FRESNO — In the 19th century, laborers from China helped build railroads spanning California and linking the U.S. coasts. In the 21st century, the Chinese may be back — not for backbreaking labor, but with financial and technological muscle.
The People's Republic of China has more miles of track for high-speed trains than any country in the world, but California has none.
The Chinese want in on the state's fledgling high-speed rail project. They're eager to help bankroll and build the system and, eventually, provide the trains to operate on the tracks.
China's not alone. Eight nations have agreements with the California High-Speed Rail Authority to share information about high-speed rail — and each wants a piece of California's business.
"Other countries want to be a part of this because they know high-speed rail can be profitable," said Jeffrey Barker, the authority's deputy executive director. "Their ultimate interest is operating the system."
But experts suggest that China's economic might — and government-backed companies — give it an advantage.
"China is cash-flush, and its highly subsidized industries are bankrolled with surplus government funds," said Usha Haley, a professor of international business at Massey University in New Zealand and an expert on China's worldwide business strategies. "They're investing in infrastructure around the world ... and if they're bidding in an open-bid process, China will get that bid."
California and the United States are squarely in China's sights, said Christopher Barkan, director of the Rail Transportation and Engineering Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
On a tour of China's largest rail manufacturer last summer, Barkan met with a Ministry of Railways official who prominently displayed a map of the United States on his office wall.
"They are extremely interested in the U.S.," Barkan said. "We're the largest untapped market for high-speed rail in the world."
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