Abstract: Explaining Railway Reform in Twentieth-Century China

Linda Tjia Yin Nor


After decades of reform, China has been on the threshold of reforming its highly regularized infrastructure and public utilities sectors. Among this last batch of restructuring, railway reform was one of the most challenging tasks because of its long-standing and deep-seated structural problems. Research on railway reform is abundant, in particular in the field of transport policy studies. Most of these studies are aimed at looking for the optimal model of railway operation, and thus the best way to reform the old system. Such a must-do reform schema easily catches policy makers' attention. But this alone fails to explain the discrepancies in reform experience. Bridging the Socialist reform literature and the transport policy studies, my research into China's railway reform documents and explains empirical railway reform in China between 1978 and 2003. I emphasize the intricate relationship among the central and ministerial leaderships, the local railway enterprises and cadres, as well as the external environment such as government regulations and market competitions. A thorough historical review suggests that the above-mentioned elements together, rather than the efficiency-driven imperative alone, are attributable to both the choice of different top-down reform policies and the unfolding of unintended property rights arrangements. First, I review the orthodox transport studies and the best model of railway reform they advocate. Second, I document the historical development of railway reform in China, and the bargaining between ministerial leadership and local railway cadres, with a view to singling out the shifting and sometimes puzzling reform policies. Lastly, I illustrate, by the case study of China's Railway Express Company, that political entrepreneurship among railway cadres gave rise to unintended and yet innovative property rights arrangements.