20080317-1014_irrigation3 yellow rive dykes columb22.jpg
Making dikes on the Yellow River

Infrastructure in China varies from modern and well-thought-out to very poor. The infrastructure in large Chinese cities is like that found in developed countries but the infrastructure found in rural area often more closely resembles that found in Third World countries. Resources and industry are sometimes constrained by infrastructure issues and energy shortages. The government recognizes the importance of infrastructure to making its economy go and has greatly improved it during the last few decades. Though China has come a long way economically and in terms of infrastructure it continues to be dogged by some inadequacies in transportation and energy resources.

Rivers and canals — notably the Yangtze River and Grand Canal, which more or less connects Shanghai to Beijing — remain important transportation arteries. Since the 1980s China has greatly improved it roads and built many first class major highway and paved roads. More recently it has invested heavily in constructing high-speed rail lines and now has the most extensive high-speed rail system in the world. Much of China, especially the east, is well served by railroads and highways, and there are major rail and road links with the interior. There are railroads and road connection to most the countries that border it. Pipelines connect China with the oil- and natural-gas-producing nations of Central Asia and Russia. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press]

The Chinese government can generally build whatever project it likes because the government owns the land, labor is cheap and protests against the system can not be organized. One architect told the Los Angeles Times, “If the government wants to do something, even if the conditions are not ready for it, it will be done.” Planners draw up plans, officials approve them and construction begins. If anything is in the way” people, building, historical monuments” they are destroyed or moved.

China’s total fixed-asset investment in the first 11 months of 2014 was US$6.7 trillion. During the same period Infrastructure spending totaled US$1.46 trillion in transportation; environment and water management; and the supply of heat, gas and water, according to National Bureau of Statistics data compiled by Bloomberg. [Source: Bloomberg News January 6, 2015]

Pipelines: 76,000 kilometers gas, 30,400 kilometers crude oil, 27,700 kilometers refined petroleum products, 797,000 kilometers water (2018). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2022]

Infrastructure and the Economy in China

Spending on infrastructure has been increasing at rate of around 25 percent a year in recent years. Some see the huge projects as white elephants. Others see them as key to elevating China to the status of a developed country. There is an old Chinese saying that goes: “If you want to be rich, you must first build roads.”

A lot of money is spent on infrastructure in China. In an effort to keep economic growth rates high a massive $1.2 trillion public works program was announced in the late 1990s that included the building of new bridges, roads, dams, railroads, power plants, port facilities and airports all around the country. A fifth of all construction spending in China depends on public works projects. No other country spends more and devotes as much resources to infrastructure projects as China. The only thing that is comparable was the building of the interstate highway system in the United States in the 1950s.

Infrastructure bottlenecks slow the economy. Ships wait for weeks to unload in overcrowded ports. Trucks sometimes have reload their cargos when crossing province borders. Water shortages and power outages cut industrial production and agricultural yields. One study found that China needs to spend $132 billion annually from 2006 to 2010 on upgrading and maintaining its infrastructure to maintain projected economic growth rates. See Water Shortages, Power Outages.

Huge Labor Intensive Projects in China

20080311-Haihe-poster-01 Nolls.jpg
China has a tradition of harnessing hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of workers to build huge projects. The Great Wall and the Great Canal both required a million workers to complete. Over two million laborers were put to work building the eastern capital of the Sui Dynasty and the imperial palace of Emperor Yang (A.D. 604-617).

China still relies as much on muscle and sweat as machinery to complete its big jobs. In big cities canals and building foundations are sometimes dug, not with bulldozers and earth movers, but by hand by men and women with buckets and poles balanced over their shoulders. On the Yangtze River, coal is delivered to barges by human chains of laborers with dirty coal piled high on their shoulders and boats are pulled upstream and boulders are pulled uphill by workers harnessed to them by chains.

The Chinese sometimes achieve near-miraculous results by mobilizing massive labor forces. A thirty mile stretch of road, for example, had to be widened through rough mountainous terrain, between Chengdu and Guanxian. In the United States a similar project would have taken years. In China, with the help of 200,000 laborers, it was completed in a week. In Xinjiang, a sandstorm once buried 350 miles of train track. Again with the help of thousands of laborers” and soldiers” it took only two days to clear it.

The Chengdu-Kunming railway, which has 427 tunnels and 653 bridges, was built in 12 years by soldiers and prisoners who could be shot for sloughing off on the job. Entire graveyards set alongside the track are filled with men who died while constructing it. The steel rails were laid at rate of one very 30 to 90 minutes per rail by two man teams who cut he rail with a hack saw, and cooled the metal by dripping water from a bucket.

One old Chinese man who helped hundreds of thousands of workers build a dam told Theroux that he cried when the project was finished because, "We had done it all ourselves, with our hands. Like picking the tea. That was why we cried."

Large Infrastructure Projects in China

Chinese planners love big projects such as the Three Gorges dam and the South-North Water Transfer projects that involve the spending of billions of dollars. Environmentalist say the interests of the country could be better served with cheap, less ambitious projects. and more conservation and better planing. Eight of China’s top nine leaders are engineers.

The July 2011celebrations for the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party coincided with the unveiling of three mega-projects: 1) the world's longest sea bridge, which spans the 16 miles (26km) from Qingdao to Huangdao; 2) the world's longest gas pipeline, which stretches 5,400 miles (8,700km) from Xingjiang to Guangzhou; and 3) a new high-speed railway, which cuts the travelling time between Beijing and Shanghai to less than five hours. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian July 1, 2011]

Large infrastructure and construction projects have turned China into the world’s largest importer of heavy construction equipment such as earth movers, crawler excavators (long-armed shovels used in digging) and wheel-loaders (bulldozers that have a bucket in front for heavy lifting).

Astonishing Pace of Chinese Infrastructure Construction

Many projects are built in a very short period of time. In Caofedian, an isolated sand pit was converted into China’s main iron ore port, capable of unloading 38 tons of ore every second, in less than 19 months. Not long ago some large cities had a single escalator in the whole city and the Chinese who used it concentrated very carefully before stepping onto it.

Some foreigners marvel at the way new roads and development go up with lighting speed and a minimum of bureaucratic fuss. One Fortune 500 executive told Time, “They build where they want, when they want. And they move fast.” What is less obvious is the social cost of ordinary people in term of lost land and environmental problems as these projects are rammed down the throats of citizens with little they can do to stop them.

Elaine Kurtenbach of AP wrote in October 2010, “China rolled out its fastest train yet on and announced that the Three Gorges Dam, the world's biggest hydroelectric project, is now generating electricity at maximum capacity — engineering triumphs that signal the nation's growing ambitions as its economy booms. The successes demonstrate how, after decades of acquiring technology from the west, Beijing has begun to push the limits of its new capabilities, setting the bar higher on mega-projects as it seeks to promote the image of a powerful, modern China. But many of these initiatives have come at great human and environmental cost, and some have questioned whether the country fosters a sufficiently innovative spirit to compete on the next level.” [Source: Elaine Kurtenbach, AP, October 26 2010]

“Still in the works: more nuclear power plants, a gargantuan project to pump river water from the fertile south to the arid north, and a $32.5 billion, 820-mile (1,300-kilometer) Beijing-to-Shanghai high-speed railway that is scheduled to open in 2012. Chinese companies are also vying for projects overseas, including in the U.S., which leads the world in freight railway technology but has almost no high-speed rail expertise. That's a mark of how well and quickly the technology has been adopted by Chinese companies, who have traditionally only been able to compete on price in bidding for railway and other basic infrastructure projects in the developing world.”

“Average economic growth rates of more than 9 percent per year over the past two decades have laid the foundation for rapid progress in a growing number of fields, including launching three manned space flights since 2003 and building a railway across the Tibetan plateau from Beijing to Lhasa. The 2008 Beijing Olympics and this year's mammoth Shanghai World Expo have demonstrated a growing managerial sophistication as well as ability to build infrastructure on an enormous scale. But while the tremendous growth has enabled China to build big, some wonder if it can build smart — and become a source of true innovation.”

“Science and technology research in the country tends to be heavily topdown, laden with a stifling government bureaucracy. Many of China's best scholars and scientists depart for greener pastures abroad, while other top minds are pushed into administrative roles, leaving them little time for research. Although China holds the patents on the technology, design and equipment used by the CRH380 train, some in the industry question the degree to which China is justified in claiming the latest technology as its own.” "Everybody knows that a lot of the core technology is European," Michael Clausecker, director general of Unife, the Association of the European Rail Industry, said in a recent interview.

Over the past decade China has vastly improved its infrastructure with new highways, ports, airports and rail lines. In Shanghai alone, there is a new airport and port, new subways, inner and outer ring roads and elevated freeways.

China probably does a better job of executing big infrastructure than almost any other country, anytime, anywhere, JohnScales, in charge of transport issues for the World Bank’s Beijing office, told the New York Times. Things like environmental impact statements and public hearings on controversial projects are easily avoided if the political will to do so is there.

On the ability of the Chinese to move quickly on projects once the government throws their weight behind them, an official involved with the Shenyang Metro told Reuters, “You solicit views, you apply for approval and then you just do it. London needed more than a hundred years to build up its metro, but we’ll need less than half that in China.”

Yangpu Bridge in Shanghai

Trillion Dollar Stimulus Packages and Infrastructure in China

The Global Economic Crisis in 2008-2009 that occurred after the Lehman Brother’s collapse was boon for China’s infrastructure. It created an excuse to spend on lot of money on infrastructure improvements to stimulate the economy. In early November 2008, China announced a 4 trillion yuan ($586 billion) stimulus package worth 13 percent of GDP, over two years. The money was spent mostly on infrastructure and social welfare, particularly on railways, highways, low-cost housing, and rural infrastructure, and given to banks to provided low interest loans for home and car buyers and companies in need of financing. The total value of the stimulus was put at $1.8 trillion, 38 percent of GDP, by some economists. About $1.2 trillion of it was in the form of soft, subsidized loans. Reconstruction in areas hit by the Sichuan earthquake was a major feature of the stimulus plan. By some estimates it was took up a forth of the stimulus package.

The stimulus measures were implemented very quickly and in very concentrated manner thanks to the all encompassing power of the Communist Party. Many of the projects such as railways and highways were already going and just needed more money funneled into them. After the $575 billion economic stimulus package was approved in early 2009, China built and expanded 35 airports, opened 557 kilometers of railways, including the world’s fastest high-speed train, paved 98,000 kilometers of highway and picked up the pace on subway projects from Shenyang in the north to Guangzhou in the south — all within a year. A lot of stuff was built in the years that followed, most notably the high-speed rail lines.

In September 2012, China has approved a massive infrastructure package worth more than 1.0 trillion yuan ($158 billion) as the government sought to boost the flagging economy. “The top economic planner, the National Development and Reform Commission, approved of 55 infrastructure projects ranging from subway lines to highways, reports said. AFP reported: “The China Securities Journal said the 1.0 trillion yuan figure was a "conservative estimate" for spending on projects announced. “The government needed to open more funding channels for infrastructure, including allowing banks to relax controls on credit for projects, the newspaper said. The official Xinhua news agency described the package of projects as a "stimulus plan" though the government did not use that term when announcing the approvals. The commission announced it had approved 25 new urban railway projects, in what analysts said was a sign the government is ramping up government spending to boost the country's weak economy. It said the projects, including subways and light railways in 18 cities across China, were valued at more than 800 billion yuan. Then the commission unveiled another 30 infrastructure works — including 13 highway projects, 10 waste treatment projects and seven port or waterway projects — but gave no value. [Source: AFP, September 7, 2012]

In 2015, China fast tracked 300 infrastructure projects valued at $1.1 trillion to boost growth that was in danger of slipping below 7 percent. Bloomberg reported: the Chinese “government approved the projects as part of a broader 400-venture, 10 trillion yuan plan to run from late 2014 through 2016. The approvals contrast with past moves to boost growth via infrastructure in which the government gave the green-light to projects individually. They are part of efforts to respond to weak output, according people familiar with the measure. The projects were funded by the central and local governments, state-owned firms, loans and the private sector, said the people. The investment was in seven industries including oil and gas pipelines, health, clean energy, transportation and mining, according to the people. They said the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) is also studying projects in other industries in case the government needs to provide more support for growth.[Source: Bloomberg News January 6, 2015]

The Economic Observer newspaper reported on its website that an official from the NDRC’s Zhejiang provincial bureau said the government had approved more than 420 infrastructure projects needing investment of more than 10 trillion yuan, without specifying a timeframe. Rail investments may exceed 1.1 trillion yuan this year as investments in the previous four years lagged behind the five-year plan for 2011-2015, Han Siyi, an analyst at Shenyin & Wanguo Securities, said

“China has sought ways to stimulate growth without resorting to full-blown stimulus as it seeks to keep a lid on total debt that is now more than 200 percent of gross domestic product. “It’s not 2008 again,” Zhao Xijun, a finance professor with Renmin University of China in Beijing, said in reference to a 4 trillion yuan stimulus China unleashed at that time. “When China launched the big stimulus package in 2008 to deal with the global financial crisis, China wanted nothing but faster growth; now China is focusing more on quality, efficiency and sustainability.”

Problems with China’s Infrastructure Projects

Big infrastructure projects have been at the heart of China’s development schemes ever since the Communists came to power and even before that as evidenced by the Great Wall of China and the Grand Canal. But some are beginning to argue that China has reached a tipping point, where the costs of the projects outweighs their benefits. Chinese environmental Ma Jun told the Washington Post, “We shouldn’t celebrate [big projects] as a triumph over nature. We should humbly think about how we got cornered into such a situation.”

China has built its share of wasteful little-utilized infrastructure projects that hardy justify the money that was spent on them, Foremost among these are airports that were built in remote places to promote tourism that never materialized. The airport in Libo, a small city of 166,000 in a beautiful mountainous region of poor Guizhou Province in southern China, cost $57 million and has 50 full time workers but only two flights a week. The airport was built to provide access to a forest reserve with spectacular canyons that was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

Another grandiose project that at first glance appears like a bridge to nowhere is the 2.25-kilometer-long, $216-million suspension bridge that hangs 400 meters over the Baling River deep in rural Guizhou Province . As out of place as this bridge seems it supplies the much needed function of speeding up traffic on a major highway that connect Guizhou capital Guiyang to the rest of China.

Siphoning off money is reportedly a common practice. It is not unusual for a construction firm to win a contract to build a major project like a tunnel or bridge and then subcontract the work to an unqualified firm, taking a huge profit without lifting a shovel or laying a beam.

Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist, and possibly his take on development
Can you find him?

Bridges in China

Four of the six longest bridges in the world are in China. The longest bridge in the world— the Danyang-Kunshan Grand Bridge —is a viaduct completed in 2010 for high-speed rail. It is 164.8 kilometers (102 miles) in length. The Tianjin Grand Bridge is the fourth longest (120kilometers, 71-miles. It is also a viaduct completed in 2010 for high-speed rail. The Cangde Grand Bridge is the fifth longest. Built for the Beijing–Shanghai High-Speed Railway it is a 115.9-kilometers viaduct. The Weinan Weihe Grand Bridge — the sixth longest — is a 80-kilometers -long rail bridge. The Changhua–Kaohsiung Viaduct for Taiwan High Speed Rail is the world’s second longest bridge at 157.3 kilometers. The Kita-Yaita Viaduct for Tohoku Shinkansen in Japan is the third longest at 114.4 kilometers The seventh longest is the Bang Na Expressway — 54-kilometer -long road bridge in Thailand.

In the late 1980s, China had more than 140,000 highway bridges. Their length totaled almost 4,000 kilometers. Among the best known were the Huang He (Yellow River) Bridge in Nei Monggol Autonomous Region (Inner Mongolia), the Liu Jiang Bridge in Guangxi-Zhuang Autonomous Region, the Ou Jiang Bridge in Zhejiang Province, the Quanzhou Bridge in Fujian Province, and four large bridges along the Guangzhou-Shenzhen highway. Five major bridges--including China's longest highway bridge, the 5,560-meter-long Huang He Bridge at Zhengzhou--were under construction during the mid-1980s, and a 10,282-meter-long railroad bridge across the Huang He on the Shandong-Henan border was completed in 1985. [Source: Library of Congress, 1987]

The longest cable-stayed bridge, the $846 million Sutong Bridge, opened in the mid 2000s. Spanning the Yangtze River 300 kilometers upstream from Shanghai, it is 1,088 meters long. The world’s 10 longest suspension bridged (length and year completed as of 2007): 1) Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, Japan (1991 meters, 6,529 feet, 1998); 2) Great Belt Bridge, Denmark (1,624 meters, 5,328 feet, 1998); 3) Runyang Bridge, China (1,490 meters, 4,888 feet, 2005); 4) Humber Bridge, Britain (1,410 meters, 4,626 feet, 1981); 5) Jiangyin Bridge, China (1,385 meters, 4,543 feet, 1999); 6) Tsing Ma Bridge, Hong Kong (1,377 meters, 4,518 feet, 1997); 7) Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, New York (1,298 meters, 4,260 feet, 1964); 8) Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco (1,280 meters, 4,200 feet, 1937); 9) Hogakustenbron, Sweden (1,210 meters, 3,970 feet, 1997); 10) Mackinac Bridge. Michigan (1,158 meters, 3,800 feet, 1957).

In December 2008, the first road tunnel opened under the Yangtze River. Connecting the government district and business district of the city of Wuhan, the four-lane, 3½ -kilometer-long tunnel took four years to build and cost $250 million. The tunnel is expect to cut travel time between the busy districts in Wuhan from a half hour to a few minutes.

Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge: the World's Longest Sea Bridge

The Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge and Tunnel — linking Hong Kong Island to mainland China via Macau — opened in 2018, years after it was supposed to. Stretching more than 55 kilometers (34 miles), Y-shaped series of bridges and undersea tunnels links Hong Kong and the gambling center of Macau with Zhuhai, a city on the southern coast of Guangdong province in mainland China located in the Pearl River Delta.

The sixth longest bridge in the world and world’s longest sea bridge, it now links Hong Kong’s New Territories, Lantau Island and Hong Kong International Airport with Macau to the west and its and sister city Zhuhai, which sits just over the border in mainland China. The Pearl River Delta is a huge area and spanning it and the open water around it is an unparalleled engineering feat. [Source: Megan Eaves, Lonely Planet, October 23, 2018]

Due for completion in 2016, the bridge was designed to withstand tropical typhoons with winds up to 125mph, with almost 22 miles of its length crossing the open sea. The project has been criticized as unnecessarily expensive, but officials said it was expected to create economic benefits of more than $5.5 billion during its first 20 years. A six-lane expressway links Hong Kong to Macau and the Pearl River Delta city of Zhuhai, cutting current road and ferry journey times from four-and-a-half hours to just 40 minutes. According to projections more than 200 million vehicles a year will be using the bridge by 2020, carrying 170-220 million tons of freight.

The plan has faced objections from environmental groups, including the World Wide Fund for Nature, who say that it will further diminish the Delta's already battered marine ecosystems, imperilling endangered species including the crested kingfisher, mangrove water snake and rough-skinned floating frog. Of particular concern is the effect on the Chinese white dolphin whose breeding patterns could be disturbed by the noise of the construction and dredging needed to sink the bridge's massive piles into the seabed. Officials, however, have pledged to protect ocean ecology and fishery resources. “We will control the construction noises and turbidity of seawater, and prevent oil pollution,” Zhu Yongling, an official in charge of construction, told China's state-run Xinhua news agency. [Source: Peter Foster, The Telegraph, December 15, 2009]

Other Really Long Sea Bridges in China

Hangzhou Bay Bridge (connecting Shanghai with Ningbo) was the world's longest sea-crossing bridge. Opened in May 2008, just before the Olympics, it stretches 36 kilometers across Hangzhou Bay and was built at a cost US$1.7 billion, most of which was covered by the Ningpo government which has mapped out a new industrial zine immediately to the east of the bridge. The longest bridge in the world is the 38.4-kilometer-long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway outside New Orleans.

The new bridge has has reduced the travel distance and time between Shanghai and Ningpo from 300 kilometers and four hours to 120 kilometers and 2 ½ hours. The bridge has a six-lane roadway that permit vehicles to travel at speed up to 100kph. To help drivers combat monotony, every five kilometers the color of the railings change. Construction of the S-shaped Hangzhou Bay Bridge began in June 2003 and is seen as key to moving goods between two of China's most important ports — Ningpo and Shanghai — and developing the Yangtze Delta area. The entire project also includes the construction of a large container port.

In 2010, China has unveiled what was then the world’s longest sea bridge — Qingdao Haiwan Bridge between Qingdao and Huangdao district in Shandong province. Straddling Jiaozhou Bay sea, the bridge stretches 42.6 kilometers (26.4 miles) — longer than a marathon and eight kilometers further than the distance between Dover and Calais across the English Channel. [Source: BBC, June 30 2011; Oliver Pickup, Daily Mail, December 31, 2010]

According to the BBC and the Daily Mail: The road bridge took four years and cost a cool $8 billion to build. At the time it opened it was almost five kilometers longer than the previous record-holder, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in Louisiana (That structure features two bridges running side by side and is 38.42 kilometers (23.0 miles long) The three-way Qingdao Haiwan Bridge cuts 30 kilometers 19 miles off the drive from Qingdao to Huangdao and reduces the travel time by about 20 minutes. Two separate groups of workers had been building the different ends of the structure since 2006. They were relieved when all the bridges connected properly. One engineer commented: “The computer models and calculations are all very well but you can't really relax until the two sides are bolted together. “Even a few centimeters out would have been a disaster.”

Lauren Hilgers wrote in Discover: “The Qingdao Haiwan Bridge in northeast China can handle 30,000 cars a day, but earlier this year the six-lane road was impassable: Too many motorists were stopping to pose for pictures. Gawker gridlock is commonplace at the world’s longest bridge over water, a 26.4-mile thoroughfare that outspans the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in Louisiana by more than two miles. (China is also home to the longest bridge system of all: the 102-mile Danyang-Kunshan Grand Bridge, which spans land and water.) The arced bridge, which opened in June, cost an estimated $2.3 billion and required enough steel to build seven Empire State Buildings. Ten thousand workers reportedly labored around the clock to finish the project in four years, starting on either side of Jiaozhou Bay and meeting in the middle. No word yet on when the bridge will host its first marathon. [Source: Lauren Hilgers, Discover, November, 2011]

World's Highest Bridge — in Guizhou

The Beipanjiang Bridge, in mountainous southwestern Guizhou Province, is the world’s highest bridge — at 565 meters (1,854 feet) above a river — overtaking the Si Du River Bridge in Hubei Province in central China, the previous record holder. The two ends of the bridge were linked in September 2016, with 1,341-metre span opening to traffic later that year, reducing road trips from Liupanshui in Guizhou to Xuanwei in neighbouring Yunnan province from around five hours to less than two. [Source: The Guardian, September 12, 2016]

The Guardian reported: “An aerial view shows workers completing the bridge that connects two provinces in Bijie. Several of the world’s highest bridges are in China, although the world’s tallest bridge – measured in terms of the height of its own structure, rather than the distance to the ground – remains France’s Millau viaduct at 343 meters tall.

“The announcement comes a week after authorities closed the world’s longest glass-bottomed bridge, also in China, after deciding it needed urgent maintenance. The bridge was opened to great fanfare 13 days earlier.

Tunnels Under Beijing

Underneath Beijing is a huge network of tunnels.. Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “In a nondescript neighborhood of Beijing near the Temple of Heaven, behind a seemingly normal doorway, two flights of stairs reveal a 62-mile complex of tunnels built in the 1970s as China braced for Soviet and U.S. attack. Many Chinese tourists ask us if Americans will bomb us in the future," guide Shao Cen said, standing next to a poster that read "American Invaders Will Fail" as water dripped from the flaking plaster overhead. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2006]

“Situated along the 8-foot-high tunnels are the remains of hospitals, reading and conference rooms, warehouses and arsenals, part of a network that once linked Beijing's airport, Tiananmen Square and the government ministries. "The success of the Chinese government's propaganda campaign turned us all into Spartan soldiers eager for war so we could become communist heroes," said Ni Lexiong, a military analyst with the Shanghai Institute of Politics and Law who helped build an underground network in that city. "I believe the North Koreans are feeling exactly the same today. Nor can I imagine them giving up on a war effort after a few setbacks. I believe their mind is determined and fixed."

“Guides sporting Chairman Mao pins and camouflage outfits over their designer shoes steer visitors through a small part of the maze deemed safe to navigate. In a sign of just how far China has drifted from the days of invasion obsession, however, a large underground military planning hall has been turned into a well-stocked silk and souvenir market. "Business is good," Shao said. "We give you very good price for the quality."

World's Longest Tunnel in Xinjiang

China is building the world’s longest tunnel — Kashuang tunnel — in Xinjiang. Consisting of the three mega tunnels, it is expected to stretch for 280 kilometers (174 miles), more than twice as long as the Delaware Aqueduct — the main water supply tunnel of New York City — which has held the record since 1945. The aim of the ambitious project is to bring snowmelt water from the Altai Mountains into the deserts of northern Xinjiang through deeply buried tunnels more than 500 kilometers (310 miles) long.[Source: South China Morning Post December 18, 2021]

According to the South China Morning Post: “The Xinjiang project aims to drain water from upstream regions of the Irtysh river, which originates in China from glaciers in the Altai Mountains and flows north into the Arctic Ocean through Kazakhstan and Russia. China's increasing use of Irtysh water has irked its two neighbouring countries. However, according to a Beijing-based researcher studying the issue, the three countries have kept the dispute out of the public eye, focusing instead on some joint infrastructure projects under China's multi-nation Belt and Road Initiative. These include hydropower plants and irrigation infrastructure for the entire Irtysh river basin, home to about 15 million people across the three nations and with good potential for economic development.

“A tunnelling project usually involves one or two tunnel boring machines (TBMs). Also known as "moles", such machines represent one of the largest robotic devices in existence, with each costing tens of millions of US dollars. The rotating blades of the machines can cut through nearly all types of hard rock, with onboard sensors adjusting operations automatically. The Xinjiang water supply project had 20 moles working at different sites at the same time. Even in China, where large-scale infrastructure-building is the norm, such a fleet was a "rare sight to behold", one researcher said.

The project began in 2019. As of June 2021 nearly 60 per cent of tunnel works had been completed, according to the engineers. “However, unlike other major infrastructure projects in China, news on the Xinjiang tunnel has not appeared in any state media. Its route remains classified, and no official deadline has been announced.

“It remains unclear how much water the tunnel would drain out from the Irtysh river. But the second-largest river in Xinjiang could provide more than 11 billion cubic metres (2.9 trillion gallons) of snowmelt a year, according to official data. Going by average water consumption levels in China, this amount would meet the needs of more than 20 million people, or the entire population of Xinjiang.

World's Longest Tunnel Plagued by Too Much Desert Water

According to the South China Morning Post: Chinese workers building the world's longest tunnel have come up against an unexpected problem in one of the driest areas on Earth — gushing streams of water. "High groundwater levels have caused frequent water inrush accidents that seriously affected the construction schedule," said Deng Mingjiang, a professor with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, in a paper published in domestic peer-reviewed journal Tunnel Construction in November 2021. [Source: South China Morning Post December 18, 2021]

“From time to time,the tunnel boring machines (TBMs) run into an unusually rich groundwater source that bursts out so forcefully that it could fill a swimming pool in an hour. Every time the flooding alarm flashed red, the report said, workers would need to evacuate and the giant boring machine would be made to stop and pull back immediately or risk serious damage. A wet zone would mean the TBMs could only manage to advance 200 metres (660 feet) per month, or about half the normal pace in a dry region like Xinjiang.

The frequent flooding could cause serious delays.A 10 kilometer tunnel for India's northern Dul Hasti hydropower station, for instance, took 12 years to build - in part because of gushing water, according to Deng. Not only are geological conditions in Xinjiang's deserts extremely complex, nearly half the estimates arrived at via geological surveys in the route-planning stage turned out to be wrong, according to the paper. But the engineers came up with some new methods to deal with the unprecedented challenge.

“Traditional ground penetrating radars can detect the presence of water in advance, but they work only when the tunnel boring machines stop. Deng's team and their collaborators have developed a new type of seismic detector that can be mounted on the TBM itself and uses vibrations to detect water and other impediments behind the rocks. So the tunnelling team was usually prepared when a leak occurred, activating a pump to drain the water out of the tunnel, after which another team would seal the leak. But the mole could not move forward at all until the engineers had identified the precise source and volume of the water and found a way to divert the flow away from the tunnel, the paper from Deng and his team said.

Image Sources: Nolls China website ; Columbia University; Beifan com; Shanghai government; China Daily and Environmental News ; Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist, Global Times Chinese:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.