What the Railway Lobby Reveals About China’s Political System
In the nearly two decades since China broke ground on its first high-speed rail line in 2004, the total length of the country’s high-speed rail network has grown from zero to 40,000 kilometers — more than twice that of all other countries combined. In that time, according to data from the China Railway Yearbook, China has spent more than 10 trillion yuan ($1.5 trillion) on railway infrastructure — mostly on high-speed rail. By comparison, the United States invested an inflation-adjusted $260 billion on its Interstate Highway System over the first 40 years of its existence. In terms of both physical scale and financial investments, China’s high-speed rail network is one of the most ambitious infrastructure initiatives in the history of humanity.
Although it suits China to portray this initiative as a feat of central planning and top-down leadership, the reality is more complicated. With trillions of yuan at stake, high-speed rail planning and development quickly became a game of tug-of-war, as GDP-hungry local governments intensively lobbied central regulators to approve new rail lines in their jurisdictions.
The term “lobbying” tends to conjure images of K Street in Washington D.C., where well-heeled firms wield immense influence over Congress. But lobbying exists all over the world, not least in China. As I show in my book, “Localized Bargaining: The Political Economy of China’s High-Speed Railway Program,” lobbying activities are pervasive between the country’s various government hierarchies.
Just as local governments in the U.S. lobby state and federal governments for earmarks, federal programs, or military bases, regions in China also attempt to persuade the central government to invest in their growth. China’s political system incentivizes local officials to steer big ticket programs like rail projects to their jurisdictions. These projects represent a colossal fixed-asset investment, which boosts the growth of regional economies, at least in the short term, and provides regions — and by extension, officials — with good publicity. Research has shown that both these factors play an important role in local leaders’ 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 at the local level, but because high-speed rail lines require astronomical amounts of 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 numerous, largely autonomous ministries, each with its own, sometimes conflicting interests. The Ministry of Ecology and Environment is responsible for evaluating the environmental impact (such as noise pollution) of proposed railways; the Ministry of Natural Resources is responsible for evaluating the amount of land they will occupy; the Ministry of Transport evaluates the degree to which they complement existing transportation networks such as highways; the China Railway Corporation evaluates their technological feasibility; and the National Development and Reform Commission considers their overall viability and socioeconomic benefits.
If just one of these ministries objects the proposal, the local government won’t be able to move ahead with construction. In one well-known case, a major railway project between Beijing and the northeastern city of Shenyang was delayed for five years due to opposition from the then-Ministry of Environmental Protection.
In my book, I term the dynamic between various ministries involved in railway approvals “fragmented authority.” It results in a fraught, and often highly political, lobbying process.
While high-speed railway construction in China used to be shrouded in accusations of corruption and bribery, this behavior was more common in the private contracting and construction sectors. In my research, I found that a different dynamic prevailed in intergovernmental lobbying. Although there are official channels for communicating local needs and requests to central ministries, the central administration receives countless requests from localities each year. Only a handful of them will be approved. Whether a project is greenlit often comes down to how effectively local governments mobilize their resources, both political and economic.
For instance, wealthier jurisdictions often have a leg up on the competition, as they can propose more attractive cost-sharing terms — or offer other benefits to the relevant ministries. The costs of a railway project are usually shared between the central and local governments involved. To get a project approved, a local government in a rich region might agree to take on a greater percentage of the construction costs. Others cut more direct deals with ministries, ranging from sweetheart land deals to building new facilities for the exclusive use of their employees or even financial payoffs.
Money is not the only decisive factor in the approval process. If local officials previously held positions in the 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 old revolutionary cadres to get their requests heard.
Members of China’s revolutionary generation, for instance, command enormous social influence, even after most of them retired from politics in the 1980s. They can use this influence to bring local requests for railway resources to the attention of central policymakers. Findings from a study I performed with Ji Chengyuan of Shanghai Jiao Tong University show that the presence of a single surviving revolutionary made their birth county 41.1% more likely to receive approval for railway investment.
In regions without the political or economic resources needed to influence the central ministries, officials may encourage, or at least tolerate, mass action in an effort to apply pressure on their superiors. High-speed rail projects are generally popular among residents, and this type of public appeal, although typically quashed, can in some circumstances be used by local governments to push higher levels of the government hierarchy to address their policy needs. In one case from 2009, local entrepreneurs in a city in central China launched a petition for a high-speed railway station that gathered tens and thousands of signatures, and eventually submitted it to the central government.
It is worth noting that not all officials are motivated by personal ambition in the construction process. Major rail projects bring much needed funds and other opportunities to local government departments and state-owned enterprises, making them popular with institutional elites. But many of the local officials I interviewed said they genuinely hoped to make positive contributions to the region they govern and saw high-speed rail as an effective means of realizing this goal.
Meanwhile, beyond ensuring more resources for the community, the lobbying done by local governments has an additional layer of significance: 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 immense regional disparities, tolerating lobbying is one way to improve efficiency in decision-making.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: A high-speed train in Beijing, May 13, 2022. VCG)