For the past eight years, Liu Zhijun was one of the most influential people in China. As minister of railways, Liu ran China’s $300 billion high-speed rail project. U.S., European and Japanese contractors jostled for a piece of the business while foreign journalists gushed over China’s latest high-tech marvel.
Today, Liu Zhijun is ruined, and his high-speed rail project is in trouble. On Feb. 25, he was fired for “severe violations of discipline” — code for embezzling tens of millions of dollars. Seems his ministry has run up $271 billion in debt — roughly five times the level that bankrupted General Motors. But ticket sales can’t cover debt service that will total $27.7 billion in 2011 alone. Safety concerns also are cropping up.
Faced with a financial and public relations disaster, China put the brakes on Liu’s program. On April 13, the government cut bullet-train speeds 30 mph to improve safety, energy efficiency and affordability. The Railway Ministry’s tangled finances are being audited. Construction plans, too, are being reviewed.
Liu’s legacy, in short, is a system that could drain China’s economic resources for years. So much for the grand project that Thomas Friedman of the New York Times likened to a “moon shot” and that President Obama held up as a model for the United States.
Rather than demonstrating the advantages of centrally planned long-term investment, as its foreign admirers sometimes suggested, China’s bullet-train experience shows what can go wrong when an unelected elite, influenced by corrupt opportunists, gives orders that all must follow — without the robust public discussion we would have in the states.
The fact is that China’s train wreck was eminently foreseeable. High-speed rail is a capital-intensive undertaking that requires huge borrowing upfront to finance tracks, locomotives and cars, followed by years in which ticket revenue covers debt service — if all goes well. “Any . . . shortfall in ridership or yield, can quickly create financial stress,” warns a 2010 World Bank staff report.