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Railroads and the Transformation of China

Harvard University Press: As a vehicle to convey both the history of modern China and the complex forces still driving the nation’s economic success, rail has no equal. Railroads and the Transformation of China is the first comprehensive history, in any language, of railroad operation from the last decades of the Qing Empire to the present.

China’s first fractured lines were built under semicolonial conditions by competing foreign investors. The national system that began taking shape in the 1910s suffered all the ills of the country at large: warlordism and Japanese invasion, Chinese partisan sabotage, the Great Leap Forward when lines suffered in the “battle for steel,” and the Cultural Revolution, during which Red Guards were granted free passage to “make revolution” across the country, nearly collapsing the system. Elisabeth Köll’s expansive study shows how railroads survived the rupture of the 1949 Communist revolution and became an enduring model of Chinese infrastructure expansion.

The railroads persisted because they were exemplary bureaucratic institutions. Through detailed archival research and interviews, Köll builds case studies illuminating the strength of rail administration. Pragmatic management, combining central authority and local autonomy, sustained rail organizations amid shifting political and economic priorities. As Köll shows, rail provided a blueprint for the past 40 years of ambitious, semipublic business development and remains an essential component of the People’s Republic of China’s politically charged, technocratic economic model for China’s future.