Local press reports are starting to peel back the case surrounding Liu Zhijun, the railways minister under investigation for apparent corruption. Caijing has reported that he is being accused of taking a more than 10 million yuan ($1.5 million) bribe to help a Shanxi company win a high-speed rail contract worth several hundred million yuan. Liu has already been sacked from his more senior post as Party secretary within the ministry.
Joining some dots, which may or not be connected, takes us back to reports in January of investigations into the business dealings of a prominent, wealthy and politically well connected Shanxi businesswoman and philanthropist, Ding Shumiao (also known as Ding Yuxin). Ding’s Broad Union business empire encompasses coal, coal shipping, railway investment, equipment and track building, station advertising and hotels. Its environmental protection equipment subsidiary, Shanxi Jinhande, won bids in 2008 to supply noise barriers along several high-speed rail lines worth a reported 836 million yuan between them. The following year Ding won a 2.3 billion yuan contract to build a coal freight line in Shanxi. Shanxi Jinhande recently changed its name to CREC Taikete Environmental Engineering, the latest move in a corporate reshuffling of Broad Union that has been underway for several years.
It is not clear what triggered the investigation into Ding’s dealings. Our experience is that there is usually a political agenda somewhere in the background when someone so prominent is involved. Liu, if it is shown there is a connection, may have been collateral damage, so to speak, and pretty extensive damage at that. The railways ministry has been a fiefdom unto itself, however. There are many among the reformers and anti-corruption campaigners in the Party who would jump on an opportunity to rein it in.
China is spending 700 billion yuan a year on building out the world’s largest high-speed rail network. That is, almost by definition, a honeypot sweet for the skimming. Whether prosecutors eventually find dots to connect between Liu and Ding, it seems a racing certainty that there will be many dots that will connect somewhere. They will be looked for. Events in Egypt have sharpened the appreciation in Beijing of the corrosion corruption can inflict on public trust in government.