The political and personal careers of Liu Zhijun, former Minister of Railways, have reached the final stop of the journey. The crimes he has been accused of – corruption and embezzlement – leave no room for hope. The “Father of Chinese high-speed railways” was arrested and sacked together with its inner circle. Liu’s rise has been slow, and his fall very quick. The dismissal of one of China’s most economically powerful men took place despite his obvious successes.
China’s railway network symbolized the Country’s growth in the third millennium. A striking development brought the high-speed network to 8.400 km this year, 13 times its length in 2008. The new network will cover 19.000 km in 2014. Japan’s, the world benchmark for the sector, is only 2.100 km long. New contracts have been awarded to China to build high-speed lines in different countries, including California, probably.
Now China is more competent and modern, its industry is grateful, MNCs’ are supported by a first-class logistical system. Liu was astute enough to enjoy the privileges of a state owned company, a monopoly both for constructing and for managing passenger and freight services. His rail tracks led to a blatant success, useful to cover criticism for handling an opaque and unaccounted management. Calls for liberalization and transparency were put in the waiting room.
Liu’s sacking must be now seen with bifocal lens. The short-term signal is striking evidence: nobody is above the law. Good results do not safeguard against vigilance. A stringent scrutiny might be applied to losses, loans, and mismanagement. More important, in the future, the role of the press will be crucial to discover irregularities.Since many months, some newspapers and independent blogs undertook in-depth investigations. Excessive debt and crony affiliations with the banking system were denounced. In addition, a large number of people still do not find any improvement from such an extensive network. Tickets are very expensive.
Ordinary citizens took old trains or buses to go back home during the Chinese New Year’s festivities. Finally, high-speed construction costs skyrocketed, enough to question its usefulness. What is the purpose of reaching a 350kmh speed rather than a 250kmh one at such extreme marginal costs? Beijing apparently did not stop the doubts and the complaining. Rather, it used them. The message is loud and clear: nobody is untouchable. Economic press discovers itself freer, criticism is allowed.
Thus, we see an unusual result which imposes a reconsideration of old stereotypes. China’s press freedom is still different from a western-style definition of press freedom, but when it comes to investigate the so called “powerful powers” and denounce its economic crimes, where do we draw the line to mark the difference between the right to know and the protection of a protégé? Which is the threshold to define press as independent? Can we Europeans say our economic press is freer than China’s, being owned by “powerful powers” and being so dependent on big companies’ advertising budget?