In China, Projects to Make Great Wall Feel Small

Dalian, China:  The plan here seems far-fetched – a $36 billion tunnel that would run twice the length of the one under the English Channel, and bore deep into one of Asia’s active earthquake zones. When completed, it would be the world’s longest underwater tunnel, creating a rail link between two northern port cities.

Throughout China, equally ambitious projects with multibillion-dollar price tags are already underway. The world’s largest bridge. The biggest airport. The longest gas pipeline. An $80 billion effort to divert water from the south of the country, where it is abundant, to a parched section of the north, along a route that covers more than 1,500 miles.

Such enormous infrastructure projects are a Chinese tradition. From the Great Wall to the Grand Canal and the Three Gorges Dam, this nation for centuries has used colossal public-works projects to showcase its engineering prowess and project its economic might.

Now, as doubts emerge about the country’s three-decade boom, China’s leaders are moving even more aggressively, doubling down on mega-infrastructure. In November, for instance, the powerful National Development and Reform Commission approved plans to spend nearly $115 billion on 21 supersize infrastructure projects, including new airports and high-speed rail lines.

Whether China really needs this much big infrastructure – or can even afford it – is a contentious issue.

The infrastructure plans run counter to Beijing’s commitment to reduce its heavy reliance on government-led investment to fuel growth. And some economists worry that the country might eventually be mired in enormous debt.

According to China’s National Audit Office, local government debt alone stood at about $3.1 trillion in 2013, more than a third the size of the entire economy. The high level of debt, analysts warn, could stunt growth for a long time.

“People should be concerned because very few of these big projects generate cash,” said Victor Shih, a China specialist who teaches political economy at the University of California, San Diego.

Other huge projects could bolster China’s position as a manufacturing and trading powerhouse. In November, the government said its freight rail link between eastern China and Spain had opened, allowing factory goods to reach Spain in just over 20 days. It is now the world’s longest rail journey, far surpassing the route of the famed Trans-Siberian Railway.

China also sees hidden benefits in such projects, including the ability to gain new scientific and technical expertise.

As a result, bridge-building in China has become something akin to an Olympic event. In 2007, after China completed the longest sea-crossing bridge in Hangzhou, the nation has regularly broken records. China now claims the longest bridge of any kind, the highest bridge and, in 2011, a new successor to the longest sea-crossing bridge, 26.4 miles long, in the eastern city of Qingdao.

“For China, a lot of this is about building a national identity. Mega-projects are suited for that,” says Bent Flyvbjerg, an authority on mega-projects who teaches at Oxford University. “It’s a lighthouse for all to see what the Chinese nation can do.”

Full article: In China, Projects to Make Great Wall Feel Small (NDTV)

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