What the Railway Lobby Reveals About China’s Political System


In the nearly two decades since China inaugurated its first high-speed rail line in 2004, the total length of the country’s high-speed rail network has grown up from zero to 40,000 kilometres, more than double all other countries combined. During this period, according to data from the China Railway Yearbook, China has spent more than 10 trillion yuan ($1.5 trillion) on railway infrastructure, mostly for high-speed trains. By comparison, the United States invested $260 billion adjusted for inflation on its interstate highway system in the first 40 years of its existence. In terms of physical scale and financial investment, China’s high-speed rail network is one of the most ambitious infrastructure initiatives in human history.

While it suits China to portray the move as a feat of central planning and top-down leadership, the reality is more complicated. With trillions of yuan at stake, the planning and development of high-speed rail quickly became an arm-wrestling game, as GDP-hungry local governments pressured central regulators to approve new rail lines in their jurisdictions.

The term “lobbying” tends to conjure up images of K Street in Washington DC, where well-heeled corporations wield immense influence over Congress. But lobbying exists all over the world, especially in China. As I show in my book“Localized Bargaining: The Political Economy of China’s High-Speed ​​Rail Program”, lobbying activities are pervasive across the country’s various government hierarchies.

Just like local governments in the United States lobby state and federal governments for assignments, federal programs or military bases, China’s regions are also trying to persuade the central government to invest in their growth. The Chinese political system incentivizes local officials to direct important programs like railway projects to their jurisdictions. These projects represent a colossal capital investment, which boosts the growth of regional economies, at least in the short term, and provides the regions — and by extension elected officials — with good publicity. Research has shown that these two factors play an important role in the promotion prospects.

But just because a local official submits a plan for a new railway doesn’t mean it will be built. The overwhelming majority of rail lines are initiated locally, but since high-speed rail lines require astronomical capital, are technologically demanding, and often involve multiple provinces, construction must be approved by the central government. Or, more accurately, it must receive separate approval from many largely autonomous ministries, each with its own, sometimes conflicting, interests. The Ministry of Ecology and Environment is responsible for assessing the environmental impact (such as noise pollution) of proposed railways; the Ministry of Natural Resources is responsible for estimating the amount of land they will occupy; the Ministry of Transport assesses the extent to which they complement existing transport networks such as highways; the China Railway Corporation is evaluating their technological feasibility; and the National Development and Reform Commission is examining their overall viability and socio-economic benefits.

If even one of these ministries opposes the proposal, the local government will not be able to proceed with construction. In a well-known casea major rail project between Beijing and the northeastern city of Shenyang was delayed for five years due to opposition from the then Environmental Protection Ministry.

In my book, I call the dynamic between the different departments involved in railway approvals “fragmented authority”. The result is a busy and often highly political lobbying process.

While the construction of high-speed railways in China was once shrouded in accusations of corruption and bribery, this behavior was more common in the private entrepreneurship and construction sectors. In my research, I found that a different dynamic prevailed in intergovernmental lobbying. Although there are official channels to communicate local needs and requests to central ministries, the central administration receives countless requests from localities every year. Only a handful of them will be approved. The green light for a project often depends on how effectively local governments mobilize their resources, both political and economic.

For example, wealthier jurisdictions often have a competitive edge, as they can offer more attractive cost-sharing terms – or offer other benefits to relevant departments. The costs of a railway project are generally share between the central and local governments concerned. To get a project approved, a local government in a wealthy region might agree to bear a higher percentage of the construction costs. Others have entered into more direct agreements with government departments, ranging from privileged land deals to the construction of new facilities for the exclusive use of their employees or even financial benefits.

Money is not the only deciding factor in the approval process. If local officials previously held positions in central government, they might be able to pull strings to draw attention to their proposals. Less politically connected regions enlist the help of local celebrities or even former revolutionary cadres to voice their demands.

The presence of a single surviving revolutionary made their home county 41.1% more likely to receive railroad investment approval.

Members of China’s revolutionary generation, for example, enjoy enormous social influence, even after most of them retired from politics In the 1980s. They can use this influence to bring local demands for railway resources to the attention of central decision makers. Results of a study I did with Ji Chengyuan from Shanghai Jiao Tong University To display that the presence of a single surviving revolutionary made their home county 41.1% more likely to receive railroad investment approval.

In areas lacking the political or economic resources to influence central ministries, officials may encourage, or at least tolerate, mass action in an effort to pressure their superiors. High-speed rail projects are generally popular among residents, and this type of public call, although usually overruled, can in some circumstances be used by local governments to pressure higher levels of government to meet their political needs. In a case of 2009Local entrepreneurs in a city in central China started a petition for a high-speed railway station that garnered tens and thousands of signatures, and eventually submitted it to the central government.

It should be noted that not all officials are driven by personal ambition in the construction process. Major rail projects bring much-needed funds and other opportunities to local governments and state-owned enterprises, making them popular with institutional elites. But many of the local officials I interviewed said they sincerely hope to make positive contributions to the region they govern and see high-speed rail as an effective way to achieve this goal.

Meanwhile, beyond ensuring more resources for the community, the lobbying done by local governments has an additional meaning: it provides central ministries with important information that they can use when determining new policies, such as the need for certain projects in specific regions, or the state of regional economies. For a country like China, with its vast territory and huge regional disparities, tolerating lobbying is a way to improve the efficiency of decision-making.

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait painter: Zhou Zhen.

(Header image: A bullet train in Beijing, May 13, 2022. VCG)

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