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China's Railways Minister, And A Runaway Train Of Corruption

The sensational details surrounding the case of disgraced Liu Zhijun have captivated the public and media. But the real question is why is this the norm?

Dalian Railway Station in northeastern China
Dalian Railway Station in northeastern China
Chen Jieren

BEIJING - Former Chinese Railways Minister Liu Zhijun has been charged with abuse of power and accepting bribes.

The case has captivated the public and the media, which have tended to focus on the sensational questions surrounding the case. How many mistresses did Liu have? How big a fortune did he amass? What was his relationship with businesswoman and philanthropist Ding Shumiao? But fewer seemed concerned with the most important question: How was such an unbelievable case able to develop in the first place?

Liu’s story is the result of a twisted political environment that’s generated, and will continue to generate, such incredible cases.

In the absence of democratic elections, Chinese officials turn to nepotism. This means if they want to get promoted, they’ll look to a higher official rather than the people they’re responsible to. They’ll also forge political alliances that will come in handy when the heat is on.

During Liu’s term, he weathered many crises that would have been fatal blows to other officials. For instance, Liu’s brother Liu Zhixiang, former director of the Wuhan Railway Bureau, took bribes of more than 30 million yuan ($4.8 million) and plotted the murder of a whistleblower.

Either of those things would have been enough to sentence Liu Zhixiang to death, but he survived and was given only a 16-year sentence thanks to Liu Zhijun’s patronage. Meanwhile, Liu Zhijun came out of the scandal unscathed.

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Liu Zhijun (left) - Photo: Nancy Pelosi

Then there were also several serious train accidents under Liu’s watch; but again, he dodged any personal fallout. Finally, there was consistently talk of corrupt deals and questionable relationships while Liu was at the helm of the ministry, along with frequent criticism for over-rapid development of high-speed rails and inefficiency of the whole rail network. But Liu was safe and sound through all of this.

So why was Liu so lucky? It was because he had very high level protection.

The media had the very little freedom to talk about the rail system during Liu’s term. Several journalists from CCTV told me that authorities banned all criticism of the Ministry of Railways. One example was when many scholars and experts recommended a real name ticket booking system in order to crack down on ticket scalping. However, the Ministry of Railways banned discussion not only within its own system, but also in mainstream media.

I once personally published an article entitled “Five Reasons That Liu Zhijun Should Take Blame and Resign.” It was deleted on major web portals without explanation. I later found out that Liu had directed his subordinates to buy the good will of journalists and build “cooperation” with mainstream media, as well as work with other departments to bury criticism.

Looking at the broad political landscape, the minister of railways, which is actually the chairman of a super-monopoly corporation, isn’t the most powerful minister. But in his small kingdom, Liu Zhijun was almighty because there was no supervision.

To analyze the case of Liu Zhijun, we should jump out of the microcosm of Chinese officialdom and look at the big picture. Over the years, lack of faith and moral anomie have caused the deterioration of Chinese society. All those parties that licked Liu’s boots bear responsibility.

Translated by Zhang Xiaoxi

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