Conceiving Chinese Speed: Sociotechnical Imaginaries of High-Speed Rail in Post-1978 China
Since the introduction of high-speed rail (HSR) in China in the 2000s, the concept of ‘speed’ has been enshrined in ideas of Chinese nationhood (see Figure 1). Chinese government officials, technocrats, and experts have consistently disseminated a rosy image of ‘Chinese Speed’ (中国速度) through domestic and international media. However, despite the top-down and authoritarian nature of Chinese Speed, its sociotechnical and cultural meanings have been contested. Despite the appearance of immense enthusiasm for HSR in Chinese society, the public and railway engineers and technocrats hold changing visions of the concept. So, what exactly did speed mean to different Chinese actors in terms of technology, culture, and politics in recent history? A cultural and intellectual examination of China’s fixation with ‘speeding up’ in the post-socialist era is a good starting point to answer this question. To capture how different actors have approached Chinese Speed and mobilised its symbolic meaning to serve their own interests, this essay investigates multiple sources, including official policy documents related to the Chinese railway system, technological reports, review articles in railway trade journals and other media articles. It reveals how Chinese Speed and the discourse of HSR in post-1978 China are a multiply authored cultural idea that has been transformed through a process of contestation.
Speed and the Techno-Politics of Railways in Socialist China
In 1978, then vice-premier Deng Xiaoping made a historic visit to Japan. As well as addressing crucial diplomatic issues and cementing bilateral economic cooperation, Deng travelled from Tokyo to Kyoto on the Shinkansen ‘Hakkari’, the new bullet train that symbolised postwar Japan’s technological achievements. After the trip, Deng commented: ‘I just felt it is so fast, as if someone was whipping at the back. It was just right for us’ (see Figure 2). This moment was memorable for many Chinese people who were eager for an open society and ready to embrace a technology-driven economy.
Why did leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) such as Deng celebrate ‘speed’ in the realm of public transportation and the national economy? And when did this start? Although the CCP’s valuing of high speed can arguably be traced back to the high socialist period, especially the Great Leap Forward (GLF), the passion for high-speed development did not become popular within the transport policy of the Ministry of Railways (MoR) until the 1980s. As a strategic department under the planned economy and for national defence, the MoR had been under party-military control since its establishment in 1949. In addition to loyal party cadres and skilled technicians, the Railway Corps (铁道兵) of the People’s Liberation Army played crucial roles in its ranks, working in both construction and administration. The MoR in socialist China was characterised by a hierarchical structure, semi-military organisation, and a relatively high level of professionalism.
On the one hand, the unique characteristics of the MoR insulated it from the catastrophic impact of radical politics during the GLF and the Cultural Revolution. On the other hand, the MoR’s agenda in the socialist era made it incapable of embracing an approach aimed at achieving high speed. Elisabeth Köll (2019) has convincingly argued that during the Mao era, China’s rail system was troubled by declining quality of construction, neglect of necessary economic planning and vital safety measures, and political turmoil. Instead of working to accelerate train speeds, the MoR dedicated itself primarily to disciplining its own ranks, improving managerial and economic efficiency, and ensuring punctuality—a set of cultural symbols that Köll (2019: 247) has dubbed ‘a socialist metaphor of the Chinese society’. In fact, Express Train (特快列车), a famous 1965 film about accelerated speed during the GLF, also highlighted the importance of discipline and central coordination by portraying the acceleration of a train’s speed only as an exception—in this case to save the life of an injured soldier of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by delivering him to a hospital (see Figure 3). In a sense, for the socialist railways, the pursuit of high speed was subjugated to other ideological preferences (though quite unsuccessfully during the Cultural Revolution), including the techno-politics of order, propaganda, and planning.
Technocracy of Acceleration En Route
With the demise of ‘high socialism’, pragmatic leaders such as Deng Xiaoping came to power and, after 1978, strove to establish a new socioeconomic order. Like Mao Zedong and his followers during the GLF, Deng associated the pursuit of rapid economic development and accumulation of social wealth with the legitimacy of socialism in the new era of Reform and Opening Up. Unlike Mao, however, Deng conceived of high-speed development not as the result of mass mobilisation, but as the manifestation of a technoscientific rationale. Deng insisted that only by mastering economics, science, technology, and management could the CCP lead a high level of socialist modernisation at high speed (Deng 1994: 153).
Applying the concept of technocracy to China in the reform era is both rewarding and tricky. Indeed, the provincial and central leaders of the CCP in the post-Mao period differed significantly from those of the older generations whose political lives were tied to their ideology and factions. Senior party cadres like Li Peng, Jiang Zemin, and Ding Guangen (the railways minister from 1985 to 1988) ascended to higher leadership positions partly, if not decisively, due to their science and/or engineering backgrounds and successful experience running technocratic departments. Technocrats and their political patrons valued the superiority of scientific expertise and technological rationales (Cheng and White 1990; Zang 1991). With the end of radical politics in the late 1970s, the MoR also marched towards technocracy. The ministry started to recentralise control of the 14 regional and 41 branch railway bureaus, as well as to incorporate the PLA’s Railway Corps into its civil system. The de-militarisation of the railways sector in the post-socialist era came with the rise of senior officials with engineering and other technical expertise. At the ministerial level, unlike Teng Daiyuan (in office from 1949 to 1965) and Lü Zhengcao (1965–70), who were both top but less-educated military officers of the PLA, new ministers like Liu Jianzhang (1981–82), Ding Guangen (1985–88), and Fu Zhihuan (1998–2003) had either decades of experience in the technological operation of railways or college-level engineering training.
The technocratic structure and mentality were also underpinned by new engineering and railway-related trade journals under the supervision of the MoR’s recently established China Academy of Railway Sciences (CARS, 中国铁道科学研究院) (Chen 2000). For instance, the journal Railway Economics Research (铁道经济研究)—which since 1992 has been under the supervision of the MoR’s Economics Planning Institute (铁道部经济规划研究院), a ministerial think tank merging CARS’ Transportation and Economics Institute and the MoR’s Planning Institute—played an active role in promoting the economic analysis and technocratic imaginary of railway acceleration. Another relatively new but also influential journal supervised by CARS, Railway Transport and Economy (铁道运输与经济), was dedicated to publishing scholarly discussion and economic analyses of experimental and applied railway technologies. Established in 1979, this journal has published numerous articles on a wide range of research topics, including transport production and management, reporting on innovative achievements in transportation theory and organisation, economic research, managerial innovation, and urban rail transit. Many of its articles highlight how a cost–benefit analysis of railway acceleration proves its technological and economic feasibility and emphasise how such technological innovation has a very promising future (Zhang 1997; Ding and Li 2003; Chen et al. 2000). These articles have served to justify the MoR’s decision to push for acceleration from an economic perspective.
From 1997 to 2007, the MoR initiated six rounds of ‘increasing speed’ (铁路大提速) through administrative simplification and technological advancement (China Daily 2018). For the first time since the Mao era, a passion for high-speed development came to the rail system. The acceleration of Chinese railways went through four major steps of technological advancement, the first of which was ‘the acceleration of existing major lines’ (既有干线提速). Starting in 1996, the MoR implemented measures such as strengthening rolling stock maintenance, replacing high-speed turnouts, and closing adjacent tracks. These improvements increased train speeds from 140 km/h to 160 km/h. The second step took a more technologically advanced solution to increase speeds to 200km/h and even 300km/h: the construction of dedicated passenger lines (修建客运专线). Unlike the acceleration of existing lines, constructing new lines dedicated to passenger transport demanded specialised management. The third major step focused on improvement of the rolling stock—that is, the development of tilting trains (摆式列车). Initially designed in the United States in the 1930s, these trains can safely maintain their speed on a curve, which makes them particularly suitable for mountainous sections of line with numerous and small-radii curves, such as the Guangzhou–Shenzhen Railway, on which tilting trains have been used since 1994 (Hua 2003).
The fourth step was arguably the most high-tech: the development of HSR. By the early 2000s, the MoR had articulated the necessity for and advantage of developing HSR in China (Zang et al. 2000). Based on a series of comprehensive investigations into and experiments with the possible acceleration of the Beijing–Shanghai railway—the busiest line in China—MoR technocrats and officials were convinced that the construction of a high-speed Beijing–Shanghai railway (京沪高铁) was the most effective way to significantly improve transportation quality and meet the specific demands of this transport corridor (Jin 1999). The construction of HSR, including experimentation with two domestically designed and assembled high-speed trains, ‘Blue Arrow’ (蓝箭) in 2000 and ‘China Star’ (中华之星) in 2003, was already under way (Xinhua 2006), but it was only the launch of the sixth round of acceleration in 2007 that initiated large-scale international technology transfers and indigenisation of HSR. The implementation of the fourth step marked the culmination of Chinese railways’ acceleration and the MoR’s passion for speed.
It would, however, be incorrect to assume that technocracy in post-socialist China is less ideological than under Mao. As Joel Andreas (2009) has argued, the end of hostility towards intellectuals and bureaucrats after Mao’s death gave rise to the leadership of ‘red engineers’ who possessed the double qualification of politics and expertise. The MoR’s pursuit of technology-based high speed engendered a new set of railway cultural representations, which in turn boosted the legitimacy of the railways’ technocracy in the post-Mao era. The acceleration of the railways was conceived of as a ‘techno-fix’—the idea that advanced, efficient, and sometimes cheaper technology alone is enough to solve social, environmental, and economic problems (Rosner 2013). The concept of techno-fixes is itself inherently techno-optimistic as it tends to depict certain technology choices, like HSR and the expertise that falls under the jurisdiction of technologists, as the most effective solutions to thorny problems. In most cases, problems are identified, defined, and allegedly solved by technoscientific experts and technocrats.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the MoR deemed multiple emerging issues posed particular threats to China’s railway system. For instance, market competition and population movements intensified in the post-socialist era. A mismatch arose between the loading capacity of trains and the demand for services. Railways operating at low speeds, therefore, created bottlenecks, restricting national economic development. In addition, poor management and ill-designed regulation damaged service quality, fare pricing, and the acceleration of train speeds. MoR officials and technocrats claimed that without the advantage of speed, the railways would lose their ability to attract passengers (Hua 2003). In this sense, the MoR’s technocrats conceived of railway acceleration as a fix for the ministry’s shrinking relevance within the national transportation sector and, by extension, for an array of entrenched social problems.
Unchecked Speed and Technocracy
By and large, the history of the acceleration of Chinese railways in the 1990s and 2000s was accompanied by the rise of a technocratic discourse that the MoR mobilised to legitimise its policies and sustain its own position in the post-socialist political order. However, despite its effectiveness and popularity, this discursive strategy, like the idea of techno-fixes, was not uncontested. In particular, in the wake of a sequence of railway accidents in the 2000s and 2010s, the policy of railway acceleration inevitably became the target of public critique.
In 2003, Liu Zhijun was promoted to minister at the MoR. As the successor of Fu Zhihuan, who had launched the bold experiment of developing China’s independently designed bullet train, Liu was keen to promote HSR and the acceleration of China’s existing railways. Liu’s support for Chinese HSR, however, gave birth to a system in which unchecked technocratic rule by the MoR endangered the lives of many. The ‘4.28’ Jiaoji train accident of 2008 (胶济铁路列车相撞事故) first showcased the risks embedded in embracing a techno-fix—that is, railway acceleration without sophisticated scientific governance and public scrutiny. The accident occurred on the Jiaoji Railway linking Qingdao and Jinan in Shandong Province, killing 72 people, with 416 injured. As the deadliest rail disaster in China since a 1997 accident in Hunan, the event instigated a sizeable wave of public concern and media coverage. For instance, Southern Metropolis Daily (南方都市报), a newspaper then known for its critical, liberal stance, openly questioned the governance of the MoR and insisted on holding the relevant officials accountable. Interestingly, its journalists pointed to the risks posed by the six railway acceleration campaigns. According to another report, in the China Economic Weekly (中国经济周刊), another liberal media outlet, railway acceleration led to longer transregional train routes, causing fatigue among train drivers.
The Jiaoji railway incident generated a wave of social and official concerns about the safety and administration of China’s rail system. The issue of accelerating Chinese train speeds while ensuring safety has since been at the centre of public debates in China. However, the intensity of social criticism that emerged in the wake of the Jiaoji tragedy paled in comparison with the response to a second disaster, in Wenzhou on 23 July 2011, when a high-speed train ran into the rear of a stationary train, killing 40 and injuring 192 people. In this case, new social media like Weibo offered Chinese netizens unprecedented power to challenge the lack of transparency in the railway administration and link their criticism to broader issues of corruption and ineffectiveness at the MoR (Liu 2015). Such criticism not only resisted state propaganda that portrayed high-speed transportation as a massive achievement, but also depicted the MoR as a monopolistic and dysfunctional technocratic agency.
For instance, three days after the Wenzhou incident, blogger and public intellectual Tong Dahuan (2011a) published his critique of the rate of HSR and other development in the post-1978 era:
China, please stop your flying pace, wait for your people, wait for your soul, wait for your morality, wait for your conscience! Don’t let the train run out off track, don’t let the bridges collapse, don’t let the roads become traps, don’t let houses become ruins. Walk slowly, allowing every life to have freedom and dignity. No-one should be left behind by our era.
By targeting the macrolevel by-products of rapid economic development and infrastructure-building, rather than merely condemning a specific government agency like the MoR, Tong’s outcry reached a broader audience and successfully elicited broad social empathy with his critique. According to Tong, as a developmental state, post-Mao China had achieved impressive economic prosperity and technological advancement. However, he highlighted how, at the same time, the institutions of the Party-State had brought about multiple social ills that endangered the interests of the masses.
Tong lambasted the country’s developmental state with poetic language. However, most critiques in the wake of the Wenzhou incident did not resort to elegant words, but rather directly denounced the malpractice and unaccountability of the MoR. For instance, public intellectual Shi Longhong (2011) posed several thorny questions to the Chinese Government: ‘As a large-scale investment, a technically immature project concerning numerous lives and property safety, how could the scheme of HSR be pushed in the speed of the bullet train? Who authorised this speedy project without public scrutiny and debate?’ By claiming that the relevant governmental agencies (including the MoR) had kept the masses in the dark, Shi steered the social critique of HSR towards a more palpable object: the state railway department—a formidable technocratic institution not accountable to the public.
In another commentary on the accident, a Wharton-trained economist and renowned public figure in China, Xianpin Lang (2011), provided an economic angle on China’s railway technocracy. Lang was critical of the HSR project for transferring massive resources to the government and foreign investors. He claimed that this resource reallocation impoverished ordinary people and hit mass consumption severely. Lang called for reconsideration of the building of large-scale infrastructure and reorienting towards intermediate technologies, such as regular-speed so-called green-skin trains (绿皮火车), which are not as fancy as HSR but are better suited to the interests of consumers, passengers, and private enterprises. Lang questioned the prevailing techno-utopia behind Chinese Speed. For Lang, Chinese Speed meant the misallocation of public resources and a mentality that defied economic rationales.
Defending and Reconfiguring Chinese Speed in Crisis
In contrast to the critiques coming from Chinese society, official media and committees set up by the Chinese State to investigate the Wenzhou tragedy attempted to shift attention away from the issue of technocracy. In its initial reactions to the crisis, the MoR focused on microlevel issues, such as administrative malpractice and technological mistakes. Additionally, in response to lingering public suspicion of the excessively high speed of HSR, the ministry and its technocrats began lowering the running speed on some routes—a policy initiative that had already been executed regionally and experimentally in 2011, before the Wenzhou incident. Instead of explaining this policy reorientation as the result of sociotechnical risk assessments or social critique after the tragedy, however, railway technocrats increasingly highlighted the importance of economic factors—a profit-seeking rationale underpinning state capitalism. Scholars of science and technology studies and the history of science tend to interpret the adjustment of state-led infrastructural projects as a manifestation of the agency of non-experts (Jasanoff and Kim 2015). China’s shifting HSR policy after—and largely in response to the critique arising from—the Wenzhou accident, however, shows us a different picture in that lowering speeds did not undermine but rather reconfigured and even strengthened Chinese technocratic rule of HSR.
According to the investigation report released by the State Council working group in December 2011, the Wenzhou train collision was ‘a liability accident caused by critical defects in railway signal design, incautious safety examination, and ill-organised crisis management of lightning-led technical disfunction’ (State Council 7.23 Investigation Team 2011). This report also put forth multiple policy initiatives based on lessons from the incident, including improved management of equipment and corporate research and development, scrutinising the quality of HSR equipment, and developing a system of transportation safety and labour education and training.
In response to the incident, the People’s Daily (人民日报) published an editorial drawing on Ulrich Beck’s (1992) theory of a risk society to justify the urgency of intensive technocratic intervention to take control of the risks of HSR. According to the editorial (People’s Daily 2011), China found itself in a ‘capsule of risk’ (风险胶囊). Though the policy of developing HSR would remain unchanged, the increasing speed of trains, more new railways, and the intensification of train frequency in the high-speed era would unavoidably increase the risks to Chinese society, which would demand more delicate managerial skills and safety consciousness. In other words, Chinese officials were attempting to undo the fundamental challenge to the technocratic system by claiming that the technological risks of HSR could only be eliminated by more powerful scientific expertise and bureaucratic management.
As well as issues of stability and safety, railway bureaucrats and experts very soon turned again to the profit-seeking economic rationale—a developmentalist mindset that was well established in railway engineering academic circles in China during the 1990s and 2000s—to convince the public that lowering speed was economically reasonable. In the 2016 sessions of the National People’s Congress and the National Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the CEO of China Railway (CR, 中国铁路总公司, the state-owned corporation that replaced the MoR in 2013, renamed 中国国家铁路集团 in 2019) Sheng Guangzu addressed the Chinese media about the speed of HSR. Selected by the CCP leadership to change policies championed by Liu Zhijun (the last minister in charge of the MoR, in office until 2011), Sheng explained that the decision to lower speeds had nothing to do with deficiencies in the technology. Rather, CR had decided to adjust speeds based mainly on economic considerations. According to Sheng, every 50 km/h of acceleration led to higher costs for equipment maintenance, which would lead to a surge in ticket prices (China Management Newspaper 2016).
This economic rationale for lowering speeds was also endorsed by many prominent railway experts. In a Global Times article, Wang Mengshu (2015), an academic at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, stressed the importance of economic efficiency. He insisted that any decisions about increasing or lowering speed would be completely grounded in science, based on the standard of design, and the practical demands of operation. Therefore, critiques and suspicions of the risks of HSR were needless. The techno-economic calculation had been widely used by technocrats in the railway acceleration campaign in the pre-Wenzhou era, but it was extensively mobilised as a public discourse only after the mid 2010s. By drawing on a technocratic discourse that put the rationale for lowering speed beyond dispute, Wang and other technocrats and officials intended to deprive non-experts, including critical voices in Chinese society, of the legitimacy to question the CR’s decisions and policies.
Despite the backlash from the public after the Wenzhou accident, the MoR and CR continued to push this narrative of lowering speeds under the logic of technocratic rule. In fact, even this initiative did not last long. The pursuit of ever-higher-speed transportation, embodied by the research and development for the ‘flying train’ (ultra-high-speed, low-vacuum-tube maglev [magnetic levitation] transportation system, 超高速低真空管道磁浮交通系统) and the high-speed magnetic suspension train (高速磁悬, HS-magnetic), was reignited in the mid 2010s, when the shadow of the Wenzhou accident had receded.
As well as conventional ideas about the superiority and convenience of high-speed railways, Chinese engineers in charge of research and development again employed economic considerations to justify the HS-magnetic. According to Jin Chaohui, an engineering professor in charge of the HS-magnetic program, in terms of the whole life cycle (全寿命周期), the cost of HS-magnetic would be lower than HSR as the wear and tear on this technology is relatively small and slow to accumulate (Diyi Caijing 2023).
A Contested Process
This essay has highlighted how the techno-political meaning of railway speed in post-1978 China is a multiply authored cultural idea that has been transformed through public contestation. However, even though both the Chinese public and technocrats participated in this process, their impacts on policymaking and the formation of sociotechnical imaginaries of HSR were far from equal. In particular, we have seen how, from the 1980s to the 2010s, the logic behind the technocratic rule of HSR and the discourse of Chinese Speed have shifted from narratives of an optimistic techno-fix to techno-economic rationales—a process that accelerated in the wake of the Wenzhou accident of 2011. Ultimately, the technocratic structure of China’s railway sector and its imagining of Chinese Speed have been not undermined but rather reconfigured by mounting social critiques since the reform era.