In his seven years as chief of the Chinese Railways Ministry, Liu Zhijun built a commercial and political colossus that spanned continents and elevated the lowly train to a national symbol of pride and technological prowess.
His abrupt sacking by the Communist Party is casting that empire in a decidedly different light, raising doubts not only about Mr. Liu’s stewardship and the corruption that dogs China’s vast public-works projects, but also, perhaps, the safety, financial soundness and long-term viability of a rail system that has captured the world’s attention.
Whatever their problems with Mr. Liu, Chinese officials indicated this week that the high-speed rail project would proceed with the government’s full support. But they have not explained why they summarily fired the leader of one of their signature projects.It will be interesting in coming years to see what cracks open up in the Chinese miracle. I can't tell if this is a small one, or the early stages of a big one.
There are some clues in top officials’ public statements since the scandal broke. Speaking on Monday in Beijing, the official who is believed to be the country’s new railways chief, Sheng Guangzu, said the ministry would “place quality and safety at the center of construction projects.” For good measure, he added that safety was his highest priority.
The statement underscored concerns in some quarters that Mr. Liu cut corners in his all-out push to extend the rail system and to keep the project on schedule and within its budget. No accidents have been reported on the high-speed rail network, but reports suggest that construction quality may at times have been shoddy.
A person with ties to the ministry said that the concrete bases for the system’s tracks were so cheaply made, with inadequate use of chemical hardening agents, that trains would be unable to maintain their current speeds of about 217 miles per hour for more than a few years. In as little as five years, lower speeds, possibly below about 186 miles per hour, could be required as the rails become less straight, the expert said.