Ire Over Shanghai Rail Line May Signal Turning Point

Copyright The New York Times
SHANGHAI, Aug. 9 — “I have a dream,” Chen Liangyu, Shanghai’s disgraced Communist Party secretary, was fond of intoning before his aides, consciously echoing the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And as the leader of China’s richest city, Mr. Chen had the power to make most of those dreams come true.
The “hai” in the word Shanghai means ocean, but the city had no beach, he would lament. So city officials built a six-mile beach in Shanghai’s suburbs, using 128,000 tons of sand shipped in from southern China.
Mr. Chen liked tennis, too, so a world-class tennis complex was built at a reported cost of $290 million, even though few Shanghai residents play the game. In a city where relatively few can afford personal cars, Mr. Chen’s government built a $300 million racetrack that critics say is the fanciest on the Formula One circuit.
Most fatefully, perhaps, he strongly backed a $4.5 billion expansion of a magnetic levitation, or maglev, rail line to Hangzhou, a neighboring city, a widely criticized project that raised something relatively new for China: a storm of public protest.
Along the way, Mr. Chen openly defied calls by the central government to rein in growth in Shanghai and, in keeping with President Hu Jintao’s emphasis on a “harmonious society,” to pay more attention to the widening gap between China’s rich and poor. The drive for wealth, he said, was more important.
The government came down on Mr. Chen last September, arresting him on suspicion of involvement in a huge municipal fraud scandal. He was expelled from the Communist Party in July and simultaneously removed from his position as a delegate to China’s People’s Congress, stripping him of immunity in preparation for what is expected to be a swift, secret trial.
But for many here, the symbolic end came in May, with the suspension of the maglev project, his greatest, and certainly the Chen era’s most extravagant dream.
For many, the suspension in the face of widespread public opposition signaled the end of an era of top-down, megadevelopment, with attendant opportunities for high-level corruption, and the beginning of an era one in which the voice of China’s growing middle class can no longer be ignored.
“The public is concerned with the electromagnetism of the train, and the government is studying this, and that is one of the reasons the project has been stopped,” a People’s Congress official was quoted as saying in The China Business Journal in one of many news reports that suggested that residents’ complaints had played a major role in the suspension.
Under Mr. Chen, as the Shanghai government raced to complete a basket of gigantic projects remaking the central city before the World Exposition scheduled for here in 2010, public discontent steadily mounted.
Tens of thousands of inner-city residents were evicted, relocated in most cases in remote, unfinished suburbs and offered compensation well below the market value for their property.
In recent years, as rumors of high-level corruption spread, Mr. Chen’s government could not convene without large security deployments worthy of a visit by a foreign head of state, because of the persistent turnout of demonstrators.
Unlike the crowds of poor and elderly people who often braved repeated arrests to protest the evictions, the opponents of the maglev line have mostly been members of Shanghai’s new and fast-growing middle class who live along the proposed train route, in the Minhang District.
Residents of the area, which is already heavily laced with train tracks and highways, had petitioned the government against the project, complaining about the supposed dangers of magnetic radiation, noise pollution and the effect of yet another transportation line on property prices.
When their petitions had no effect, they stepped up their protests, blocking roads in the area, demonstrating outside of their district’s government headquarters and hoisting banners on their residential high rises that were visible from miles away.
Eventually, some also began raising questions about how state revenues were being spent, a subject that had scarcely ever entered public discussion here. In this case, that meant questioning the start of a costly high-tech train project to Hangzhou the very year that another expensive, high-speed line similar to Japan’s bullet trains linking Shanghai to Hangzhou entered service.
Many of them also pointed out that the existing maglev route has been a commercial failure. Attaining a top speed of 259 miles per hour, it takes only seven minutes to cover the 19 miles from the city’s international airport to a spot on the opposite side of the Huangpu River from central Shanghai. But ticket prices are high and passengers have been few.
“This maglev is not a necessity at all,” said Chen Qi, 36, an account executive with an online trading company who lives along the line and has worked with neighbors to oppose the project. “It is not clear who is going to benefit from it. If it is for the World Expo, what happens after the Expo, and who would go straight to the Expo from the airport? People go to their hotels from the airport.”
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