China is in the midst of an infrastructure building boom. And it’s not just the highways, dams, airports and high-speed rail lines being built at home. China is exporting its construction know-how around the world, including building and financing some 300 dam projects, including an estimated 100 dams in Africa. In Southeast Asia, there are Chinese plans for a high-speed train that will link Southern China to the ASEAN countries all the way south to Singapore.
Where is the U.S.A. in all of this? Way, way behind.
The irony is, that used to be the U.S. whose construction feats were the envy of the world. No more. While our politcians in the U.S. continue to wrangle over raising the gas tax to pay for crucial infrastructure, China is forging ahead, funding a new Asian infrastructure development bank, and making bilateral deals to help improve the world’s infrstructure from the Middle East to Africa– and with China characteristics.
This week’s issue of The Edge Review, the digital weekly magazine for Southeast Asia, is devoted to infrastruture. I wrote my regular column on China’s building boom, and how it compares to the U.S. For those who don’t get The Edge Review, I encourage you to download the app and subscribe so you can see the full package. Meanwhile, here’s my column this week, reprinted from The Edge Review. Please leave me your comments below, and follow me on Twitter at: keithrichburg.
When I moved to Hong Kong back in 1995, one of the first people I met was Gordon Wu, the quintessential Hong Kong businessman who had just built a 125-
kilometer superhighway to southern China. His dream, Wu told me, was a series of highways and bridges reaching deep into China’s heartland that would revolutionize the Pearl River Delta economy.
And Wu’s inspiration? The New Jersey Turnpike and the interstate highway system built in the US from 1956, when Wu was studying engineering at Princeton University. Wu lived in the small town of Hopewell, New Jersey, and he was so impressed with the American road-building efforts that he later named his massive Hong Kong infrastructure company Hopewell Holdings Ltd.
Wu was not alone in once being awed by American construction achievements.
In the 19th century, the Erie Canal that opened New York to the Great Lakes, and the Trans-Continental Railroad connecting the Pacific coast to the northeast, were considered man-made marvels of the world. And the 20th century saw the giant Hoover Dam, the Empire State Building and the Golden Gate Bridge – all completed, coincidentally, in the midst of the Great Depression.
What seems depressed these days is America’s ability to think big.
Now it’s China with the big dreams and the big infrastructure projects inspiring the next generation of builders. It is China exporting its technological and construction know-how to the rest of the world.
Chinese companies and banks are now building and financing most of the world’s current dams, with an estimated 300-plus projects in 74 countries since the year 2000. In Africa, China is behind a veritable boom in dam-building.
The length of China’s vast intercity expressway network surpassed America’s interstate highway in 2011. And in a couple of years, a vast US$10 billion bridge and tunnel network should link Hong Kong to Macau and Zhuhai in Southern China, a modern day marvel and the culmination of Gordon Wu’s dream.
What should be depressing these days for any American visitor is how China’s expressways are brand new, while America’s ageing interstates are crumbling. The US Highway Trust Fund, a federal pot of money for infrastructure upkeep, is teetering on insolvency, a victim of Washington’s political dysfunction.
America still has the world’s largest rail network overall, mostly hauling freight. But China now has by far the world’s most extensive network for high-speed passenger trains, and the construction shows no sign of slowing down. Also, China is exporting its technology, with plans for new routes linking Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand to the Southern Chinese province of Yunnan.
Where is the US high-speed rail system? Stalled on the tracks.
California’s governor, Jerry Brown, an iconoclast and a big-project dreamer, earlier this year ceremonially broke ground on the first leg of a long-delayed high-speed train line that he wants eventually to run the 600km between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The segment Brown was celebrating would cover just 48km, and even that won’t open until 2022.
The entire project has been delayed by lawsuits, land disputes, funding worries, and mostly vociferous opposition from Republican lawmakers who do not want any public funds spent for what they consider a costly boondoggle. Similar objections have helped stall other projects in Florida, Texas and the American midwest.
Of course China’s Communist rulers don’t have to worry about such pesky inconveniences as political opposition, environmental impact statements, public support and democratic checks and balances. In addition, unlike the debt-burdened US, China has a huge cushion of foreign exchange reserves.
At one point, China was building a hundred new airports, along with highways, bridges, new railway terminals, urban subway systems and even whole new cities, often in the middle of nowhere.
At the height of this building boom a few years ago, I asked a Chinese economist friend whether all this building amounted to wasteful spending. I had traveled on largely empty expressways and waited for a train in a nearly deserted new terminal on Hainan island. Did China really need high-speed rail lines and thousands of kilometers of new highways and a hundred new airports?
Maybe not now, the economist told me. But Chinese leaders may be smart to spend the money now while they have it. And in 20 or 30 years, when they do need it, the infrastructure will already have been built.
In the US now, interest rates are at historic lows. Now is the time the government should be borrowing money at low cost to build big projects and repair the infrastructure already there. But a lot has shifted in the 60 years since Gordon Wu was a young engineering student at Princeton. America, I fear, has lost its ability to think big. China is now the land of the dreamers and the builders. And the rest of the world is taking notice.