China’s railways are buzzing with activity, especially those connecting to Europe

Domestic News

The Chinese economy, or at least the part of it that depends on rail transport and the export of manufactured goods, appears to be rebounding fast. The China State Railway Group reported record numbers for shipments of goods in July, and also set lofty goals for rail track development in China.

a railway car in china, going through inspection before heading to europe
A Europe-bound freight train is inspected at the Horgos Pass in Xinjiang, April 20, 2020. Photo via Xinhua.

This spring, for the first time since the early 1990s, the Chinese government did not set an annual GDP growth target, which has been the magic number driving Chinese economic planning and the goals set for local leaders.

Instead, amid the pandemic, Beijing set out to, in the words of Premier Lǐ Kèqiáng 李克强, “concentrate on ensuring stability on the six fronts and security in the six areas.” That phrase, while sounding confusing or even sinister in English, was simply a reference to what has previously been translated as:

  • The six stabilizations (六稳 liù wěn), which are stabilizing employment, finances, foreign trade, foreign investment, domestic investment, and the people’s expectations.
  • The six guarantees (六保 liù bǎo), which are that the state should ensure the people’s employment, basic livelihood, market order, food and energy security, stability of supply chains, and operation of basic/local government functions.

The China State Railway Group is critical to achieving many of these goals, particularly the ones around foreign trade, stable supply chains, and energy and food security (though shaming binge-eating livestreamers is also, apparently, part of the strategy for that last one).

The state-owned rail giant, known simply as China Railway or CR, has published three press releases this month that show its central role in resuscitating the Chinese economy after COVID.

  • Record domestic rail volume was reported in July, according to CR (in Chinese), which said that the amount of goods shipped was 8.5% higher than the same period a year ago.
  • Record shipments to Europe also occurred in July, a separate release said (in Chinese). The amount of goods shipped from China to Europe has risen for five months in a row, and in July, totalled 68% more than a year ago.
  • Tens of thousands of miles of new track will be laid by 2035, a third press release said (in Chinese). The goals would “mean a 33.3% increase in China’s railway network from this year and a 133% expansion in high-speed railway,” according to Reuters calculations.

“Railway departments are resolutely implementing the central government’s ‘six stabilizations’ and ‘six guarantees,’” the first two press releases say.

Two key takeaways from these reports:

  • The Chinese economy, or at least the part of it that depends on rail transport and the export of manufactured goods, appears to be rebounding fast. Li Keqiang is probably happy with these numbers — after all, he reportedly looks at railway volume as a key metric to monitor economic health, preferring it over GDP.
  • The “land belt” part of Xí Jìnpíng’s 习近平 Belt and Road Initiative, which was “once regarded as merely ornamental” to China’s foreign trade ambitions, has “become increasingly important,” per the SCMP.