A symbol of economic power
China’s ambition is to make high-speed rail the mode of choice for domestic long-distance travel, but these new railways have a much greater significance. Much like Japan’s Shinkansen in the 1960s, they symbolize its economic power, rapid modernization, growing technological prowess, and increasing prosperity. For China’s ruling Communist Party and its leader Xi Jinping, high-speed rail is also a powerful tool for social cohesion, political influence, and integrating disparate regions with distinct cultures into the mainstream.
“The building of these new railways forms part of Xi Jinping’s grand plan of ‘integrating the vast national market,'” says Dr. Olivia Cheung, a research fellow at the China Institute of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). “It is also meant to be reflective of his ‘new development philosophy,’ of which ‘coordinated development’ is a crucial concept.
“His scheme is grand in that it extends beyond just simply connecting existing towns, but existing towns with new mega-towns that are being constructed from scratch. Xi takes a lot of pride in a famous example is the Xiong’an New Area in Hebei province, around 60 miles southwest of Beijing.”
In that sense, it could be argued that China is repeating railway history; many early railways in North America, Europe, and the colonies of the European empires were built with similar goals.
The development of railway networks in Russia — most notably the Trans-Siberian Railway — Prussia, France, Italy, and the British Empire, among others, were strongly influenced by political and military demands and economic development. However, what took decades in the 19th and early 20th centuries is being achieved by China in just a few years.
With 37,900 kilometers of lines, China has the world’s largest network of high-speed railways. Wang He/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images