Corruption, Disaster and Expense: Is the Continued Development of China’s High Speed Rail Network Ethically Acceptable?

Over the course of the last 25 years, the rail industry in China has undergone dramatic developments, with commuter train speeds increasing seven-fold from approximately 30 mph to 217 mph. Expansion of the rail network has allowed for even the most remote locations in China to be accessed. Such rapid development has however come at a cost, with the project tarnished by bribes, corruption, and catastrophe. In 2011 a collision resulting in the death of 40 people, that hospitalized almost 200 more, brought into question the ethical acceptability of China’s high speed rail (HSR) project.


Take China’s High Speed Project Off the Rails!

From a utilitarian standpoint it can be argued that the HSR project should be stopped in its tracks as the project places the pleasure of few above the pleasure of many by consuming funds and excluding China’s less wealthy citizens. It is estimated that HSR will have cost China $300bn by 2020 and some argue that this money will only bring pleasure to a few of China’s more wealthy citizens.

The average Chinese worker would have to pay roughly three quarters of their daily wage (58 Renminbi) for a one-way, half hour journey from Beijing to Tianjin; a journey few are likely to be able afford on a regular basis. The needs of the few “high flyers” should not be placed in front of the many and one side of the utilitarian approach to this problem would be to discontinue the project in favour of funding investment into other sectors, such as healthcare, that will bring pleasure to a greater number of people.

The Chinese government are deaf to this and continue with a project that is ultimately an expensive “trophy” rather than investing in healthcare advancements that could benefit the entire nation. Some would argue that in attempting to compete and keep up with neighbouring countries like Japan, China is ignoring the will of its own people.

Corruption was rife within the culture of the project as well. The former Chinese minister of railways, Liu Zhijun, received the death penalty under Chinese law for creating an atmosphere of corruption by accepting bribes and embezzling money from the project. It is estimated almost $US 200 million in bribes were taken and paid to Zhijun, while another official, Zhang Shuguang misappropriated around $US 2.8 billion.

The Chinese people criticized the government for quickly calling off the search and cleaning up the scene of the 2011 Wenzhou train crash and not doing their best to check for survivors amongst the wreckage. Critics suspect the government of trying to cover-up essential evidence of the crash which may show the truth of the projects shortcomings. According to China Digital Times, the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China warned editors to report the crash less often and with less attention. The media outlets were warned “Do not question, do not elaborate”.

The clear knowledge of wrongdoing and unlawful behaviour demonstrated in covering up the crash and the corruption amongst officials shows the project is unethical from a deontological perspective.

In such an atmosphere as China’s where corruption is rife, it is debateable whether the HSR project should continue as it gives many a platform with which power can be abused once again and established laws broken with little regard for what’s right or wrong.

High Speed Rail: The Express Route of China’s Development

Adopting a utilitarian approach, it can be argued that the HSR project provides an enormous benefit to everyone living in the country. It is common knowledge nowadays that China is one of the largest economies in the world. However, as recently as 1981, the poverty rate was around 88 %. These days, this figure sits below 2 % and some of the credit for this must surely be attributed to the development of HSR in the country, which begun in the early ‘90’s.

The developments allowed for people living in the outer reaches of China to travel into bigger cities in search of jobs, education and a lifestyle which they would never have achieved otherwise. The introduction of an expanded rail network also allowed companies to export their products further across the country, and indeed the continent, adding further benefit to the population. What’s more, inter-city travel times have now been dramatically reduced, further improving the efficiency of the movement of personnel, goods and services across the country, all of which boost the national economy.


While it’s undeniable that the HSR project in China has been affected by some quite significant ethical issues along the way, it also cannot be argued that those overseeing the project have dealt with the issues faced in a timely and effective manner. Those guilty of corruption and receiving bribes were removed from their positions immediately and the crash, while tragic, drew attention to important safety issues that were subsequently addressed, ensuring the HSR development as a whole was safer in the future.

The cost of the project thus far, although huge, accounts for an extremely small proportion of China’s GDP, which is estimated to be comfortably more than 11 trillion US dollars. There is therefore obviously no need to worry about a lack of government funds to be spent elsewhere on arguably more important issues, as there is a wealth of resources available to China anyway.

The usage of deontology, and more specifically Kantianism, also reasons that the commissioning and continuation of HSR development is ethical. Kantianism refers to how a decision’s intention determines its ethical quality, regardless of the outcome. In this case, the development of the rail system aims to develop transportation in China. This allows people in the rural and less developed areas to be able to travel to cities in search of employment, which will improve standards of living for those people.

Considering the huge disparities in standards of living between the rural and urban areas of China, the government’s decision to continue the rail development is therefore ethical as it is born out of good intentions.



Group 39: Jacob Humphries, Isobel Yeuk Lam Ho, Callumn Pope, Marvin Lee Yao Hui


19 thoughts on “Corruption, Disaster and Expense: Is the Continued Development of China’s High Speed Rail Network Ethically Acceptable?

    1. What is the evidence they are trying to “compete and keep up with… Japan”?

      Officials can be publicly shamed in China over corruption. At least you noted that they have the death penalty, acknowledging they do try to tackle the issue of corruption.

      I would hazard a guess that China’s culture is more shame-based than guilt-based, and therefore “covering up” the incident you mention demonstrates that embarrassment, rather than a moral sense of wrongdoing.

      Interesting Western analysis, it would be interesting and respectful​ of Chinese culture to consider how the Chinese themselves think about the problems highlighted in this article.


      1. Japan has had HSR since the mid 60’s, hence the chinese trying to keep up.

        Regardless of embarrassment, everyone knew the crash had happened, but details were suppressed. They just didnt want blame getting back to them, having triedmto initially blame the incident on a lightning strike


  1. While this is interesting from a western perspective, surely, the eastern culture needs to be considered here? The work culture in China is vastly different. Their methods and motives, as well as politics, operate significantly differently, so how can we justly impose our western views to a scenario like this? or is good engineering ethics one unified idea?


  2. Very interesting article. Highlights how well intentioned projects can be derailed very quickly if the management is unethical and without strict accountability.


  3. Problem is corruption will always happen. it’s not like you can just get rid of overnight. If you put yourself in the shoes of these officials, eventually you would be faced with the same temptation.

    Really a shame that in the end, what it comes down to money.


  4. I hadn’t thought about the ethical, human and moral implications of an engineering project such as this. Hopefully the benefits of increased access to the larger cities in China will outway the costs involved


  5. We believe putting guilty high level government officials to serious penalty could effectively control corruption all overall the system. Such concept has been applied since 5 years as we had seen and moral of the whole management chain has been significantly improved. Corruption at high level could increase overall costs but the major issue is that those top guy’s moral influences the working level and utimately affects the work quality and safety.


  6. We believe putting guilty high-rank government officials into serious penalty could effectively improve the moral of the whole management chain. It is noted such control had been strictly applied in about 5 years and the situation in China has significant improvement. Corruption in the top level could increase project costs; it influences moral of working level and ultimately affects work quality and safety.


  7. “pay roughly three quarters of their daily wage”

    One could say something similar about the state of the UK’s rail networks with specific regard to cost. Their rail network does sound more efficient than ours, if you disregard the corruption in play.


  8. It is not surprising that economic development often comes with corruption and unethical practices. This is not only limited to China, but also many developed Western countries as well. It is not fair to condemn China just because this is happening in the 21st century, because many Western countries have built their economies based on many unethical practices such as exploitation of poorer countries. It is very hypocritical for white imperialists to be pointing their fingers at China who, like them in the past, is on the track towards development right now.


    1. Firstly I am certain that no one who contributed to this article can be described as a ‘white imperialist’.
      Secondly, it is completely wrong to use history as a justification for ill behaviour and practises. You wouldn’t see someone justifying extreme racism and genocide with the excuse that the Nazi’s did it before! History should be used to understand the mistakes of humanity and ensure they were do not happen again, not repeated in a separate corner of the globe


  9. Caux Principle believes that the world business community should play an important role in improving economic and social conditions. However, they are going against the idea of “Human Dignity” under the principle where individuals should be valued as an end, not as means to fulfill the company’s task.

    Thus, under the Caux Principle for businesses, the actions by China firms should not be deemed as ethical.


  10. sorry for prying, but I thought it’d be interesting to see how engineers make ethical ‘calculations’ like this. I thought it was a very fine overview of the case, and well-structured. Two things that I noticed, however, was that you could elaborate on other ways for making it ethically worth it from a utilitarian standpoint (in the beginning of the paper). Fx, the government could spend more money on making the train tickets cheaper, allowing access for the poorer population. Oh, and that utilitarianism mostly speaks of happiness and not pleasure, in contrast to consequentialist hedonism. The other thing was that your last paragraph on Kantianism seems to talk of virtue ethics rather than deontology (or your Kantianism). Christian virtue ethics is all about intention, while deontology is about upholding rational laws.


    1. Using Kantianism we can identify that the continuation of the rail project is ethical because it is out of good intentions, and it is also under deontology because it is the governments duty to improve the lives of the citizens (Through the railway in this case).

      If you do talk about Virtue ethics it cannot support the continuation of the railway because it centers around mind and character. This doesn’t make it ethical to continue the railway development as it does account for the loss of lives and does not provide justice.


  11. Comparing to my experience in Germany, UK, Japan and so on, I think the Chinese HRS is doing a great job in terms of speed, price as well as route design. Maybe there once was series issues in the 2011 Wenzhou case, but that does not necessarily mean that the current fast development represents a correlated high corruption. The price for fast trains in Europe takes up no less portion of people’s average income than Chinese’s 1/3 as stated. I don’t see any strong reason to slow down Chinese HRS’s development as the advantages largely exceed the stated disadvantages.


  12. It’s notable a lot of comments here say ” should of included a Chinese perspective” well yeah that’s the whole point of the blog to spark conversation so that we can ascertain the thoughts of all. A lot of the views represented here were presented to create “sides of an argument” and were emphasized. I mean I posted this in the Chinese Society Facebook page to specifically get Chinese people’s points of view. So to that end if you were confused about the intentions or why Chinese view’s were not better portrayed well that’s because I cant read Chinese media (its in a language I cant read) and none of us are Chinese.

    If you are Chinese and you have commented then Thank you very much!!
    I loved reading your comments and building a better picture of the issues presented in my mind from you comments (even the slightly salty ones)
    It has allowed me to line up ethical approaches with cultural differences and to tell you the truth there is not much difference only very slight differences.
    Haha and I would say this has actually been a success
    Go group 39.

    And to all remember Kant’s Theory of the mind.
    “It is the representation that makes the object possible rather than the object that makes the representation possible”
    To me this tells me that one does not search for the meaning of life.
    Go out there and provide the meaning!!
    Ethically 😉


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