By Andrew Martin
China has achieved something truly remarkable. It has built the largest and, in some sections, the fastest High-Speed Rail (HSR) network in the world. China’s rail system continues to expand, surpassing any other country in terms of sheer scale.
By 2035, the total length of China’s railway tracks – both HSR and conventional – is expected to reach about 200,000 km. China has achieved an impressive level of connectivity through its railway system, with coverage extending to 98% of cities with a population over 200 thousand.
The country has successfully linked almost all provincial capitals with high-speed services. The average number of trips on China’s HSR services rose from around 1.07 million in 2012 to 6.38 million in 2019 – a growth of 29% per year. Impressively, HSRs account for half of all passenger travel.
China’s rail companies mostly use conventional HSR like those in Europe, such as the French TGV or German Siemens trains, but they’ve also started using something that appears truly futuristic – magnetic levitation. The trains move without the friction of steel on steel.
The Shanghai Maglev uses a system of electromagnets holding it in suspension and allowing it to travel at a speed of 460km/hour. Connecting Shanghai’s airport with its city centre, it can complete the 30km journey in just seven and a half minutes. Imagine if a city in Australia (or the U.S.) had such a service!
The Maglevs are, by global standards, an engineering masterpiece. The basic technology and design of magnetic levitation were first developed in Germany in 1979, with the Transrapid 05 running on a test track under 1km long. The first Maglev train in China was developed with Siemens and the China Railway Rollingstock Company (CRRC). Further development of China’s Maglevs by the CRRC has led to prototypes that reach speeds of 600km/h.
They are fast and super smooth – the elevated tracks use two sets of electromagnets to hold the trains in suspension. The guideway of electromagnets controls the train’s stability and speed. Therefore, they can accelerate and decelerate much faster than a conventional train – the only limitation being the excessive gravitational forces impacting the comfort of passengers.
There are other advantages, fewer moving parts and friction means less maintenance, quieter running, and significantly lower odds of derailment. The trains can be built wider, adding to passenger comfort as they’re not dependent on a standard rail gauge (derived initially from the 4 ft 8″ width of a Roman chariot axle).
Another significant advantage is that they can travel up gradients of as much as 10% (as opposed to the 4% or less of a conventional rail). This reduces the need for tunnelling or levelling, reducing the impact on the natural landscape. The downside is that they need much more energy to overcome drag and resistance, so they are generally more expensive to run. China hopes to overcome this through a mass expansion of renewable energy.
The construction of Maglev and conventional HSR has been a mass state-directed enterprise. The publicly listed state-owned rail company CRRC is a giant in the world of rail with over 180 thousand employees. It is the world’s largest rolling stock manufacturer and earns more revenue than the largest European firms, Alstom and Siemens.
CRRC was formed as a merger between the two largest Chinese rail firms, CNR and CSR, in 2015. The State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council (SASAC) directs and controls the company. Headquartered in Beijing, it is one of the largest economic entities in the world with combined assets of U.S $30 trillion and revenue of more than $4.6 trillion. This administrative body controls all the major levers of industry, from steelworks to the aerospace industry.
Why has China built High-Speed Rail?
There is an inescapable logic to high-speed rail. It is a superior form of transit to private transportation. The aviation industry relies heavily on fossil fuel, but this energy supply cannot be assured in the decades ahead. China needs to overcome a tyranny of distance that cannot be efficiently overcome via road transport.
Recent development in China has created over 155 cities of more than a million people. The population of Shanghai – 23 million – is almost the equivalent of the population of Australia.
With a sizeable migratory workforce and large movements of commercial goods, it makes sense to connect these urban and industrial centres. Rail is the most efficient land transport, several times more efficient than trucks or buses. For shorter trips, HSRs are sometimes faster than flying. Therefore, the HSR system is an excellent social service that prepares China for future economic growth.
How has China been able to build High-Speed Rail?
The speed at which China’s HSR system has been built is awe-inspiring, especially considering it was still using steam engines in coal mines and at steelworks well into the first decade of the 21st century. China held onto steam power longer than any other country in the world. The last steam engine, the SY class based on a 1920’s Japanese locomotive, was built in 1999.
There was not a single mile of high-speed rail back then. Today it has almost 40 thousand kilometres of HSR linking almost all its major cities. Rail lines pass over, under and through an unlimited number of obstacles. Half of that total was completed in the last five years alone.
The challenges its engineers have faced are as immense as the country itself – vast distances, massive variations in terrain and geology, not to mention the scale of planning and administration to overcome disruptions and conflicts.
The HSR trains often pose a striking contrast the landscape as they cut through the air, sometimes elevated at a great height over little-developed tracts of agrarian land.
China’s lead in developing HSR technology is virtually unrivalled. There is no European reference point for the future advancement of this field. It is China that is pioneering large scale development and standardising the technology – setting the international benchmark.
Research and development efforts are an integral part of China’s five-year plans. It is state direction that has enabled China to lead the technological development, construction and management of high-speed rail.
The construction of HSR in China is worth studying because it reveals the contradictions of Chinese society; the struggle of development to overcome the painful poverty and humiliation of the past, the beginnings of a hopeful and modern future – but one that is not without conflict or adversity.
The construction cost of the high-speed rail network in China has been estimated to be over 4 trillion yuan (approximately 600 billion USD) as of 2021. This equates to U.S $23-31 million per kilometre – and includes the cost of building tracks, stations, trains, and other infrastructure, as well as acquiring land and resettling local communities.
According to a report by Moody’s Investors Service in 2020, the total debt of China’s railway sector was estimated to be around 7.5 trillion yuan (approximately 1.16 trillion USD) – mostly held by China Railway Corporation (CRC), the state-owned enterprise responsible for operating the railway network.
China hopes to manage this debt with equity swaps and sales of land. It has also sold stocks in the CRC on the Shanghai and Hong Kong stock exchanges. It has also issued bonds backed by the revenue raised by HSRs and sourced funding through public-private partnerships.
The cost of constructing high-speed rail lines in China has been relatively high due to the country’s large size, diverse geography, and high population density. However, the Chinese government has seen the investment in high-speed rail as an important way to boost economic growth, promote regional integration, and reduce carbon emissions.
But China’s HSR system is not driven by commercial interest alone. The HSRs are a grand infrastructure project that presents to the world the best of China’s engineering and manufacturing capabilities and proves that they can build products that are the world’s best. High speed rail symbolises China’s coming of age and rapid modernisation. The hope is that these projects will give China a strategic advantage, building a skills base that enables it to develop its own technologies and increase its economic power by expanding the domestic market.
Politically, HSR is a vital source of national pride, for greater integration of China’s regions and to forge closer ties with neighbouring countries. In some respects, China’s HSR has similar aims to the railways of Europe, England and the U.S in the late 19th century, crossing frontiers and expanding trade. Likewise, they are entwined with a vision of advancement and prosperity.
China’s HSR is an impressive achievement but often disparaged in the West as being “wasteful” or “crazy”. But in the U.S, transportation accounts for the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and HSR reduces carbon emissions by up to 90% compared to aviation and car travel.
The logic of providing a social service baffles most economists and commentators on China. Even contemporary left-wing scholars in the West have found it challenging to come to terms with the modernisation of China. For example, the Marxian geographer and social theorist David Harvey has described China’s advancement as “infrastructural capitalism” – wherein capitalism represents itself as a physical landscape being modelled and recreated in its own image.
Harvey theorises that development is driven by “spatial concentration” – that cities and regions accumulate wealth at the expense of others. Harvey’s theories of uneven geographic development overlook the role of the state, its class character and the position of workers within it. Harvey reduces complex social phenomena to a spatial dimension or “fix”. He overlooks historical context and the role of imperialism as a determining factor in how the world has developed.
Capitalism has indeed permeated into life in China – as it has in the rest of the world. However, Harvey overlooks two critical aspects of development in China: 1) Its position in the global division of labour; and 2) Class divisions within China as a motive force of development.
Harvey overlooks the agency of workers in shaping urban development processes and the importance of culture, politics and social relations as driving forces of change. China’s achievements in HSR cannot be reduced to the reproduction of capital. If they were simply about making a profit, why have other countries not embarked on similar ventures? And how is it that China has leapt ahead in the rail sector while other more advanced countries such as Australia (or the U.S) have not even joined the race?
The “Chinese Dream”
History is filled with all kinds of ironies and contradictions. When the U.S. welcomed China into the WTO, they thought it would be a win-win. A vast pool of cheap labour was opened up to capitalist exploitation. With the creation of a capitalist class in China, the U.S. calculated that the seeds would be sown for overthrowing the ruling Communist party (CCP).
Perhaps the U.S. State Department thought it could create all sorts of soft regime-change projects without the painful dismemberment and social chaos that occurred in the Soviet Union. Yet the CCP has maintained control over the government, and China has gained access to technology that has helped them develop their economy and re-imagine their future.
The Chinese Dream is a concept that was first introduced by Xi Jinping in 2012 and emphasises the goal of achieving the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” It encompasses a range of aspirations, including economic prosperity, social stability, cultural renewal, and global influence.
The Chinese dream affirms the socialist goals of building a prosperous society where all citizens have access to basic necessities such as food, shelter and healthcare. It aims to keep pace with the rest of the world, placing a greater emphasis on modernisation and social stability.
High speed rail fits into this vision as it brings technological innovation, improved manufacturing capabilities and increases China’s economic and cultural exchange domestically and abroad. HSR creates a strategic advantage for China.
The field also demonstrates some harsh realities. As much as China has maintained a degree of independence from imperialist domination, it is still bound by the constraints of capitalism. None of its mega-projects is built without exploitation – they are not democratically, worker-led but bureaucratically directed by state enterprises.
Although China may lead the world in developing HSR technology, this does not mean that it can break from the polarisation between rich and poor countries inherent in the imperialist system. Development of HSR does not create the social basis for China to achieve a standard of living that can match the advanced capitalist world.
According to data from the National Bureau of Statistics of China, the average monthly income of railway transportation and related equipment workers in urban areas was 5,132 yuan (approximately US$7,91) in 2020. Although this is considered a high wage in China, it is typically one seventh of what a rail worker earns in the U.S.
In response to pressure from the Chinese Railway Workers’ Union (CRWU), central and local governments have had to lift wages and impose restrictions on casualisation. This shows the tension within China between the contending class forces. The battle for socialism in China is neither won nor lost but must be fought on difficult terrain.
Developing HSR, which provides an important social service, is partly a concession to working class struggle. For the Chinese Dream to work, it must provide material advantages to working people as well as a hopeful vision of the future. The construction of HSR, besides fostering national pride, also serves as a psychological blow against imperialism, exposing the lack of similar social services in the advanced capitalist sphere.
But China’s impressive high-speed rail and other areas of state led technological development – especially its military – are distinctive. These stand, to a greater or lesser degree, away from the capitalist market and are not developed according to the imperatives of producing commodities for profitable sale on the market.
Commodity production in China remains subordinate to global monopoly capital which dominates the production of commodities on the world market. The only way China can truly break out of the global rich-poor polarisation which characterises world capitalist imperialism through the overthrowing of that system.