The man who once ran China's powerful railways ministry is seeking leniency for corruption crimes at Sunday's opening of one of the country's biggest graft cases in years.

Liu Zhijun, who oversaw the country's high-profile bullet train development as head of the ministry, has been accused of taking massive bribes and steering lucrative projects to associates.

The trial could give an indication of what kind of punishments top official might expect as part of the anti-corruption campaign of new Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Liu went on trial at Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court amid relatively tight security.

Liu's lawyer, Qian Lieyang, said ahead of the trial that he planned to argue for the severity of the charges to be reduced.