Monday, March 7, 2011

I Think We Can: High-speed Rail


The soul is no traveler; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still, and shall make men sensible by the expression of his countenance, that he goes the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet.             -Ralph Waldo Emerson

I think we can. I think we can. This seems to be the refrain from the Communist Party of China (CPC) and  its leaders, despite the increasing infamy of the sacked railway minister, Liu Zhijun, and a widening scandal that includes Zhang Shuguang. I am entirely on the side of the central planners and visionaries, even if a couple of bureaucratic scoundrels have come dangerously close to de-railing the continuation of this dream.

How we go about moving people about in modern and modernizing nations is central to the economic and ecological future of the world. Those in the United States, who are watching President Obama fumble through the roll-out of his Eisenhowerian vision, would do well to pay attention to what is happening here.

Heeding the optimistic predictions of Rob McCulloch, a national high-speed network would cut oil use by 125 million barrels a year (or 1.6% of total consumption) in the United States, where an estimated 7.665 billion barrels are currently consumed each year. This seems a drop in the bucket, as many newspapers have editorialized, and certainly opens the environmental movement up to accusations of being downright silly; however, much as is the case with tumble dryers, in China, the automobile--despite all the incessant honking and confusing mass of buses and three-wheeled contraptions dodging mopeds and motorcycles and taxis--has not achieved the ubiquitous adoption that we have seen in the United States. Here, there is hope. The proverbial ship has not left the harbor. Necessity is the mother of invention so it is no wonder that China leads the world in developing fast trains.

Workers at the China National Convention Center prepare to transport a locomotive of the domestically developed "Harmony" bullet train to the square outside the center in Beijing, March 5, 2011. The locomotive will be part of a technological achievement exhibition that opens today. [Photo/Xinhua]
Since we are as yet too unwise to heed Lao Tzu's admonition, it is sagacious to set about advancing the proposition that China must do better than mimic the habits of Americans and the economy of North America, rooted, as it is, in the continued pestilence of the personal transportation vehicle which runs on inevitably depleting stores of fossil fuel.

The Scandal and The New Minister

On my first full day in the People's Republic of China , Saturday, February 12, the discipline watchdog of the CPC announced that Liu was under investigation for "severe violation of discipline." The details are cloudy and only available in Chinese, but involve a Shanxi business magnate named Ding Yuxin (formerly, Ding Shumiao) of Boyou Investment Management Group Ltd., a company whose portfolio has benefited greatly from the explosion of high-speed rail construction in China.

The new rail minister is Sheng Guangzu. He supported the creation of China Netcom Group Corporation (Hong Kong) Limited, the world's primary source of e-mail spam and host of spamvertised websites for products such as pills, porn and poker. Research in Norway in 2008 identified cnc-noc.net as "by far the world's worst ISP" and noted that they did not respond to incident reports. A quarter interest in China Netcom belongs to the Ministry of Railways, whose connection to the Netcom's success is not insignificant. "A veritable army" of construction workers, subcontracted through the Ministry of Railways, dug and assembled the network - much of it along existing railway lines. How Sheng Guangzhu will carry out his new duties remains to be seen, but it is safe to say that the eyes of the world are watching.

The Hope of the CPPCC

The CPPCC is a fascinating and large body, whose official website still displays copyright dates of 2004-2005. It was originally chaired by Mao himself and is, in many respects, the controlling force of China's future. The National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference typically holds a yearly meeting at the same time as plenary sessions of the National People's Congress (NPC). Both CPPCC and NPC plenary sessions are often called The Two Meetings, making important national level political decisions.

On the subject of high speed rail, the announcement that came Saturday morning, March 5, from the CPPCC is worth reading in full:
China will reinforce its networks of expressways and high-speed railways during the 2010-2015 period to facilitate the nation's economic growth, the draft 12th Five-Year Plan unveiled Saturday.

By the end of 2015, total length of the high-speed railway network will reach 45,000 kilometers, covering almost all cities with a population of more than 500,000.

The construction of a railway linking Tibet autonomous region and Sichuan province in Southwest China will be considered, said the document.

The total length of expressways will reach 83,000 km, covering cities with a population of more than 200,000.

Megacities including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou will have complete urban light rail networks by 2015.

A new airport will be constructed in Beijing. A number of airports will also be built or expanded across the country.
It is worth noting that the Bank of China will continue to give loans for railway projects and banks will not tighten the money supply for future construction of the country's express passenger transport railway network, probably as a result of the CPPCC's proclamations. Nevertheless, regulators--with an abandon that should be the envy of Wall Street's investigators and watch-dogs--are studying all railway loans. It will be interesting to watch as this drama unfolds.