China’s former Railways Minister Liu Zhijun, who oversaw the rapid construction of a high-speed rail network that is now the world’s largest but was later dismissed on corruption charges, was on Monday sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve by a Beijing court.
The court found that Liu had taken at least $10 million in bribes, and had also helped his associates, including the businesswoman Ding Shumiao, amass more than $ 500 million in profits by awarding them lucrative contracts.
He was sentenced to 10 years in jail for abuse of power and handed a suspended death sentence for bribery. In China, a death sentence with two-year reprieve is usually reduced to life in prison after the two-year period. The sentence could be further reduced if the convict is found to have demonstrated good behaviour. In the case of top party officials, life sentences have often been reduced citing medical grounds.
Under Liu — known in government circles as “Great leap Liu” for his ambitious plans — the country built a massive network of high-speed rail lines, which as of last year had stretched over more than 9,300 km and had become the longest network in the world. The length of the network is to reach 18,000 km by 2015.
Liu’s emphasis on speed, above all else, had raised concerns among some Chinese railway experts on the grounds of both safety and transparency – the former minister was known for his authoritarian style of working when he headed the powerful Railways Ministry.
Zhao Jian, a railways expert at the Beijing Jiaotong University who had written a number of articles criticising the speed of the expansion, recalled to The Hindu being called in by Liu’s office on one instance. While he had been told that the then minister was eager to hear of his contrarian views, Liu then proceeded to give him a lecture, explaining proudly how he was making history.
Eventually, Liu was, in some sense, a victim of his own ambition. As he amassed a fortune — with much of the money going to his business associates — and reportedly began preparing a bid to secure a top party post as a new leadership was set to take over, the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection in early 2011 stepped in to investigate him. He was suspended in February of that year.
A collision between two high-speed trains in July 2011 in southern Wenzhou that left at least 40 people killed, further sealed his fate, as the government stopped new projects pending a safety review and public concerns began to grow about what had been a popular transport revolution.
The Beijing court said Liu had “helped Ding and her relatives to win both cargo transportation and railway construction contracts”, and had also “helped them in the acquisition of shares in a bullet train wheel set company and with enterprise financing by breaking regulations and applying favoritism”. Ms. Ding and other associates of Liu’s amassed profits close to $ 500 million, while investigators seized more than 374 properties that had been acquired illegally.
The Party-run Global Times reported that Liu’s ostentatious lifestyle had hastened his removal. He famously had more than 18 mistresses – many introduced to him by Ms. Ding – including actresses nurses and train stewardesses, the newspaper reported.
Liu was one of two high-profile Party officials to have been removed last year – the other being former Politburo member Bo Xilai, who is still awaiting trial.
The official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary on Monday that Liu’s sentence had shown that the new leadership under President Xi Jinping had “vowed ‘no exception’ when it comes to Party disciplines and law”.
Many scholars have, however, called on the new leadership to do more to carry out systemic reforms to address deep-rooted corruption. Recently, a number of Beijing scholars have put forward proposals calling for the Party to declare publicly the assets of top officials, although the leadership has balked at such a move.