Rail & Infrastructure

Great train robbery

A county riots in Sichuan after rival city nabs its rail route

Locals hold signs during a protest against the construction of a new high speed railway from Beijing to Shenyang, in Chaoyang district, Beijing

A very rare sight: a 2012 protest in Beijing against a railway to Shenyang

Chances are that if you have seen a movie adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, you will be familiar with Stamford in Lincolnshire. The near-perfectly preserved Georgian town is often used as a film location in English period dramas, and today draws large crowds of tourists thanks to its architectural beauty.

Indeed, according to the BBC’s History Magazine, “Stamford, like Bruges, owes its time-warped beauty to the severing of a transport artery at exactly, from our perspective, the right time.” The small town had enjoyed its commercial heyday in the eighteenth century when it commanded a key position as a coaching stop between London and York. However, in 1852 it was effectively cordoned off from Britain’s industrial revolution, thanks to the whim of local aristocrat, Lord Exeter, a member of the powerful Cecil family.

Exeter successfully lobbied for the Great Northern Railway to bypass Stamford and instead route through Peterborough. His motives were largely political (he wished to retain control of properties that elected members of parliament), but the upshot was that over 600 listed building were preserved.

The architectural historian William George Hoskins has even observed: “We may perhaps be grateful to the Cecils for the feudal obstinacy which kept their town from growing… There are too many Peterboroughs, and not enough Stamfords in modern England.”

(Today there are many in England who have a similar urge to stop the planned HS2 bullet train from passing near their homes.)

Over in Sichuan the sentiment is somewhat different – as was revealed last weekend by those angered that a railway was bypassing them. The residents of Linshui, a county with one million people, took to the streets in mass protest at news that a train line was being diverted away from their town to Guang’an. Conflicting news reports had as many as 30,000 people protesting, with anger spilling over into violent clashes with local police. Some overseas media claimed four people died and 100 were injured; the authorities, however, later said none had died but that 30 police and local officials as well as 38 residents had been injured (video images posted online showed a smashed police bus, an upended ambulance and protestors wearing blood-soaked clothes).

The rail line in question is a 200km link between the city of Dazhou and the uber-conurbuation Chongqing. The dispute centred on the mayor of Guang’an’s recent online announcement that the line would pass through his city – notably the hometown of former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping – rather than Linshui. Residents of the latter consider that unfair, since they lack a rail connection, while Guang’an is already served by two.

Paradoxically, the vehemence of the protest, vindicates the Chinese government’s belief that its extensive programme of railway construction boosts local economies. “Railways have played a vitally important role in regional development,” opines the state-owned newspaper the Global Times. “Most Chinese are well aware of how many opportunities railways can bring to them. For a small county, being connected to the railway network is an indicator of the potential for growth.”

When the demonstrators began marching on Saturday, they shouted the slogan: “We want to develop! We want to be rich! The people of Linshui want the railway!”

A journalist with Britain’s Daily Telegraph was told by one female demonstrator: “No one organised this protest – people just came out onto the streets spontaneously.” Local residents were angered too by the Guang’an mayor’s cocksure announcement. “There are already two railways passing through Guang’an. We are the county in the region that has nothing. The Guang’an authorities are taking advantage of their prerogative [as the hometown of Deng] to monopolise resources,” a protestor in Linshui said.

Indeed, for anyone watching video of baton-wielding police trying to pacify the aggrieved Linshui residents, the economic dimension is plain to see. The protest takes place in a landscape of half-finished high-rise apartment blocks, with at least five construction cranes visible on the horizon. WiC’s hunch: a lot of these real estate projects must have been predicated on the assumption Linshui was set to get a railway line – and that the accompanying boost to economic activity would drive the local property market.

Nor is this unrest an isolated incident. Last year residents of Xinye in Henan province protested when it looked like the neighbouring county of Dengzhou would get a station on the high-speed train link instead of it. A couple of months ago, a similar dispute occurred in Hunan province when the cities of Loudi and Shaoyang competed over a bullet train station too. According to China Daily, about 100,000 residents in Shaoyang took to the streets in March chanting: “The mayor has to step down if the Shanghai-Kunming High-Speed Railway does not have a station in Shaoyang.”

In both cases, China Daily reports, the provincial government gave way and agreed to put stations in each of the competing locations. Whether that will be feasible in Sichuan remains to be seen, though clearly the folk of Linshui don’t show any sign of taking the decision lying down…

In fact, one reason why the local government might be particularly sensitive to this issue is because of an old term that’s regained currency. Last year the residents of Xinye set up a ‘railway protection movement’ to further their cause. This term will mean little to a foreign audience, but it is loaded with history for Chinese. The first such movement was established in 1911, in protest at the Qing government’s decision to sell a railway in Sichuan to a consortium of foreign financiers. The ensuing disturbance in Sichuan led to imperial troops being transferred there from the neighbouring province of Hubei. Their absence prompted revolutionaries in Wuhan to launch the Wuchang Uprising. The outcome: the fall of the Qing Dynasty and a revolution that established the Republic of China.

So for the current leadership in Beijing any ‘railway protection movements’ sprouting in Sichuan will not be viewed with particular enthusiasm.

That said, the Shaanxi Daily commented that key infrastructure decisions should be taken in a more open and public fashion, using panels of independent experts. It added that if local governments continue “in the old mode of making decisions inside a black box… even if they make the right decision the people won’t trust them.”

Meanwhile the central government made plain this week that its railway boom is far from over. In response to a decelerating economy it gave approval to six new projects, which will cost an estimated Rmb250 billion ($40 billion) to build. These include a new line connecting the eastern cities of Qingdao with Jinan, plus two new rail connections for Inner Mongolia, as well as the allocation of Rmb47 billion to Chengdu’s subway construction scheme.

The latter, of course, is the capital of Sichuan. But the timing of this major infrastructural sop looks purely coincidental…

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