public. Zhang
reportedly has US$2.8 billion stashed away in
Swiss and US bank accounts, wealth rivaling that
of a small country. This despite his status as a
prefecture-level official, with a monthly salary
of just 8,000 yuan (US$1,220).
In terms of
the money involved, Liu's case pales into
insignificance in comparison with his protege -
Chinese media estimate that Liu took up to 2.1
billion yuan in bribes. "The protege has outdone
his master," as another Chinese proverb has it.
In a typical case of a "naked official",
Zhang had already moved his wife, child and
presumably a large portion of his ill-gotten gains
to the United States some time ago. The term
"naked official", coined by Chinese netizens,
describes an official who gradually shifts his
family and wealth overseas so he can flee the
country at any time.
It can be reasonably
suspected that any naked official is a corrupt
official. This is why the party ordered nationwide
background checks to enure that "naked officials"
did not take important posts. Regions like
Shenzhen now demand all officials taking important
posts to declare whether spouses or children have
So how did Zhang - such a
blatant "naked official" - remain in such a key
post? How could he transfer such money out of the
country without being discovered? How corrupt is
the high-speed railway project, if Zhang took such
a big bite off the cake? And rampant corruption is
involved, has it affected the quality of
high-speed railway projects?
It is obvious
that Zhang acted so recklessly because he had a
"protective umbrella" - Liu Zhijun. Liu could have
protected Zhang because he had virtually absolute,
unchecked power in China's railway sector.
When asked to comment on Liu's case,
Premier Wen Jiabao said in an online chat with
netizens on February 27 that it showed Beijing's
determination to crack down on official
corruption. However, he admitted that the abuse of
power by the highest-ranking leader of a region or
institution was possible because "our government
and major officials have too much power. Power is
too centralized without restriction."
said this year Beijing would make curbing official
corruption its top priority, and that Beijing
would strengthen public supervision of government
operations. He declined to give any concrete
measures, and admitted that it would take some
time for China to open its government budget to
transparency of government operations and genuine
public supervision, Beijing's fight against
official corruption is doomed.
high-speed railway network is a major part of the
4-trillion yuan economic stimulus package launched
by Wen in late 2008 to combat the international
financial crisis. At that time, officials of the
National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC)
confidently proclaimed that it had the "resolute
and methods" needed to prevent any of the money
being misused. The NDRC now owes the Chinese
public an explanation on how such huge amounts
could apparently be pocketed by officials like Liu
Naturally, when the funds for a
construction project are found to have been
pilfered by officials in charge, people cast
doubts on its quality. In 1998, when unprecedented
floods devastated the Yangtze River, then Chinese
premier Zhu Rongji inspected dykes along the river
and found some collapsed sections were of poor
quality. He called these "bean-curd projects" and
threatened to chop off the heads of officials in
Now, there are worries about the
quality of the high-speed railways. Chinese media
have reported Liu and Zhang gave some purchase
orders or construction contracts to companies
based on the bribes they would receive, rather
than on the firms' reputations. Substandard
construction is risky on tracks supporting a train
that travels at 250 kilometers per hour. Many
Chinese, especially rural migrant workers, have
also been complaining that the fares are too high.
A deputy to the Chinese People's Political
Consultative Conference (CPPCC), China's top
political advisory body, is expected to soon table
a motion that will demand China slow and scale
down the construction of high-speed railways. The
CPPCC and the National People's Congress (NPC),
China's parliament, are concurrently holding their
Chinaís railway companies
have about 1.8 trillion yuan in debt, against 3.3
trillion yuan in assets, the new railways minister
Sheng Guangzu told the National Peopleís Congress
on Sunday. He said Liuís case was an isolated one
and would not have a major impact on railway
development, the South China Morning Post
reported, citing a report in Beijing News.
The World Bank estimated in a report last
year that China spent $163 billion on the network
from 2007 to 2009 and would spend another $100
billion in 2010, with the ultimate tab totaling
some $300 billion.
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