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The infrastructure in large Chinese cities is like that found in developed countries but the infrastructure found in rural area more closely resembles that found in Third World countries. 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.

In July 2011, political celebrations for the 90s anniversary 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]

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.

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).

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 but. 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.

Good Websites and Sources: Global Security ; Late 1990s Report on Infrastructure Financing PDF file ; Bridges of China ; Hangzhou Bay Bridge : Hangzhou Bay Bridge official site Hangzhou Bay Bridge ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; China Page


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.

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

Huge Labor Intensive Projects in China

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."

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Making dikes on the Yellow River

Large Infrastructure Projects in China

See Dams, Trains, Roads, Water Projects

See Olympics

Astonishing Pace of Chinese Infrastructure Construction

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.” [Ibid]

“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.” [Ibid]

“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. [Ibid]

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

Infrastructure and the Global Economic Crisis in 2008-2009 in China

The global financial crisis 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.

After the economic stimulus packages 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.

Bridges and Tunnels in China

The Hangzhou Bay Bridge was the world’s longest sea bridge. Opened in June 2007, it stretches 36 kilometers across Hangzhou Bay and connects Shanghai with Ningbo. It cost $1.5 billion and has reduced the travel distance and time between Shanghai and Ningpo from 300 kilometers and four fours to 120 kilometers and 2 ½ hours. The bridge will be open to traffic in 2008, following the completion of a six-lane roadway that will permit vehicle to travel at speed up to 100kph. The longest bridge in the world is the 38.4-kilometer-long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway outside New Orleans.

Construction on a new S-shaped Hangzhou Bay Bridge began in June 2003. It is seen as key to moving goods between two of China’s most important ports---Ningpo and Shanghai---and developing the Yangtze Delta area. Ningpo lies in the heart of the industrial area of eastern Zhejiang Province. It is home to 5.3 million people and is quickly rising to the status of a first tier Chinese city. The entire project also includes the construction of a large container port.

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.

World’s Longest Sea Bridge in Qingdao

Oliver Pickup wrote in the Daily Mail, “China has unveiled the world’s longest sea bridge, which stretches a massive 26.4 miles (42.58 kilometers)---five miles further than the distance between Dover and Calais and longer than a marathon. The Qingdao Haiwan Bridge links the main urban area of Qingdao city, East China’s Shandong province, with Huangdao district, straddling the Jiaozhou Bay sea areas. [Source: Oliver Pickup, Daily Mail, December 31, 2010]

The road bridge, which took four years and cost a cool $8 billion to build, will be open for use in the New Year and is almost three miles longer than the previous record-holder, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in Louisiana (That structure features two bridges running side by side and is 23.87 miles, 38.42km, long) The three-way Qingdao Haiwan Bridge is a staggering 174 times longer than London’s Tower Bridge, over the Thames River  and shaves 19 miles off the drive from Qingdao to Huangdao, cutting the travel time by about 20 minutes.

Two separate groups of workers have 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.”

However, the colossal construction is set to hold the record as the longest sea bridge only for a few years  and it will be bettered by another Chinese bridge in the next decade. In December 2009 officials announced workers had begun constructing a bridge to link southern Guangdong province with Hong Kong and Macau. Set to be completed in 2016, officials say the $10 bridge will span nearly 50 kilometers (30 miles).

“Through a more convenient and fast transport network, Hong Kong's financial, tourism, trade and logistics and professional services can become better integrated with the Pearl River Delta and the surrounding areas,” said Donald Tsang, Hong Kong's Chief Executive. The bridge will be a six-lane expressway that can handle earthquakes up to magnitude 8.0, strong typhoons and the impact of a 300,000 tonne vessel, said Zhu Yongling, one of the officials leading the project.

Even when constructed that structure will be dwarfed by the longest bridge in the world, which is also in China. The DanyangKunshan Grand Bridge, also Chinese, is an astonishing 102 miles in length. The next two longest bridges are also in China: the Tianjin Grand Bridge (a 71-mile-long rail bridge) and the Weinan Weihe Grand Bridge (a 50-mile-long rail bridge). The forth---the Bang Na Expressway (a 34-mile-long road bridge)---is in Thailand.

Future World's Longest Bridge Under Construction Near Hong Kong

In December 2009, China began construction of the world's longest sea bridge as part of a $10 billion plan to rejuvenate the Pearl River Delta manufacturing area. The 31-mile-long bridge will link Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland and the gambling center of Macau in a giant Y-shape. [Source: Peter Foster, The Telegraph, December 15, 2009]

Due for completion in 2016, the bridge will be 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. [Ibid]

When completed, the six-lane expressway will link 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. [Ibid]

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. [Ibid]

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.

Collapsing Bridges and Bean Curd Construction in China

Corruption, poor planing and shoddy construction have plagued infrastructure projects. Former Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji referred to the problem as "bean curd projects." With the vast infusion of government money and waves of a national infrastructure building, the problem has gotten much worse.

Collapsing bridges, roads, dikes, buildings and dams are a serious problem in China. Dikes are filled with mud instead of concrete. Half finished skyscrapers lean dangerously to one side. Buildings lack proper foundations. Bridges are constructed with flawed designs. An estimated 33,000 dams and dikes need to be reinforced. Between 1949 and 1999. 3,200 dams failed

In Chongqing alone 1,600 people have died as a result of shoddy construction. Forty people died after falling 460 feet when the steel-and-concrete Rainbow Bridge over the Qijang River near Chongqing collapsed. An investigation uncovered faulty welding, $12,000 in bribes given to officials to overlook problems and allow project to exceed its budget. Some of the siphoned-off money was used to build a karaoke parlor with scantily clad girls. Less than a week later, another bridge collapsed in Fujian Province, killing seven people In both cases government officials were arrested on charges of corruption and using shoddy materials.

In June 2007, two officials were sentenced to jail for allowing a blind contractor to build a bridge that collapsed during construction and injured 12 people in the Bujia township in Jiangxi Province. Part of the court ruling stated that the two officials “were in charge of road management and supervision” and “did not ask the contractors to provide certificates guaranteeing their proficiency.”

See Man-Made Disasters

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Partially collapased bridge in Baotou

Poorly Built Roads and Bridges in China

The $52 million 1½-mile-long Zhaonoa Mountain bridge, built over the Yong River in Ningbo, was scheduled to open in October 1999. A month before its opening date the bridge started to shack and sway. Inspectors found large cracks caused by a design flaw due to underestimates of stress support in such a large structure. The bridge's debut was postponed and large sections of it had to be rebuilt.

In January, 1999, two bridges collapsed in different areas, killing 47 people and injuring more than 30 others. In Chongqing in Sichuan, a footbridge collapsed, killing 40 people. See Above.

Road construction can be very shoddy. Sections of the Third Ring Road in Beijing collapsed in 2006 and again in 2007. Once, 18 days after a new 43-mile-long, $43 million highway opened huge potholes opened up and sections of the road buckled. Rubbish was found inside a barrier supposed to be made of solid concrete. Investigations uncovered widespread corruption, the us of substandard cement and slipshod workmanship. Many roads are unfinished because of lack of funds.

In June 2004, a bridge connecting the cities of Panjin and Yingkous in the northeastern Province of Liaoning Province collapsed, sending vehicles plunging into the Liao River below

In June 2007, a section of the Jiujiang Bridge in Guangdong Province collapsed after not was struck by a sand-laden boat. The bridge was packed with cars and trucks.

Bridge Collapse in Fenghuang

In August 2007, a bridge under construction collapsed in the tourist town of Fenghuang in Hunan Province, killing 47 people, most of them construction workers who were removing scaffolding from the 268-meter-long, 42-meter-high bridge, which spans the Tuo River

An estimated 123 workers were at the site at the time of the accident. Eight-six were rescued. The bridge had four decorative stone arch and was scheduled to open a month later. It was built without steel reinforcement rods because builders wanted to use traditional stone-and-concrete methods. Authorities prevented journalists from investigating the accident, raising suspicions that officials might have allowed shoddy construction materials to be used.

One witness told AP, “I was riding a bike with my husband and we just passed underneath the bridge and were about 50 meters away when it collapsed. There was a huge amount of dust that came up and it didn’t clear for about 10 minutes. On the rescue effort one nearby residents said, “There were arms and legs were broken, only linked with skin.”

Infrastructure Safety Concerns in China

A train crash near Wenzhou in eastern China that killing 40 people and injuring 177 in July 2011 brought attention to safety concerns about China’s infrastructure. The train collision was one of several high-profile public transportation accidents in China around that time. A few days earlier 41 people were killed when an overloaded bus caught fire in central Henan Province. Earlier in July an escalator at a new subway station in Beijing collapsed, killing one person and injuring 28. The week before four bridges collapsed in various Chinese cities. [Source: Ian Johnson New York Times July 24, 2011]

Signaling the official concern over growing public unease, the government issued a directive a fews after the train crash calling for “intensified efforts in preventing major deadly accidents.” The discussion of accidents in China, however, is haphazard. In an unusually frank editorial in People’s Daily this month, a commentator said that many disasters were covered up but that the country needed “zero tolerance for concealing major accidents,” like a large oil spill that was hidden from the public for more than a month.

Fears that transparency and safety have become secondary to other concerns was present in many Weibo postings. One blogger in particular posted an eloquent appeal for more care and caution in China’s rapid development: “China, please stop your flying pace, wait for your people, wait for your soul, wait for your morality, wait for your conscience! Don’t let the train run out off track, don’t let the bridges collapse, don’t let the roads become traps, don’t let houses become ruins. Walk slowly, allowing every life to have freedom and dignity. No one should be left behind by our era.”

Four Bridges Collapse in China in a Single Week

Between July 11 and July 19 2011, four bridges crumpled in China. CNN reported, “A tour bus plunged from a collapsed bridge in China, leaving one person dead and 22 injured, the official news agency Xinhua reported, citing local authorities.The accident occurred about 8:50 a.m. in the Fujian province city of Wuyishan. The bus was carrying 23 people, a spokesman with the city's committee of the Communist Party of China told the news agency.Images from the scene showed the bus crumpled on the ground, below what looks like nearly a clean break in which half of the bridge broke away from the other half. It's not known what caused the bridge to collapse.

It was the second bridge to collapse that week caused by an overloaded vehicle. In Beijing a truck overloaded with sand caused a bridge to collapse, leaving a scene that looked like the aftermath of an earthquake. The vehicle, which was weighed down with 160 tons of sand, crushed the Baihe bridge in Beijing's Huairou district.The 230 metre structure can only support 55 tons and crumpled under the weight of the lorry as it tried to cross. Nobody has been reported injured but the driver was detained for questioning. The 230-meter bridge is said to have been one of the longest rigid frame bridges in the capital.

Afterwards engineers were assigned to check every one of the city’s 1,924 road bridge in the capital for faults and cracks. Transport authorities in Huairou were quick to deny speculation that the bridge, built in 1987, had shown cracks before the accident. Officials said the latest maintenance check in 2006 resulted in repairs being made to minor surface damage and a reinforcement of the structure.A new bridge with higher safety standards will be built in three months, the city transport bureau told Beijing News.

The truck driver, identified by authorities only as Zhang, is now in criminal detention and has been fined 50,000 yuan ($7,740). He may still face further punishment."Trucks that are overloaded are never allowed to enter the city. They have always been our top target," Jiang Jing, a Beijing traffic management official, told China Daily. Since overloaded trucks often travel on routes that avoid national roads, Jiang said they stand a better chance of evading inspection teams.

Villagers told Beijing News that the collapsed bridge is in a gray area when it comes to police checks. "There have been four or five of them (overloaded trucks) every hour at night these past two months. We did not see anyone interfering," said a nearby resident quoted by Beijing News.

Truck Goes off Bridge in Hangzhou, Avoiding Seven Meter Crack

Also in July 2011, a heavily-loaded truck fell off the No 3 Qiantang Bridge in Hangzhou Zhejiang Province as it swerved to avoid a seven meter crack in the road, caused a section of a bridge to collapse. Describing the scene at accident a few days later, Leo Lewis wrote in the Times of London, “All along the bridge are 10 centimeter scars where joints have slipped out of alignment and the shoddy concrete edges have eroded away. Finally, there is the 50-strong team of construction workers carrying-out the $9 million emergency repair work that the whole debacle has triggered. [Source: Leo Lewis, Times of London, September 3, 2011]

The truck, which was authorized to carry 34 tons, was carrying 100 tons of steel plates. The truck driver apparently swerved out of the way of a vehicle that had a tire stuck in the crack in the bridge. The truck then toppled over the side of the bridge as it collapsed. According to one report: The truck toppled over the side of the bridge but the driver managed to jump out before it crashed to the ground. He sustained a minor head injury but was released from hospital after treatment.

The builder of the bridge, the Hunan Road and Bridge Construction Group, has won a number of national engineering prizes. Lewis wrote: “The July accident was not the company's first: in 2007, two of its other bridges collapsed, one at the cost of 64 lives. But what is starting to worry both the Chinese authorities and the general public is that the trouble is not restricted to HRBC and its flawed creations: bridge collapses are starting to have the feel of a pandemic. On top of that the bridges that collapsed have many things in common with thousands of other bridges across the country.

Reasons Behind the Chinese Bridge Collapses

Leo Lewis wrote in the Times of London, “Behind the accidents, say analysts, are features of the Chinese economy that could eventually become its undoing: huge corruption, praise of construction speed over build quality, and the failure to realise the gnawing, long-term cost of both these issues. [Source: Leo Lewis, Times of London, September 3, 2011]

Explanations for the various bridge collapses tend to focus on the way in which the contracts to build them are distributed. Via virtually non-existent tender processes, local governments hand out projects to companies they themselves own. The work itself, however, is sub-contracted down an often bafflingly long chain of smaller companies, with bribes paid at each level and successive layers of cash creamed from each strata. By the time the first shovel of cement enters the mixer, the actual budget that remains allows for only the cheapest labour and often inferior materials.

In many cases, wrote Victor Shih, a professor of political science at Northwestern University in a recent article, the "parasitic" chain" of companies can involve several doing no work, but receiving a "rent" for their connections. Suggestions of corruption relating to the No 3 bridge are not new. Chinese media openly reported its failure to pass safety checks in 1997, with prominent engineers flatly refusing to have their names associated with any sign-off. A year later, a quality standard was granted, without any discernible changes being made to the bridge.

Looming over the whole scene is the increasingly troubling question of local government debt in China: economists are exercised about how far dangerously high levels of indebtedness have been masked, how many of the estimated 14.2 trillion yuan of loans to local government entities will turn bad even if the global economy limps back to health, and how the world's second-biggest economy will react if the brakes are suddenly applied to fixed-asset investment, accounting for about 70 percent of gross domestic product.The concern is that in the country's unprecedented spree of infrastructure construction and other spending local governments have already taken themselves close to the danger zone on debt: that line will inevitably be crossed if decades of shoddy work now require billions of yuan to put right.

And, unlike the money that can cheerfully be borrowed to finance projects such as bridges, stadiums, and high-speed rail lines in whose glorious light local party bosses can bask, raising the money to fix pre-existing venality and sloppiness holds zero appeal. The potentially colossal bill for repairing what China did not build right in the first place, say economists, could be the fault line on which the local debt problem starts to totter.

In many cases, that scenario is well under way. Last week, a report suggested that more than a quarter of Chinese cities are at risk of flooding because 40,000 reservoirs are nearing the end of their functional life. Repairs have been ordered, but banking sources are already warning that local governments could find themselves badly short of funding when it comes to financing the "boring" side of construction.

Officially documented corruption on China's cherished high-speed rail network has already been linked - at least in the public's mind - with the fatal crash in Wenzhou this northern summer. The entire network may be forced to make punishingly expensive repairs just to convince the public that the lines are safe. And, even then, many of the lines are unlikely ever to pay for themselves.

Teenager Killed in Beijing Escalator Accident

In July 2011, Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian, “A teenage boy has been killed and dozens of people were injured when they were thrown off an escalator that suddenly changed direction in a busy Beijing subway station. The accident happened on one of the capital's newest lines, prompting concerns that China's recent rush to build public transport networks may have led to declining safety standards. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, July 5, 2011]

The 13-year-old boy who died was on his way to Beijing zoo when the up escalator suddenly went into reverse, according to domestic media reports.Witnesses described a strange grinding noise from the shifting gears and then a tumult in which riders at the top of the escalator fell to the bottom in less than two seconds. The boy and the other riders were thrown down the metal stairs and into a heap at the bottom. Twenty-eight people were taken to hospital, including the dead boy's father and sister. Two were described as being in a serious condition.

The railway operator said an investigation was under way into the cause of the breakdown at Beijing zoo station. The government has ordered checks on elevators at other stations. Line 4, on which the station where the accident occurred is located, is one of the most modern. Completed in 2009, it connects the university district to the south of the city. Commuters were horrified at the safety failure. "This is unbelievable. This is the most basic thing and they can't even do it well. I am very disappointed by Beijing's public transportation system," said Olivia Li, a student at Renmin University who often takes Line 4.

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 November 2011

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