The National Book Foundation recently announced its winners for 2014. Of interest to me is the winner for nonfiction, Evan Osnos (he is one of my favorite writers at The New Yorker). I haven’t read Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China but I have read his fantastic piece in The New Yorker titled “Boss Rail,” published in 2012:
Until now, China’s trains had always been a symbol of backwardness. More than a century ago, when the Empress Dowager was given a miniature engine to bear her about the Imperial City, she found the “fire cart” so insulting to the natural order that she banished it and insisted that her carriage continue to be dragged by eunuchs. Chairman Mao crisscrossed the countryside with tracks, partly for military use, but travel for ordinary people remained a misery of delayed, overcrowded trains nicknamed for the soot-stained color of the carriages: “green skins” were the slowest, “red skins” scarcely better. Even after Japan pioneered high-speed trains, in the nineteen-fifties, and Europe followed suit, China lagged behind, with what the state press bemoaned as two inches of track per person—“less than the length of a cigarette.”
In 2003, China’s Minister of Railways, Liu Zhijun, took charge of plans to build seventy-five hundred miles of high-speed railway—more than could be found in the rest of the world combined. For anyone with experience on Chinese trains, it was hard to picture. “Back in 1995, if you had told me where China would be today, I would have thought you were stark raving mad,” Richard Di Bona, a British transportation consultant in Hong Kong, told me recently. With a total investment of more than two hundred and fifty billion dollars, the undertaking was to be the world’s most expensive public-works project since President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, in the nineteen-fifties. To complete the first route by 2008, Minister Liu, whose ambition and flamboyance earned him the nickname Great Leap Liu, drove his crews and engineers to work in shifts around the clock, laying track, revising blueprints, and boring tunnels. “To achieve a great leap,” he liked to say, “a generation must be sacrificed.” (Some colleagues called him Lunatic Liu.) The state news service lionized an engineer named Xin Li, because he remained at his computer so long that he went partly blind in his left eye. (“I will keep working even without one eye,” he told a reporter.) 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. Cadres wept. When another line made its maiden run, Liu took a seat beside the conductor and said, “If anyone is going to die, I will be the first.”
Well worth the re-read.
Also by Evan Osnos published in 2014: China’s “Web Junkies”