China's bullet trains separate the rich from the poor

A crowd of customers wait for a lower class train from Beijing to Tianjin. Unlike other classes of train at the station, this one did not have a waiting hall, leaving passengers to sit on the floor and wait.
A crowd of customers wait for a lower class train from Beijing to Tianjin. Unlike other classes of train at the station, this one did not have a waiting hall, leaving passengers to sit on the floor and wait. Tom Lasseter/MCT

ZHENGZHOU, China — As the first-class passengers settled into cushioned seats, unfolded newspapers and waited for their tea or coffee, a woman's soothing voice came over the intercom to welcome them to the "harmony train."

The white bullet train whooshed out of the station, its blue pinstripe a blur as it sliced across the Chinese countryside at more than 200 miles an hour.

Chang Baoning, a 40-year-old government bureaucrat with a paunch and purple-tinted eyeglasses, watched the scenery whirl by from a whisper-quiet cabin. There could be no question, he said, that "the speed of development in China is getting faster and faster." Chang waved off the notion that some are being left behind.

"There are fewer and fewer people with big bags on trains; it's not a problem," he said, using a euphemism for migrant workers who haul belongings in large sacks slung over their shoulders.

As the bullet train rocketed off into the distance, Zhou Xishan, 53, was still sitting on the ground outside the station in Zhengzhou — the capital of a rough-and-tumble central Chinese province with some 100 million residents and a reputation for poverty. Zhou was waiting to board a cheap train known for its grim, green color.

He had a good idea of what to expect: a slow, rickety ride with a jumble of people crammed against one another on old, uncomfortable seats.

"The people are not equal," he'd said earlier, leaning back against a worn plastic bag as he cradled a 2-year-old grandson wrapped in a canvas jacket being used as a blanket.

Western analysts often point to projects like high-speed rail as proof of China's seemingly boundless momentum. But as with so much else in China, the bullet trains represent both the excitement of an emerging superpower and, at the same time, the extent to which the nation's unbridled economic progress has cleaved its population on two sides of a deep divide of money and privilege.

Although the country's boom lifted more than half a billion people out of extreme poverty in the decades after 1981, a point of immense pride here, there is growing worry about the distance between everyday Chinese and the very wealthy, and at times very corrupt, elite.

In one version of today's China, the government is spending billions of dollars to better connect a constellation of cities that Beijing's rulers hope will fuel the nation's domestic growth, in the same way that St. Louis and Chicago once did for 19th century America. Among the skyscrapers, there are fortunes — legal and otherwise_ waiting to be made by those with the right political and business connections.

For instance, the longtime railways minister and a lead proponent of the high-speed initiative, Liu Zhijun, was removed from his job in February amid accusations of taking kickbacks of more than $122 million, according to an account carried by state media.

On the other side of China is Wu Guojun, a taxi driver who was recently dropping a passenger off at the train station in Zhengzhou. Passing by the shiny metal and glass of brand new apartment buildings, Wu shook his head and said they were just investment opportunities for wealthy people looking for a place to park their cash. Stories of Chinese officials and businessmen snapping up clusters of high-end apartments are not uncommon; it's often considered a way to hide untaxed or illegal income.

"The difference between rich and poor is getting so big," said Wu, a 32-year-old who started work as a cabbie 12 years ago. "If we compared our lives to the rich, we would die of heartbreak."

The high levels of unreported income in China make it almost impossible to measure the full extent of the wealth gap. A study sponsored last year by Zurich-based Credit Suisse estimated there could be more than $1.4 trillion of hidden income in the country, almost all of it held by the top-20 percent earning households.

Chinese media reported recently that a coal baron from the Chinese province of Shanxi spent $1.5 million buying a red Tibetan mastiff — a dog. It also reported that per capita disposable income for urban residents in 2010 was a bit more than $2,900, and rural residents' net income was about $900.

The government, apparently sensitive to public resentment of the upper class, this month unveiled a ban on posting outdoor advertisements in Beijing that reference emperors or seem to "worship" foreign countries. The English edition of China Daily, a state newspaper, said the measure will focus on words like "supreme," "royal" or "luxury."

The nation's economic gap is obvious at places like the Zhengzhou train station, where a small sea of migrant laborers spreads out across a concrete square, plopped down on seed bags stuffed with blankets and clothes.

Bullet train passengers, meanwhile, sit in a waiting hall with laptops open and plenty of space. Their accommodations are about to get much nicer — a new Zhengzhou station for high-speed rail is slated to open by the end of the year, at a cost of more than $1 billion.

Chang Baoning's bullet train trip from Zhengzhou to the city of Xi'an will take about two hours — so quick that last year, after the train service was initiated, airlines suspended their flights between the cities.

On the green train, covering the same distance would take six or seven hours.

But the bullet train's cost — a first-class ticket is 390 yuan each way, or about $60 — is unreachable for many. A one-way seat on the green train is 36 yuan, or $5.50.

For Cao Tianjing, there's no point in making the comparison.

"We are just workers, we have no idea about the prices of the fast trains," said Cao, who was passing through on his way to work at a stone masonry.

There are, of course, many price options between the poor man's ride taken by laborers and Chang's first-class ticket. But the amount of investment being poured into the fancier end of the spectrum — more than $100 billion planned for high-speed rail this year alone — has made China's railways ministry a focal point of concern.

During the Chinese New Year festival, when millions of people return to their home towns and villages, there's been mounting frustration among passengers who arrive too late for lower-priced trains and are confronted by high-speed fares.

State media in February profiled a family that had to pay an extra 400 yuan, a third of their monthly salary, to get home.

It's a situation that "reflected the concerns of many migrant workers and students," said China Daily, which noted that the costliest sleeper cars between the cities of Shanghai and Chengdu are now priced similarly to rooms at five-star hotels.

"The majority of people cannot afford high-speed trains," Wang Laiying, a 31-year-old office worker at a biological research company in Beijing, said.

Wang, who was taking a green train from Beijing to the city of Tianjin, said that while he's proud to see his nation build such sophisticated projects, he and many others are worried about being lost in the shuffle.

As Wang spoke, a conductor leaned over to hear the conversation. After listening for a few minutes, Zhang Guangjun chimed in.

"I think there is a real concern that people won't be able to buy tickets on these new trains," said Zhang, a 52-year-old man in a slightly baggy blue uniform with a red tie and black tennis shoes.

A few minutes later, in a voice loud enough for the entire car to hear, Zhang began talking about Liu, the deposed railways minister.

"Liu is a high-class man, and I am just a normal man," he said with a smile, his words thick with sarcasm. "Men like him are leaders; they are the government's cadres."

Zhang paused to add: "As part of my company benefits, I get a free bar of soap every month."

Laughter broke out across the seats. Everyone understood the punch line: A corrupt set of powerful people counts its money, and the rest of the nation is left to make do.

The moment passed, and life on Train 4419 continued as it had begun.

Far from the bullet trains' TV screens, snack boxes and perky attendants, Wang shifted on a hard seat, trying to avoid tangling his legs with the men sitting in front of him. People got up to pour hot water into cups of instant noodles, and then complained to conductor Zhang that the car had already run out.

Across the aisle, Li Changlong, 58, sat next to his wife and stared at an empty can of Tsingtao beer. A reporter asked him what he thought about the country's high-speed trains. Li gave a blank look and said "I've never heard about them."

No. 4419 lumbered on toward Tianjin, with no apparent hurry to get its passengers to the next town.


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