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The China Diaries

Discovering the new China along the trail of the Long March

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A train pulls into the Guangzhou South railway station in Guangzhou January 11, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
A train pulls into the Guangzhou South railway station in Guangzhou January 11, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Supertrains latest symbol of China’s rise Add to ...

Xia Guoxin has never been to an airport, but the diminutive 38-year-old imagines they look a little like Guangzhou’s ultramodern high-speed rail station, where she cleans the floors after the passengers board trains that hurtle north from here at whiplash-inducing speeds.

“It’s very good for China. Much better than the old train station,” the migrant worker and mother of one says with obvious pride. But she seems slightly bewildered as to why anyone needs to go anywhere at more than 300 kilometres an hour, on the rocket-shaped train that is now the world’s fastest railway.

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The trains that leave from here showcase where China is heading: the world's fastest railway system for the world's fastest-growing economy and its rising superpower. But the building of the high-speed network has been hampered by the runaway corruption that holds China back. And the symbolism of the project has proven more important to the government than issues like safety or affordability.

The Guangzhou South train station is futuristic in style, with ghostly lighting and a metal-and-glass ceiling that make it looks like a spaceship at which intelligent life forms in a science– fiction film. But it smells like the industrial era. The local U.S. consulate’s Twitter feed rated the air outside (I always say it tastes like coal) as “unhealthy” Friday morning, although at 171 on the Air Quality Index, it was an average day by the standards of most Chinese cities. Smog from outside the station drifts into the waiting hall, creating a haze that hung over the arrivals-and-departures board.

The station opened two years ago, but only went into full operation on Dec. 26, when China’s latest showpiece achievement – a high-speed rail line linking Guangzhou with Beijing, 2,298 kilometres to the north – carried passengers for the first time. The G-train cuts the trip between Guangzhou in China’s far southeast and Beijing in the north from 22 hours to a crisp eight.

It’s the world’s longest high-speed route, and the latest symbol of China’s rapid rise, coming into service at the end of a year that also saw the People’s Republic launch its first aircraft carrier (albeit a refitted Soviet ship), as well as complete its first manned space docking.

Like nearly all of China’s impressive accomplishments of recent years, the high-speed rail is an accomplishment paid for by the many, but shared by the few. The cheapest seat on the G-train to Changsha, the capital of Hunan province and our next stop, costs 314 yuan ($49.72). That’s 10 times the price of the slower, overnight train to Changsha, and far too much for most of this country to afford.

“My salary is just 1,000 yuan a month. It’s too expensive for me to take the D-trains or G-trains,” said Ms. Xia, the cleaner. Like most of those who have powered China’s economic rise, she works in the big cities but calls the vast countryside home. “I go back to Hunan province once a year. But I take the old trains when I do. The slow trains.”

By 2020, China expects to have 50,000 kilometres of high-speed rail lines, by far the most of any country in the world. “The [Beijing-Guangzhou] high-speed rail line has … strengthened the country’s image,” read a recent opinion piece printed in the Global Times, a nationalist newspaper affiliated with the official People’s Daily. “China is no longer regarded as a producer of low-quality goods, but a good model for the rest of the world, especially against the background of an economic crisis in Europe and the U.S.”

The pace and scope of China’s great railway expansion has been a source of shame as well as pride, however. The railway minister who initially oversaw the project, Liu Zhijun, was arrested in early 2011 and is expected to soon face charges of taking millions of dollars in bribes from those seeking railway-construction contracts. And in July of the same year, two high-speed trains collided near the city of Wenzhou, leaving 40 people dead and raising questions about whether safety had been neglected in the rush to build the showpiece rail network.

Concerns linger that China’s high-speed trains are simply running too fast. The locomotive that hauls us from Guangzhou to Changsha is the CRH380A, which looks like a rocket that’s been strapped to the ground. It was designed in China, but relies heavily on technology copied from Germany’s Siemens AG and Japan’s famous Shinkasen bullet trains.

But China’s G-train travels faster than either, reaching a top speed on our trip of 308 kilometres an hour. “I don’t think the Chinese are paying the same attention to safety that we are,” the chairman of the Central Japan Railway Company, Yoshiyuki Kasai, said, shortly before the Wenzhou crash. “Pushing it that close to the limit is something that we would never do.” A Chinese engineer was subsequently quoted in the People’s Daily saying he personally wouldn’t feel safe riding on his country’s high-speed trains.

Riding the G-train is at first exciting, then a little monotonous. Within minutes of leaving Guangzhou South station, we hurtled over a river plied by wooden fishing boats, then past acres of rice paddies where women in brightly coloured dresses worked with their hands.

Next came villages of stone homes that, but for the telephone and electricity poles, likely look little different than they did a century ago. Then, the images out the window began to blur together as we reached top speed. Something of the magic of riding the rails through a vast countryside is lost when your ears are popping.

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

The China Diaries

Mark MacKinnon, The Globe and Mail’s China correspondent, and staff photojournalist John Lehmann are exploring China at a defining moment in its modern history. Travelling mainly by rail, they will roughly retrace the path of Mao Zedong’s Long March to look at the challenges facing Mao’s latest successor, Xi Jinping.

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