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A high-speed train near Beijing's South Station, China.

A high-speed train zips by near Beijing's South Station.

Photograph by Michael Yamashita, National Geographic

Ian Johnson

for National Geographic News

Published October 5, 2012

First in our weekly "In Focus" series—stepping back, looking closer.

Ye Shaoguang sits in his mud-and-brick home, waiting for the next explosion. It's June, and his living room is filled with the bounty of rural Hunan: freshly plucked bayberries and ceramic jars of fresh honey from his bee colony. He ladles dark yellow syrup into a bowl. "Eat it," he says. "It's wild honey, like nothing you'll get in the cities." (Related pictures: "Chinese High-Speed Rail in Focus.")

Beyond Ye's front yard is a rice field, and beyond that, a gaping hole in the side of the valley: a tunnel being blasted through the mountains. When completed next year, the Zhangjiashi tunnel will allow trains to race 200 miles (320 kilometers) an hour between the southern metropolis of Kunming and the financial hub of Shanghai.

The project symbolizes China's 21st-century aspirations: High-speed trains are a national priority for China, with 10,000 miles (160,000 kilometers) of lines due to link 24 cities by 2020. Since the program got under way in 2007, half of the lines have been built, with another major north-south artery the length of the country set to open later this year. It's an engineering blitzkrieg meant to awe the Chinese people and show off the nation's new industrial might.

Less impressive have been the costs—financial and human. Last year two events happened that continue to shake the railway system and China as a whole. One was the detention of China's once powerful railway minister, Liu Zhijun, an old-style communist central planner who rolled out the high-speed network like a general using human-wave tactics.

Thousands of work teams were deployed to blast open mountains, bridge gullies, and pave over the countryside. But investigations show that Liu's methods were based on massive corruption, and he himself is accused of graft and "sexual misconduct."

The other event that has caused a broader rethink of China's development path was a terrifying crash of two high-speed trains last year near the city of Wenzhou. The crash has come to symbolize the ruling Communist Party's development-at-all-costs strategy. One commentator said on national television that China was "leaving the souls of the people behind." As one crash survivor told me: "Where is happiness? Is it only in statistics and numbers?"

One upshot of these scandals is that the ministry—which has been run since the People's Republic's founding in 1949 as a quasi-military fiefdom, with its own courts and police force—may lose its independent status and be subsumed by the Ministry of Transport. That could happen as soon as the Communist Party's 18th Congress, slated to start November 8.

(Read "China's Journey" in National Geographic magazine.)

"This Shows We Are a Great Country"

These tensions are on display at the emerging Zhangjiashi tunnel here in the Hunanese countryside. The construction methods are traditional: The 60 workers bore holes into the mountainside with long, thin drills, insert sticks of dynamite, and clear the rubble by hand. Blast by blast, they extend the tunnel about a yard each day. It's slow, exacting work, but they have a chance to earn $600 a month, five times what they make as farmers.

The tunnel manager is a wily businessman named Qian Shengmu, who has no formal education and learned his trade by trial and error over the past 25 years.

He gets financing from loan sharks, and the high interest rates they charge—upward of 60 percent—mean that he's always pushing his men to hurry up and finish. Deals, he says matter-of-factly, are secured through bribes.

Old Mr. Ye and his family have strong opinions about the push for high-speed trains. "Of course it's good," Ye says. "It's a sign that China is rich." His mother-in-law disagrees. "It will crack our walls! Who will buy us a new house when ours collapses from the vibrations?"

Ye would never ride on a bullet train-he can hardly afford the slow train to the provincial capital, Changsha, a 75-mile (120-kilometer) ride away. But he prides himself on thinking strategically. "This is a national issue," he says with finality. "This shows we are a great country."

A few moments later the mountainside rumbles, and the house shakes. An angry murmur emanates from the hives on the front stoop, and bees swarm out in the heavy afternoon air, threatening to attack. They fly off, and quiet returns. "You see," Ye says triumphantly. "Nothing collapsed."

(See pictures of China's countryside.)

Few countries have such a vexed relationship with railways as China. When the first line was laid in 1876, many Chinese worried that the steel bands would disrupt the flow of chi, or life energy, which, according to ancient belief, is channeled through mountains and valleys, people, and animals.

Pragmatists fretted that in an already overpopulated country the rails would add to unemployment by supplanting boatmen and coolies. As one official put it to a United States visitor in the late 19th century: "They bring in foreigners whom I do not like, and they throw men out of work."

How China's Rail System Developed

In 1911 the imperial government conceded that China needed a railway system and announced that it would nationalize and expand the network. Because the government was near bankruptcy, it was decided to allow foreigners to buy equity stakes, effectively giving them ownership.

Patriots were outraged and formed the Railway League to oppose foreign takeover. Many government troops joined the league. Later that year the soldiers mutinied, and the child emperor Puyi abdicated, ending 2,000 years of imperial rule.

When the Communists took power in 1949, China still had a small, fragmented rail system—less than half the mileage the British left India in 1947. Half the lines were in the northeast, which Japan had colonized and developed, and most of the rest ran down the eastern seaboard.

The early Communist leaders were unenthusiastic railway builders, but they left a lasting legacy: The railway under Chairman Mao became a quasi-military operation. The Ministry of Railways, headquartered across the street from the Ministry of Defense, emerged as one of China's most powerful bureaus. Its construction branch was called the tiedaobing, or "railway soldiers."

One line was pushed out west to link the restive province of Xinjiang, which was also home to the Lop Nor nuclear testing facility. In a feat of engineering, another line was punched from the inland city of Chengdu through the mountains to Kunming, not far from the border with then North Vietnam, China's ally engaged in a war with the U.S. More than 2,100 workers died building this line, and many were declared national martyrs for their sacrifice.

Despite these heroic efforts, during the communists' first 30 years in power the number of rail miles only doubled, to 30,000. By the year 2000, China had 42,000 miles (67,000 kilometers) of track—about a third as much as the U.S. That's when Beijing made railway building a national priority. Within a decade the total mileage had risen to 56,500, and it is planned to reach 75,000 by 2015. Rails are transforming China's mental geography.

Cities that in the past seemed hopelessly remote or only reachable by infrequent flights are now a couple of hours away. The Beijing-Shanghai high-speed line, which opened in 2011, cut travel time from 12 hours to less than 5. (That's the distance from Philadelphia to Atlanta, which takes 16 hours by Amtrak.)

High-speed service is no less transformative on short stretches, as I discovered going from the poor mountain town of Hengshan in Hunan to the provincial capital of Changsha. The tracks ran as straight as the crow flies, with mountains, villages, and marshes all yielding to the railway ministry's might. I sat next to a farmer who was traveling to visit his daughter in Changsha.

"It used to be so bitter to make this trip," he said as we whooshed out of the last tunnel at 150 miles (240 kilometers) an hour and entered the flatlands. "Now we've already arrived." The 85-mile (135-kilometer) trip used to take 4 hours; we did it in 35 minutes. The link is helping Hengshan boom, with apartments and shops opening for new residents who commute to Changsha. (See pictures of China's cities.)

Inside China's Train Factories

The pride of China's high-speed rail fleet is the 380A model, an all-Chinese manufactured train capable of cruising at 217 miles (350 kilometers) an hour, with a top working speed of 258 miles (415 kilometers) an hour. In a test run in 2010—with Railway Minister Liu cheering the driver on-a 380A reached 302 miles (485 kilometers) an hour, a world speed record for a production train. After this triumph, when Liu announced to reporters that the country would soon have trains routinely running at more than 300 miles (482 kilometers) an hour, the Chinese press began calling him Mad Liu.

The moniker was only partly in jest; it also reflected skepticism. From the outset, all the high-speed technology was imported from engineering giants such as Japan's Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd, Germany's Siemens AG, and France's Alstom SA. It strained credulity that China could develop such advanced machinery on its own in just a few years, and even before the Wenzhou crash, many wondered if China was simply copying poorly understood foreign technology.

The managers of the 380A factory, who work for Qingdao Sifang Locomotive and Rolling Stock Company, vehemently deny this. The Sifang factory—on a 330-acre (133-hectare) site with computerized labs, utilitarian sheds, and a test track—employs 8,000 people, including a thousand directly involved in making the 380A. Unlike many other Chinese factories I've visited, it's clean and modern, and workers wear safety goggles. The Sifang employees are a different breed from the gritty tunnel blasters in Hunan.

Sifang was founded by Germans in the early 1900s and developed what little railway engineering knowledge China had. The company has made some of China's most iconic trains, including the enormous steam-powered "Liberation" trains that were still in use as recently as 1992. During the Cold War years, Sifang's engineers went to Africa to build railways and project China's diplomatic power. Sifang also designed the high-altitude trains on the new line to Lhasa, which are being exported to Peru.

The factory's managers say that although their core technology was imported from Japan and Germany, Sifang merely "digested" it. The idea was to purchase technology legally, improve on it, and repatent it, making it a Chinese product. "Some technology and equipment is Western, as you can see," says Wang Hongmei, who's in charge of factory production. "But much of the core technology is Chinese."

That practice is by no means uniquely Chinese: After World War II, Japan's high-tech ascent was based initially on reverse-engineering U.S. and West German technology and then patenting the marginally different Japanese products. But China has started from a much lower technological and educational base than Japan, making its claimed accomplishments seem extraordinary.

I asked Wu Qunliang, Sifang's chief spokesperson, how his factory could say that the 380A was a Chinese product. Its needle-nose design looks almost exactly like a Japanese Shinkansen bullet train, while the interior strongly resembles a German high-speed train. Wasn't this just sophisticated pirating?

"Foreigners like to think this because they don't think Chinese can make advanced technology," he said. "Let me show you something."

Wu took me to a small museum in the factory. Behind a glass case was a contract signed by Sifang and China's most important scientific agencies, pledging to work together to build China's own high-speed trains. Like the country's space program or its efforts to build an aircraft carrier, Wu explained, high-speed rail wasn't just another industry-it was a national priority. None of the technology was stolen, he said emphatically.

"We couldn't do this on our own, that's true," he said of Sifang. "But we had the science ministry involved and their expertise. It's the result of a long-standing national effort."

Train Safety in Question?

The 380A fit into Minister Liu's belief that China could "leapfrog" Western countries—an idea espoused fervently by communist China's first leader, Mao Zedong. Mao was convinced that with enough fervor China could bound ahead, leaving the details to be worked out later.

But throughout 2011, even China's state-controlled media began to question the high-speed rail program's safety. Blasting tunnels, laying track, and bending metal into sleek trains was one thing, but operating a coherent—and safe—system was another. Shortly after the Beijing-Shanghai line opened in June a series of signal problems caused delays, and the top speed for trains was reduced from 210 miles (338 kilometers) an hour to 180 miles (290 kilometers) an hour.

By then, Liu had already resigned on the corruption charges. Chinese media, citing unnamed sources, says he channeled contracts to a mistress who ran a company that made rail signals. A report in a major Chinese business magazine said the woman also provided him with other girlfriends.

When I went back to Hunan last summer to see tunnel manager Qian Shengmu, he said that the ministry had put blasting on hold. "There's a new emphasis on quality. They want us to take more time."

From Qian's construction site he could see several other tunnels, each run by separate companies. The fragmentation was meant to foster competition, but it was wasteful. Each company had equipment and staff that it only needed once every few days—dump trucks to carry the rubble down the hill, technical staff who measure out the dynamite.

The system did, however, ensure that ministry officials were assiduously wined and dined by dozens of small bosses. Indeed, much of Qian's time was spent on the road, tracking down the petty officials who dole out contracts. When I mentioned Minister Liu's troubles, Qian laughed.

"We have to cultivate a lot of relations with officials," he said. "How else do you get deals?"

Shortly after I visited Qian, a bullet train from Beijing barreled into another high-speed train that had lost power during a lightning storm outside the coastal city of Wenzhou. Four cars plunged 65 feet (20 meters) from a viaduct to the vegetable fields below. Forty people died, and 192 were injured.

Accidents are common in China, but coming after Minister Liu's resignation, it caused an uproar on China's lively microblogging scene. Somehow-maybe because it came after 30 years of pell-mell development—the disaster seems to have grown in significance, with time, becoming lodged in the national psyche as "7-2-3," after the date of the accident, July 23.

Crash Survivors Remain Angry

Since then, I have talked to several survivors, and all remain angry. The ministry paid their hospital fees, but that was about it. Days after the crash, before many of the victims were even buried, survivors were urged to settle.

The ministry offered $140,000 for each death; the seriously injured, many of whom would need physical therapy the rest of their lives, would get half that. Some refused to sign, and of those, not one could find a lawyer to negotiate better terms. Lawyers in the area say that the government-run bar association ordered them not to take on crash cases, although the bar denies this.

A day after the accident, the ministry dug a pit and buried the railcars, destroying forensic evidence, despite orders by the local police not to do so. Within three days the trains were running again, even though the cause of the accident was still unclear. A government report simply blamed the signaling system, which many family members asserted didn't address how the system was chosen and what sort of training operators had been given. I wanted to ask officials about this, but numerous requests to the ministry for an interview were denied. More than a year later, the ministry has given one perfunctory press conference about the tragedy.

Yet the Wenzhou accident has catalyzed many Chinese, causing them to think deeply about their country's direction. Gao Zhanhua is a government employee whose wife and two children were on the train. The daughter and son weren't badly hurt, but his wife of 20 years has severe memory loss. When I asked Gao how she was doing, he rolled up his sleeve and showed me welts all over his arm, explaining that she violently attacks anyone who gets too close to her. Gao spends much of his days and nights at her bedside, hoping that one day she'll recover.

"The main thing I've come to conclude is that we have to teach our children well," he told me. "We have to teach them to grow up in a democratic society. China is a one-party state. There is no justice here—it's impossible." He noted that even Internet discussion forums about the crash had been closed down. I was the first journalist he'd met, because Chinese journalists had been banned from interviewing survivors.

The national mood was reflected by the popular Chinese blogger, Han Han. In one widely circulated post, he mimicked the attitude of China's technocratic rulers, capturing the arrogance of the ministry: "You don't need to concern yourselves with what happened in the process or whose palms were greased—you got to enjoy it, didn't you?" Han wrote, as if chiding the public for complaining about how the crash was handled. "Why aren't you grateful? Why do you raise so many questions?"

"It Used to be a Golden Age"

I often wondered whether the push for high-speed rails was meant to serve the people or the state. Riding from Beijing to Shanghai, the experience seems as good as any I'd had in Europe, and possibly even better, given the greater distances. Yes, the finish and the details look cheap compared to German or French trains, and the food is atrocious.

But the trains average 180 miles (290 kilometers) an hour. You rip through the countryside, stopping only twice before pulling into Shanghai's new Hongqiao station on time. As for the price, second class is $90, cheaper than all but the deepest discounted airline ticket, and the total travel time is only about an hour longer than by plane, once you factor in getting out to the airport, going through security, and so on.

The trains run every hour, providing what is essentially a commuter service between China's two greatest cities. Yet what lies between are vast, forgotten swaths of the country where most people live. They are served at best by slow, overcrowded trains. I experienced one going from Beijing to Datong, a city I first visited in 1984. The 200-mile (320-kilometer) run takes six hours-merely two hours faster than nearly 30 years before.

(Read about China's growing middle class.)

On a trip earlier this year, my train was crammed and filthy. The poorly designed ventilation system sucked fumes from the diesel locomotive straight into the wagons, and when we were barely out of Beijing, a sticky mix of water and urine already coated the toilet floor. But it was cheap: eight dollars for a second-class seat.

Perhaps the hundreds of billions already spent on high-speed railways might have been more effectively spent upgrading the entire network-enhancing overall mobility and helping reduce tensions between rich and poor. Yet China's technocratic leaders have a deep belief that elites should lead the way, and high-speed rail is their vision for the future.

And in some ways, perhaps they are right. A recent report says that on many key high-speed lines, fares are covering debt costs, confounding skeptics who said high-speed trains were purely prestige projects. During my last visit with Qian Shengmu, I joined him in the southern city of Fuzhou, where he was finishing up a mile-long (1.6-kilometer-long) tunnel, part of another high-speed line that would link the mountain-enclosed port of six million with the interior. His tunnel in Hunan was under construction again, the ministry having released some money. I asked Qian about the future of the program.

"It used to be a golden age," he said. "The ministry had so much money and the emphasis was build, build, build. Speed. Now there's criticism. But they will finish this. They have to. They started this so they have to finish it."

Ian Johnson is a Beijing-based writer who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of China. He is now writing a book about China's search for spiritual values and spends several months a year traveling around the country, mostly by rail.

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