The high-speed Hainan train, built at a cost of about $3 billion and traversing just 190 miles along the island’s coast, is in many ways a metaphor for China’s infrastructure building boom of recent years — efficient, super-modern, costly and so far vastly underused.
Since late 2008, when China enacted a fiscal stimulus program to avert the contagion effects of a global economic slowdown, the country has embarked on a building binge, including new highways, high-speed rail lines, bridges, municipal subway systems, terminal buildings and nearly a hundred new airports.
A new rail line cut travel time between Beijing and Shanghai to just five hours. The world’s longest bridge over water opened this year in the city of Qingdao, spanning 26 miles across the Jiaozhou Bay. China is on track to soon surpass the United States in the number of highway miles built.
To many who have looked on with envy, this amounts to investing in the future.
“Building a world-class transportation system is part of what made us an economic superpower,” President Obama said in his September speech to a joint session of Congress. “And now we’re going to sit back and watch China build newer airports and faster railroads?”
But this building boom has raised questions here. How much infrastructure building is too much? Has the country taken on too much debt to build the world’s fastest trains, longest bridges and most expansive highway network?
And, in light of two major accidents — a deadly collision of two high-speed trains in Wenzhou in July and a September crash on a subway line in Shanghai — is the race to build coming at a cost to safety?
“High-speed rail became a holy grail for progress,” the investigative newsmagazine Caixin wrote in a September editorial. Recalling the language used during Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward, the editorial said the grandiose expressions used to rally support for the bullet trains “were designed to elevate China’s high-speed rail system as the epitome of the nation’s rise to greatness in the globalized world.”
An even harsher commentary came after the Wenzhou train crash, which killed 30 people, from of all places the newspaper People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party. The paper warned that China did not need “blood-soaked GDP.”
The government’s centralized planning system has faced much tougher scrutiny, particularly from the media. Most of the big-ticket infrastructure projects were designed and implemented from the top down, with virtually no public input. The result has been a series of “white elephants” — such as a “ghost city” of empty office buildings in Ordos in Inner Mongolia, or huge airport terminals in isolated western cities with few passengers.