A Chinese court has given a suspended death sentence to a former Railways Minister, Liu Zhijun, the man behind the country’s high-speed rail project, for his part in a corruption scandal.
Liu’s conviction brings to an end one of the most high-profile corruption cases in years, and makes him the first top official to be jailed since the start of President Xi Jinping’s high-profile campaign against graft. He was given the “death penalty with a two-year reprieve” for bribery and abuse of power, the official Xinhua news agency said. This sentence generally means life in prison.
Liu had been a rail official for most of his life, having held several senior posts before he became minister in 2003. He was sacked as Railways Minister in 2011 after eight years in the job, and the scandal surrounding him is reported to have involved some 800m yuan (£87m).
He was charged with abusing his position to win promotions, project contracts and cargo transportation contracts, personally pocketing 64.6m yuan in bribes during his time in the job. The scale of Liu’s fraud, revealed during the trial, prompted public anger online.
Shuo Duan Shi Hua wrote on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter: “Liu Zhijun took 60m in bribes... he had 374 houses, and only got a suspended death sentence. It’s the same as if he retired.” Another user, Wang Wupeng said: “Now corrupt officials know that they will not die.”
Liu’s corrupt tenure had “inflicted colossal losses in the public assets, violating rights and interests of the state and the people,” the Xinhua news agency reported. “Liu’s crime of bribery… should be given the death penalty,” Xinhua quoted the court as saying. However, he was not executed because he confessed and repented of his crimes, the agency said.
During his tenure, Liu ran the rail system with an iron fist. The government had tried and ultimately failed to reform the ministry due to the minister’s resistance to change. The government finally succeeded in getting rid of the ministry in March, with its administrative functions handed to the transport ministry and its commercial role to a new organisation, the China Railway Corporation.
The government has pledged to open up the industry to private investors, but the tradition of the iron rice bowl – a secure job for life – is strong in China and reforming state monoliths is easier said than done. A high-speed rail crash in the eastern city of Wenzhou killed 40 people in 2011, sparking a wave of public criticism that authorities compromised safety in their rush to expand the network.