Czar Liu finally goes off the tracks, but there is more to the story

Wednesday, March 9, 2011   E-Mail this story   Free Headline Alerts

By Willy Lam, special from

Until his sudden detention by anti-corruption agents last month, Minister of Railway Liu Zhijun was one of the most high-profile cadres in the cabinet of Premier Wen Jiabao.

Since Liu became Railway Czar in 2003, China's high-speed rail system has become the symbol of the can-do prowess of the quasi-superpower. During President Hu Jintao's trip to the U.S. in January, members of the Hu delegation even lobbied to sell Chinese railway technology to California and a few other states.

Liu, 57, a workaholic who began his career as a humble railroad worker in the central China city of Wuhan, was also one of China's most unpopular officials. He was embroiled in one scandal after another in the past decade.

In 2006, his brother Liu Zhixiang, who was deputy head of the Wuhan Railway Bureau, was given a suspended life sentence for corruption and other offences. Several of his proteges in the ministry also came under investigation by anti-corruption agencies as untold billions of yuan went into one of the most gargantuan railway modernization programs in history.

Liu's private life was likewise problematic. Twice divorced, Liu had according to the Chinese media "at least 18 girlfriends," including pretty waitresses working on super-luxurious trains reserved for senior cadres.

The high-powered railway czar even dared to run afoul of Premier Wen in 2008, when he refused to allow his ministry to be merged with the Ministry of Communications as part of a national exercise in bureaucratic streamlining.

By the turn of the decade, Liu had amassed a personal fortune said to be in excess of 2 billion yuan partly through receiving kickbacks from suppliers and contractors. One of them was Ding Shumiao, a flamboyant Shanxi-based businesswoman who made her fortune transporting coal in the resource-rich central province.

Two questions are making the rounds of Beijing: How was Liu able to survive for so long; and why his luck finally ran out?

According to party veterans in the capital, Liu enjoyed the protection of former president Jiang Zemin as well as other members of Jiang's still-influential Shanghai Faction. However, as preparations for next year's 18th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress get into high gear, jockeying for position between the Shanghai Faction and President Hu's Communist Youth League Faction has become extremely intense.

"Hu decided to get rid of the unpopular and scandal-tinged Liu to embarrass Jiang," said a well-placed political source in Beijing.

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