This Bystander is not so much shocked as wearied by the latest revelations of embezzlement from China’s scandal-plagued high-speed rail network. The National Audit Office says that a second audit of the Beijing-Shanghai line, the centerpiece of the country’s rapid expansion of its high-speed rail network, has found that 491 million yuan ($78 million) has been skimmed off the project by “irregular practices in the construction and management”.
A first audit conducted in 2010 revealed that 187 million yuan had been stolen from the project, which went into commercial operation last June. The picture above shows the first southbound train nosing its way out of Beijing South station, carrying prime minister Wen Jiabao, who inaugurated the service on the 1,318-kilometer now five-hour journey. We are not clear if the latest number tops up the first audit or is in addition to it, but either way it is a tidy sum. The money seems to have been lifted from several pots: the compensation fund for residents whose homes were demolished to make way for the tracks; 413 million yuan of cancelled contracts for wind-shielding barriers that somehow still got paid out in part; 849 million yuan of procurements not carried out in accordance with the standard bidding process; and accounting practices that seem to have no problem with processing fake invoices.
In all, it has been estimated that 3% of the 2 trillion yuan China has spent on building its high-speed rail network has been skimmed off one way or another. The rush to build not only created a giant honey-pot for contractors, suppliers and middlemen, but also one that was’t closely scrutinized. It has subsequently triggered allegations that safety, too, was sacrificed in the cause of speed, both of the trains and the pace of the network build-out. The consequences continue to reverberate. Earlier this month a section of track in Hubei collapsed, apparently because inferior materials were used in the construction of embankments.
The new Beijing-Shanghai audit also says that the company that built the line owes more than 8 billion yuan to suppliers and construction workers. Then railways minister Liu Zhijun was sacked in February 2011, a month before the announcement of the results of the first audit. It has since become clear that corruption surrounding the building of the high-speed rail network spread a long way down from the highest levels. Some officials of the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway Co. Ltd., and their suppliers, are, no doubt, now looking nervously over their shoulder.