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Home » Economy & Development » Biggest, Fastest, Longest – China’s Infrastructure and Love of Superlatives

Biggest, Fastest, Longest – China’s Infrastructure and Love of Superlatives

Some of you may have missed that China completed two major projects just in time for the Party’s 90th birthday. These now stand like trophies along with the Three Gorges Dam and dozens of other massive works. These projects often come at massive prices, and require moving thousands of people (sometimes millions).

The Three Gorges Dam is one of the largest projects ever completed by man, with enough steel to construct 63 Eiffel towers. It along with many of China’s other dams were inspired by Mao Zedong, and were partially constructed simply to fulfill his dream (many have argued that several smaller dams would be more efficient, and cause fewer environmental problems).

Currently the dam is the center of a lot of debate in China, where it is filling with garbage, being blamed for causing droughts, and accused of causing a variety of disasters in nearby villages.

So why is it that China continues undertaking huge projects?

Today we’ll be looking at the first answer: Vanity.

The most widely discussed of these new projects was the much-anticipated high-speed train that connects Beijing and Shanghai, which is currently the fastest in the world. It cuts several hours off of the travel time by train, and often is faster than airplanes due to frequent flight delays.

While the train is certainly useful, a lot of people are wondering if the train was really worth the price tag of $33 billion, it may never recover the cost. The problem is that to keep the ticket price attractive to locals, it is very difficult to even match the cost of operating the train, this has been a problem for many of the other high-speed lines. This cost factor is part of the reason why the track was built for trains traveling at 350km/h but will only be running at 300km/h.

The High-speed rail project though has created a lot of buzz around the world, and has helped Chinese companies win several large contracts overseas. So while it not be financially successful here, it does make people say “Wow, China is passing everyone in technology”, and I think that was one of the motivating factors for building it.

The other major project was a bridge that connects Qingdao to Huangdao district, it is now the longest cross-sea bridge in the world. It will reduce travel time by twenty minutes, and cost an impressive $2.3 billion. This project seems a little harder to justify.

It only beat out the other contender by .48km, so I’m led to believe that the bridge was built partially by the desire to have the worlds longest bridge, not because it was the most urgent project.

A similar thing happened when the gov’t was remodeling the National Museum in Beijing (also the largest). One museum director in Europe received several phone calls inquiring about the exact square footage of the Louvre and other well-known museums. This was an important factor for those in charge of the redesign. Now the museum faces the task of filling the floor space.

You’ll notice though that there is one superlative missing from all of these descriptions though – Best.

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at the second reason China likes big infrastructure projects, corruption.


  1. The adolescent flexing his muscles, trying to impress and coming off as callow and immature. It’s the noveau-riche of governance.

  2. Casey says:

    I read that the operating speed was reduced for safety rather than cost, though this could be due to the additional costs to upkeep and maintain with the 50 km increase. (unsourced)

    In any case, China is always about face and the symbolism behind the __________-est whatever. Some may help, but the intention is to awe.

    • Tom says:

      It is partially for safety, but I think that might partially be a distraction from the cost element. From what I have read power usage scales exponentially with speed, so reducing the speed lowers costs substantially.

  3. Hua Qiao says:

    Safety? You might want to read this. A dirty little secret about fly ash, which until recently, I would have thought was something at a garbage incinteration facility…

  4. B says:

    Vanity is just one thing. The bigger the project, the more money paid for it, and flow into limbo…

  5. yaxue c. says:

    I have read very little about the high speed rail train so far and never heard about fly ash before. But knowing the Chinese communists, I am not surprised at all.

    I am sure some of you are aware of Huang Wanli (黄万里)’s prediction of the Three Gorges dam when he died in 2001: that the Dam will eventually have to be blown up. I believe that, in the future, not too far into the future, people will look back and see this era is yet another Great Leap Forward.

    The New York Times article about the new National Musuem Tom linked points out that, for anything about the Cultural Revolution, you will find one, just one, photogragh and three lines of text at a back corner of the Museum. I remember laughing out loud when I first read this: I don’t care how big it is, it’s a fake and a ludicrous lie.

  6. Anonymous says:

    please! The idea of Three Gorges Dam was originally promoted by Mr. Sun Yat-sen. In his early speeches in 1919 and 1924, he has envisioned the picuture where a grand dam could provide adundant power, transportation and fertilizer.
    What’s more, in 1930s, the KUO MIN TANG administration collected materials and data, made on-site research, and even made a budget for a 166 million dollars worth of a waterpower dam along Yangtze River.
    and after the war against Japanese invasion, US government in exchange for the control of and the benefit from the Yangtze river transportation and waterpower, offered a large loan to KMT government. with the help of american experts, they had a committee set up to investigate and research. But with the worsened economic and military situtaion, the government had to stop the plan.
    so it is not Mao’s personal dream the dam is fulfilling. Don’t try to blame everything on someone else you may not appriciate. and if you do, please do your homework!
    and waht is wrong about trying to be the best. of course you would see it as vanity, of course you refuse to see it as keeping pushing the boundries. Everyone has different opinions, so it is impossible to be the “best “which can not be measured, but the biggest and largest can be physically ackowledged. Americans always brag about their “land of freedom and equality,” “opportunities”. these illusiory notions sounds fine, but please take a look at your jails and unemployment. “Amercian dream” seems more of a vain and self-deceiving idea to me.

    • Tom says:

      This was also Mao’s dream as well. His poem “swimming” is about building this dam. Scores of dams were built during his reign (many of which have collapsed since).
      Swimming By Mao Zedong
      “I have just drunk the waters of Changsha
      And come to eat the fish of Wuchang.
      Now I am swimming across the great Yangtze,
      Looking afar to the open sky of Chu.
      Let the wind blow and waves beat,
      Better far than idly strolling in a courtyard.
      Today I am at ease.
      “It was by a stream that the Master said –
      “Thus so things flow away!””

      Sails move with the wind.
      Tortoise and Snake are still.
      Great plans are afoot:
      A bridge will fly to span the north and south,
      Turning a deep chasm into a thoroughfare;
      Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west
      To hold back Wushan’s clouds and rain
      Till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges.
      The mountain goddess if she is still there
      Will marvel at a world so changed.”

      Also my comment about being the “best” referred to the dubious quality of some of these projects, like that the railway may not be as safe as they claim, or that the bridge did not have all of it’s guard rails in place when it opened.

      • Anonymous says:

        Now it is “also” and “as well”! So, either you deliberately ignored previous facts and only pinned this on Mao, or you did not do a thorough study before you made a critical statement, and instead you just drew a random conclusion.
        Scores of dams were built during his reign, and people have enjoyed great from these projects. Folks in rural areas can use electricity to improve their living standards. Given the poor economy and the lack of advanced technology, and the hostile international environment then, I think they have done a pretty good job building so many dams. But you said “many collapsed”, precisely how many? Personal assumption? Without solid facts, words like this can be very misleading.
        Also, so far the railway is working well. I don’t know how you got the information that ” the railway ‘may’ not be as safe as they claim”. Speculation again? Even though there might exist some problems, but nothing is perfect, even Pentagon’s network system has been hacked before, I think that system was very best! 
        It seems that personal guess rather than facts are playing a significant part in your writing. Surely, it makes your articles sharp but don’t you think it is some of the time irresponsible and misleading,especially when you harbor certain stereotypes?
        Still, I am expecting your “corruption” part! I hope you would include more facts into the coming one, because I suppose the evidence might be easier to get.

      • Tom says:

        2,796 dams had failed by 1980 killing 240,000 people, this figure comes from Jonathon Watts excellent book, “When a Billion Chinese Jump.”

        I write short blog posts, so there are occasions where I pick the most relevant pieces of information. You are free to disagree with my interpretation, but I think that if it were not for Mao’s dream, the dam might not have been built, and there could have been open discussion about the project. The Zipingpu dam was built because of a comment Mao made to a local leader about what a pity it was that he couldn’t swim in the Min river. That is the kind of power Mao had, so that is why I attributed the project to his dream. Yes, Sun Yatsen also suggested a dam there, but he did not romanticize this notion, and I know of no other examples of major infrastructure projects suggested by him that have been built in recent years (especially at such tremendous costs).

        I mentioned concerns about the safety of the railway because there have been numerous articles citing railway engineers from Japan (where much of the Chinese tech comes from) who were raising issues with the project. Most specifically the lack of availability of fly ash, which is key for the production of high quality concrete. They pointed out that the amount necessary for the design was more than existed when it was built.

        While I would strongly disagree with out about my lack of research, you are correct in saying that there is bountiful evidence of corruption.

    • NiubiCowboy says:

      Freedom, equality, and opportunities are often illusory notions, like you said. Many Americans, from dissidents and activists to the average Joe might well say the same thing. However, in the United States you can report on, disseminate information about, and investigate things like the high incarceration rate, high unemployment, rising inflation, and the decline of the American dream without being charged by the State with “subverting State power,” and without having to use a VPN or proxy server because the information has been “harmonized.”

      • Anonymous says:

        what can I say to you who turns a blind eye to his real situtaion?! You are still so proud of your so-called rights you enjoy… … Please check the and the . You can’t have read them, have you!!?? Your congressmen did not read it when approving it. neither did you! and do i have to list the US governmental suppression in the history? wake up!

      • NiubiCowboy says:

        How did anything I just wrote indicate I’ve turned a “blind eye to the real situation?” If anything, I’ve proven that I’m more in touch with my situation than you are. My point was, that I can’t be detained or investigated for subverting US authority by accessing information that may not paint the government in a positive light. All of my country’s warts are there for all to see. No need to make a list of US governmental suppression throughout history. Thankfully, I learned about it in school and by reading books that weren’t banned by my government. Things like the Kent State shooting, My Lai, the Iraq War, the Project for a New American Century, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, the Iran-Contra affair, the NED, and the Wounded Knee massacre are all a few clicks away. I’m not going to be invited to the police station for tea simply for retweeting posts that may be critical of domestic policy or the party or parties in power. I’m not arguing that the American system is perfect; far from it. However, given the choice between access to less information or access to more information, it’s only natural that I’d fully embrace the latter. It’s also nice not to have to read “According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, some search results were not shown” whenever something I’ve searched for turns out to be politically sensitive at the time (i.e. rivers, carrots, jasmine, etc.).

        I’m reminded of that old Soviet joke:
        Q: Is it true that there is freedom of speech in the Soviet Union the same as there is in the USA?
        A: In principle, yes. In the USA, you can stand in front of the White House in Washington, DC, and yell, “Down with Reagan!”, and you will not be punished. Just the same, you can stand in the Red Square in Moscow and yell, “Down with Reagan!”, and you will not be punished.

      • Tom says:

        I’ve also noticed that in these arguments, Chinese nationalists are eager to point out flaws in the US, but rarely have any boasts about rights in their own country.

        I’m reminded of some of the “findings” China released about human rights abuses in the US in an effort to counter the US’s report on China. The “findings” came entirely from research done by non-profit groups and journalists, all operating freely in the US. While some of the figures were incredibly disappointing, it was lessened by knowing that these issues are being openly discussed, and slowly dealt with. Can China say the same of it’s own problems?

      • Anonymous says:

        “However, given the choice between access to less information or access to more information, it’s only natural that I’d fully embrace the latter.”??Warner brothers are laughing so hard when you proudly say that. I still don’t get it why Americans are still thinking highly of the “more information” they get! Do you really enjoy whatever information you need? Don’t you know that most of the mass media in America are under the control of 4 or 5 monopoly financial groups, say, Warner Bros, Disney. It seems that you have various news resources; however, you are just watching or reading what they have chosen for you to read or watch. US army can buy a television slot to promote their war in Iraq. In the past 4 years, at least 20 federal organizations (including DOD and Census Bureau)have faked and spread more than hundreds of pieces of news. Tell you what, variety doesn’t guarantee impartiality. Actually the free speech you brag about belongs to only plutocracies, and if you care to look it up, you would find most of the mass media are controlled by Jewish families. SO you expect to get genuie pictures? When US troops invaded Iraq, almost all press were supporting this action and none pointed out it was against the United Nations Charter. And the rumour the media helped the government promote: Jessica Lynch. You still think that your various news recourses offer “more” access? What a laugh! Have you forgotten the supreme court ruled that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections. Now the common people would be more silenced. Is it very convenient? The government, in the name of free speech, violates the free speech.
        Furthermore, you said that you read those things. I believe that people oppose them, demonstrate against them? But have your opposition been heard? Maybe you hate what happened in Mylai, but what has William Calley got. American protested against the Korean War, but here came the VIetman War. People hated the act about Sedition but Bush administration and congress passed another one in 2001(i don’t know why the names of the two acts can show on this website?). you may blame the bombing in Yugoslav Federation, but the invasion in Iraq followed, and now Libya. Yeah, you can keep complaining and going on strikes. but like your voice was truly heard or taken seriously. The government let you put up shows they have got used to and then iust ignored them and do what they see as profitable for their interest group, it seems that you have made a difference, but really so?

  7. […] 中国见红:最大、最快、最长——中国的基建项目和对创纪录的热爱【一】 […]

  8. Yaxue C. says:

    Tom, I look forward to seeing you completing this piece. I will translate it into Chinese and post it somewhere — It is very interesting for Chinese to see your perspective. For many of them, it can be illuminating.

  9. Test says:

    Why do Ferrari and other companies keep on building 200 MPH+ cars when most roads are not designed for such high speeds? Why do countries keep on sending people into space?

    Vanity is likely one reason why China engage in massive projects, but hardly the biggest reason. There are many better, practical reasons. By taking on large projects involving bridge and the high speed rail, China is trying to build its engineering and project management credibility. How can any company, Chinese or otherwise, try to sell its expertise in building trains and bridges to say, California, if it has not had any experience in engaging such projects? All of the issues which the HSR projects are experiencing now, including the ROI and technical difficulties, are challenges which would give Chinese engineers the necessary experience to be better at what they are doing. So maybe one day they can be the “best” in something. You can’t be the “best” in anything if you don’t try simply because you fear others ridiculing your attempts as symbols of “vanity”.

    • Tom says:

      You have an excellent point here (although maybe not the best example, people buy Ferrari’s out of vanity, because they are impractical and insanely expensive).

      Pushing China’s engineering is a worthy reason (I will update the post to reflect that), but I do wonder if it is worth spending public money on such expensive projects to help SOE’s get contracts overseas, especially when you consider that the average SOE ceo is earning 168x what the average Chinese person makes. Don’t these large gifts encourage SOE’s to continue being wasteful (many don’t turn a profit) and rely on State contracts for income, instead of creating a product that there is widespread demand for?

      Also I think there are some very real safety concerns with these projects, and as Casey pointed out, if the HSR fails, it will cancel all demand worldwide in a fairly permanent way.

  10. Anonymous says:

    WHen trashing the massive projects going on in China, why don’t you take a look at the figures of employment they have brougt about?! There is such a large labour force in China, and projects like that have offered a great deal of job opportunities to rural mirgrant workers who may not have sufficient skills or technology to take to other jobs. If American people or government are willing to provide work stations for such a large population in or out of USA land, let me know. I believe many problems in China, including the on in question will be easily solved. And I personally would like to move to US with other millions of workers to the free land where we can talk about vanity in China face to face.

    • Anonymous says:

      good point

      • Tom says:

        I would just like to clarify that here Anonymous is agreeing with his own post. The small picture next to their name is tied to their IP address so you other readers can tell each other apart.

      • Ander says:

        Why not just keep writing more self-gratitudes?
        Or share the name of your blog?
        Clearly, you’ve got something to say.

    • Bill Rich says:

      You also forget to mention the huge opportunity for extracurricular income for officials, which is way more important in the decision to push for, approve, and financing these projects out of the pockets of common Chinese people. These projects also further the advances of these official by meeting the GDP growth targets too.

      These project are simply great for the government and government officials, and friends and family of these officials, but disasters to China and the Chinese people.

  11. […] we looked at part of the reason why Chinese officials like massive projects, and today we’ll be looking at the another major […]

  12. Anonymous says:

    Tom? is it?
    thank you for calling me a nationalist. i never noticed that .
    sure we’d like to point out the problems in US when you are criticizing China for doing wrong deeds especially by moral standard. If you can’t behave yourself how can you have the position to attack others’ deeds, in such a judgemental way.
    of course flaws in china are being dealt with. CHanges are everywhere but it’s that you refuse to acknowledge. but as they said, though it seems that you have your right to demonstrate to go on strike, but are your voices heard or taken seriously?
    but “slowly” it is! poor black people. that did not take to long。
    and obviously your writing are biased and prejudiced. when it come to china, it is ” awful and problems”, but to US, it is “disappointing and flaws”.
    it is not good for the mutual understanding though it maybe is good for your whatever intention is

    • Tom says:

      Here I am not actually using a moral standard to gauge these projects. I have demonstrated in the article and in the comments that there is physical evidence that these projects have the potential to cause greater problems.

      My blog is about China, so I focus on China’s problems and positives (if you read my other posts, it is clear that I am not anti-China). The US has many problems, and I have never denied those, they simply aren’t the focus of my blog. I also did not use the word “awful”.

      Strikes in the US are actually taken seriously. At the beginning of Obama’s presidency he commended several workers for their sit in after not receiving their pay. In the past Presidents have even called in the national guard to protect strikers from local thugs.

      The intention of my blog is to help show foreigners a more complete picture of China. This includes things that are both good and bad. To share current events, culture, history, and daily life of a country I love deeply. Also I write posts in series, picking one aspect each day to focus on, sometimes the good part comes first, and in this case it is a the bad part. I believe that the best way to solve problems is to discuss them openly.

    • Ander says:

      Why don’t you just admit you are paid to write?

  13. […] they are for the most part appreciated by the people, despite the corruption and problems these vanity projects can cause (read my updated post on some of the […]

  14. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  15. And yet Beijing is making it illegal to use words like “luxury” and “decadent” in advertising. Hmmm…

    • Tom says:

      Great connection. It is a strange hypocrisy, but I think this contradiction is possible because the gov’t has instilled through education that the gov’t is very much above the masses. They did end up pulling some of the extreme luxury carriages of the train though.

  16. Bill Rich says:

    Right now Tsingtao is the greenest city in the world.

  17. Alphonse says:

    You forgot the Olympic games …. all the stadiums .

  18. […] assessments I have ever come across in the literature to describe where China is today. Most of the projects shown here are well known to the rest of the world due to their enormous size, , However, these […]

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