Technically this is a Peter Recommends, because he’s been referencing it off and on since it was published last October, but he finally sent it to me yesterday:

The New Yorker – BOSS RAILThe disaster that exposed the underside of the boom. By Evan Osnos

It’s very long, and I could’ve quoted the whole thing on Twitter if the character lengths would let me, but this is probably the scariest (but not the most upsetting, which is the robbing of the mother’s fanny pack, closer to the beginning), so I’ll quote this, just to get everyone interested and, well, it’s so horrible it deserves to be disseminated:

Like many others, Ding knew something that government auditors uncovered only later: 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.”

One of the most common rackets was illegal subcontracting. A single contract could be divvied up and sold for kickbacks, then sold again and again, until it reached the bottom of a food chain of labor, where the workers were cheap and unskilled. (The practice is hardly unique to the railways: in 2010, a rookie welder employed by an illegal subcontractor was working on a dormitory in Shanghai when he dropped his torch and set the building on fire; fifty-eight people died.) In November, 2011, a former cook with no engineering experience was found to be building a high-speed railway bridge using a crew of unskilled migrant laborers who substituted crushed stones for cement in the foundation. In railway circles, the practice of substituting cheap materials for real ones was common enough to rate its own expression: touliang huanzhu—robbing the beams to put in the pillars.

The other thing that’s just amazing, but sort of in an I-know-of-the-type sort of way, is this woman Ding Shumiao, who’s a tall, unattractive, peasant-looking illiterate with MILLIONS OF (ill-begotten) DOLLARS swishing around under her mattress. That’s the trouble with corruption. It just sort of makes you wonder about the people you meet.

Read the whole thing (unless you have already and I’m the last one on earth to see this). It’s long, but it goes quick.