"If we compared our lives to the rich, we would die of heartbreak" -- Cabbie Wu, Zheng Zhou, China
A story about China's bullet trains reminds us of what they are all about -- one more segregation by income group. Affluent Americans would much prefer to ride by flashy new bullet trains so that they too can be a part of solving the energy crisis. But we the people will of course have to build a separate train for them in the same way that we keep giving them unconsionable tax breaks. Since the public is paying for these high speed railroads, yet another subsidy for they wealthy, ticket prices ought to be subsidized for the "middle class," which in the current political jargon is the income group that contains everyone but millionaires or those eccentrics that prefer to live outdoors.
Public transportation, paid for with public funds, ought to be for the public, not just for the affluent. High speed rail is a very expensive way to rub peoples' noses in the econopmic inequality of their societies.
Badlands Journal editorial board
China's bullet trains divide rich, poor…Tom Lasseter
ZHENGZHOU, China – As the first-class passengers settled into cushioned seats, unfolded newspapers and waited for their tea or coffee, a woman's soothing voice came over the intercom to welcome them to the "harmony train."
The white bullet train whooshed out of the station, its blue pinstripe a blur as it sliced across the Chinese countryside at more than 200 miles an hour.
Chang Baoning, a 40-year-old government bureaucrat with a paunch and purple-tinted eyeglasses, watched the scenery whirl by from a whisper-quiet cabin. There could be no question, he said, that "the speed of development in China is getting faster and faster."
Chang waved off the notion that some are being left behind.
"There are fewer and fewer people with big bags on trains; it's not a problem," he said, using a euphemism for migrant workers who haul belongings in large sacks slung over their shoulders.
As the bullet train rocketed off into the distance, Zhou Xishan, 53, was still sitting on the ground outside the station in Zhengzhou – the capital of a rough-and-tumble central Chinese province with some 100 million residents and a reputation for poverty. Zhou was waiting to board a cheap train known for its grim, green color.
He had a good idea of what to expect: a slow, rickety ride with a jumble of people crammed against one another on old, uncomfortable seats.
"The people are not equal," he'd said earlier, leaning back against a worn plastic bag as he cradled a 2-year-old grandson wrapped in a canvas jacket being used as a blanket.
Western analysts often point to projects like high-speed rail as proof of China's seemingly boundless momentum.
But as with so much else in China, the bullet trains represent both the excitement of an emerging superpower and, at the same time, the extent to which the nation's unbridled economic progress has cleaved its population on two sides of a deep divide of money and privilege.
Although the country's boom lifted more than half a billion people out of extreme poverty in the decades after 1981, a point of immense pride here, there is growing worry about the distance between everyday Chinese and the very wealthy, and at times very corrupt, elite.
In one version of today's China, the government is spending billions of dollars to better connect a constellation of cities that Beijing's rulers hope will fuel the nation's domestic growth, in the same way that St. Louis and Chicago once did for 19th century America.
Among the skyscrapers, there are fortunes – legal and otherwise – waiting to be made by those with the right political and business connections.
On the other side of China is Wu Guojun, a taxi driver who was recently dropping a passenger off at the train station in Zhengzhou. Passing by the shiny metal and glass of brand new apartment buildings, Wu shook his head and said they were just investment opportunities for wealthy people looking for a place to park their cash.
Stories of Chinese officials and businessmen snapping up clusters of high-end apartments are not uncommon; it's often considered a way to hide untaxed or illegal income.
"The difference between rich and poor is getting so big," said Wu, a 32-year-old who started work as a cabbie 12 years ago. "If we compared our lives to the rich, we would die of heartbreak."
The nation's economic gap is obvious at places like the Zhengzhou train station, where a small sea of migrant laborers spreads out across a concrete square, plopped down on seed bags stuffed with blankets and clothes.
Bullet train passengers, meanwhile, sit in a waiting hall with laptops open and plenty of space. Their accommodations are about to get much nicer – a new Zhengzhou station for high-speed rail is slated to open by the end of the year, at a cost of more than $1 billion.
Chang Baoning's bullet train trip from Zhengzhou to the city of Xi'an will take about two hours – so quick that last year, after the train service was initiated, airlines suspended their flights between the cities.
On the green train, covering the same distance would take six or seven hours.
But the bullet train's cost – a first-class ticket is 390 yuan each way, or about $60 – is unreachable for many. A one-way seat on the green train is 36 yuan, or $5.50.
For Cao Tianjing, there's no point in making the comparison.
"We are just workers, we have no idea about the prices of the fast trains," said Cao, who was passing through on his way to work at a stone masonry.