Ever wonder how China seems to be able to build endless miles of high-speed rail quickly, cleanly, and without much fuss or political bother? Here's how:

When the first high-speed line débuted with a test run in June, 2008, it was seventy-five per cent over budget and relied heavily on German designs, but nobody dwelled on that during the ceremony.


China’s most famous public-works project was an ecosystem almost perfectly hospitable to corruption—opaque, unsupervised, and overflowing with cash, especially after the government announced a stimulus to mitigate the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis. It boosted funding for railway projects to more than a hundred billion dollars in 2010. In some cases, the bidding period was truncated from five days to thirteen hours. In others, the bids were mere theatre, because construction had already begun. Cash was known to vanish: in one instance, seventy-eight million dollars that had been set aside to compensate people whose homes had been demolished to make way for railroad tracks disappeared. Middlemen expected cuts of between one and six per cent. “If a project is four and a half billion, the middleman is taking home two hundred million,” Wang said. “And, of course, nobody says a word.”

Not to mention:

“America always criticizes us for human rights,” he said. “It’s our weakness. But construction is our strength. We put people together fast. The bosses don’t have to listen to anybody but themselves.”

 There's more in Evan Osnos's deeply reported look in the New Yorker at railway construction in China. This is the flip side of all those breathless op-eds you read about China's gleaming airports and high-speed trains and new roads. Autocrats can build quickly, but they also tend to build corruptly. America's got real infrastructure problems, but they're probably preferable to China's corruption problems.