20080313-highway from suchuan to Tibet u wash.jpg
Highway from Sichuan to Tibet
total: 45.2 million kilometers (2020), No. 1 in the world
paved: 4.578 million kilometers (2020) (includes 168,000 kilometers of expressways)
unpaved: 622,000 kilometers (2017). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2022]

Motor roads increased from about 400,000 kilometers (249,000 miles) in 1958 to 550,000 kilometers (342,000 miles) in 1964 and to 1,809,829 kilometers (1,125,714 miles) in 2003. In 2003 a bout 1,447,682 kilometers (900,458 miles) were paved, including at least 29,745 kilometers (18,501 miles) of expressways. In 2005, China had 1,870,661 kilometers of road. Of this 1,515,797 kilometers are paved, with at least 34,288 kilometers of expressways. The highway network increased from 3,700 kilometers (2,300 miles) in the early 1990s to 18,990 kilometers (11,800 miles) in the early 2000s. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Roads between the major cities are generally two-lane roads. Multiple-lane, American-style highways are still a new idea in China but more and more of them are being built all the time. The Chinese expressway network doubled between 2001 and 2005. Some of the new modern highways are immaculate and well designed with four lanes, attractive guard rails, well-maintained medians with plants and hedges and sloping embankments beyond the guardrails, with a buffer area, often lined with poplars separating the road from the countryside. It is not usual to find a dotted line on a map is a brand new highway on the ground.

According to the Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies: The network of all-weather roads and highways is not a unified national system with consistent standards; the conditions of many of the roads are poor. Despite its shortcomings, the road network is probably adequate to meet the country's current needs. [Source: Robert Guang Tian and Camilla Hong Wang, Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies, Gale Group Inc., 2002]

In 2005 approximately 1.47 million kilometers of China’s total road network of more than 3.3 million kilometers were classified as “village roads.” Paved roads totaled 770,265 kilometers in 2004; the remainder were gravel, improved earth standard, or merely earth tracks. Highways (totaling 130,000 kilometers) were critical to China’s economic growth as it worked to mitigate a poor distribution network and authorities sought to spur economic activity directly. All major cities are expected to be linked with a 55,000-kilometer interprovince expressway system by 2020. [Source: Library of Congress, 2008]

Websites and Sources on Automobiles in China : China Car Forum Automaker List ; Wikipedia article on China National Highways Wikipedia ; Map of China’s Highways ; Driving and Owning a Car: Expat Blog Report on Driving in China ; Driving in China Report ; Wikitravel Article Wikitravel; Karakoram Highway in China: Wikipedia article Wikipedia Joho the Map John the Map ; Photos Karakorum Highway Blog

Roads in China in the 1970s and 1980s

In 1986 China had approximately 962,800 kilometers of highways, 52,000 kilometers of which were completed between 1980 and 1985. During this period China also rebuilt 22,000 kilometers of highways in cities and rural areas. Nearly 110,000 kilometers of roads were designated part of a network of national highways, including roads linking provincial-level capitals with Beijing and China's major ports. [Source: Library of Congress, 1987 *]

Major roads completed in the 1970s included the 2,413 kilometers (1,499 miles) Sichuan-Tibet Highway, the 2,100 kilometers (1,305 miles) Qinghai-Tibet Highway, and the 1,455 kilometers (904 miles) Xinjiang-Tibet Highway. Between 1981 and 1985, 50,000 kilometers (31,000 miles) of highways and more than 15,000 bridges were built. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

In the 1980s National highways linked provincial-level capitals with Beijing and major ports. Roads were built between large, medium, and small towns as well as between towns and railroad connections. Provincial-level and local governments were responsible for their own transportation and road construction, some with foreign expertise and financing to hasten the process. Most financing and maintenance funds came from the provincial level, supplemented in the case of rural roads by local labor. In line with the increased emphasis on developing light industry and decentralizing agriculture, roads were built in large, medium-sized, and small towns and to railroad connections, making it possible for products to move rapidly between cities and across provincial-level boundaries. In 1986 approximately 780,000 kilometers of the roads, or 81 percent, were surfaced. The remaining 19 percent (fairweather roads) were in poor condition, hardly passable on rainy days. Only 20 percent of the roads were paved with asphalt; about 80 percent had gravel surfaces. In addition, 60 percent of the major highways needed repair.*

Ownership and control of the different elements of the transportation system varied according to their roles and their importance in the national economy. Highways and inland waterways were the responsibilities of the Ministry of Communications. Trucking and inland navigation were handled by government-operated transportation departments as well as by private enterprises.*

Transportation was designated a top priority in the Seventh Five-Year Plan (1986-90). It Priority also was given to highway construction. China planned to build new highways and rebuild existing highways to a total length of 140,000 kilometers. At the end of the Seventh Five-Year Plan, the total length of highways was to be increased to 1 million kilometers from the existing 940,000 kilometers.

New Roads and Highways in China

20111102-Wikicommons Huitengxile.jpg
a road in Inner Mongolia
A huge program to build multiple-lane highways throughout China was launched in the 1990s. The first section — a 12-mile stretch of expressway in a Shanghai suburb — was completed in 1998. By the mid 2000s, 20,000 miles had been built nationwide. In 2000, China boasted about 7,450 miles of expressways. A decade later it had 40,400 miles, and plans to leapfrog the United States by 2020.

Considerably more money is being poured into building a highway system for cars than developing public transportation. In 2005, the government announced it was going to spend $250 billion over 30 years ro build 53,000 miles of intercity highways and urban ring roads. The system is expected to exceed the American Interstate system, the world’s largest highway system with 46,000 miles of roads, by around 2020.

As of 2004, there were than 15,000 highway projects underway in China. Some of the new roads, especially in the western part of China, are nearly empty. The plan is create road infrastructure first, and development, settlers and industries will follow. Chinese expressways finished in 2008 circled the earth 1.5 times. Many of the newly installed traffic lights have meters that indicate how many seconds are left before the light changes. In recent years, more traffic lights and bus lanes have been added to reduce traffic jams and cut the rate of automobile accidents.

Roads in 19th Century China

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “No more typical example could be selected of the neglect of public affairs by the government, and the absence of public spirit among the people, than the condition of Chinese roads. There are abundant evidences in various part of the Empire, that there once existed great imperial highways connecting many of the most important cities, and that these highways were paved with, stone and bordered with trees. The ruins of such roads are found not only in the neighbourhood of Peking, but in such remote regions as Hunan and Szechuen. Vast sums must have been expended on their construction, and it would -have been comparatively easy to keep them in repair, but this has been uniformly neglected, so that the ruins of such highways present serious impediments to travel, and the tracks have been abandoned from sheer necessity. It has been supposed that this decay of the great lines of traffic took place during the long period of disturbances before the close of the Ming dynasty, and at the beginning of the present Manchu line, but making all due allowance for political convulsions, two hundred and fifty years is surely a period sufficiently long in which to restore the arteries of the Empire. No such restoration has either taken place or been attempted, and the consequence is the state of things with which we are but too familiar. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“The attitude of the government is handsomely matched by that of the people, who. each and all are in the position of one who has no care nor responsibility for what is done with the public property, so long as he personally is not the loser. In fact the very conception that the roads, Of that anything, belong to ' f the public" is totally . alien to the Chinese mind. The " streams and mountains" (that is the Empire) are supposed to be the property in fee simple of the Emperor for the time, to, have and to hold as long as he can. The roads are his too, and if anything is to be done to them, let him da it. But the greater part of the roads do not belong to the Emperor, in any other sense than,that in which the farms of the peasants belong to him, for these roads are merely narrow strips offarms devoted to the use of those who wish to use them, not with the consent of the owner of the land, for that was never asked, but from the force of necessity. The entire road belongs to some farm, and pays taxes like any other land, albeit the Owner derives no more advantage from its use than does anyone else. Under these circumstances, it is evidently the interest of the farmer to restrict the roads as much as he can, which he does by an extended system of ditches and banks designed to make it difficult for any one to traverse any other than the narrow strip of land which is indispensable for communication. If the heavy summer rains wash away a part of the farm into the road, the farmer goes to the road and digs his land out again, a process which, combined with natural drainage and the incessant dust-storms, results' eventually in making the road a canal. Of what we mean by " right of way" no Chinese has the smallest conception.

“A man who wishes to load or to Unload his cart, leaves it in the middle of the roadway, while the process is going on, and whoever wishes to use the road, must wait until the process is completed. If a farmer has occasion to fell a tree he allows it to fall across the road, and travellers can tarry until the trunk is chopped up and removed.

“On one of the wain lines of travel in a populous province of China, there is a sp"ot which the traveller whose journey follows too soon after the rams, will have difficulty in passing. On one side of the highway stand an ancient temple to the God of War, and upon the opposite side is the ruin of one of the mediaeval watch-towers which at short distances once lined the principal routes of travel. Between these two structures lies an utterly impassible morass. Significant conjunction! In the distance is seen the spider-line of the telegraph wire, which will render forever obsolete the watch-tower, and the God of War as well. Happy would it be for China, if the slender wires which now link together the widely sundered parts of the Empire, might be a visible symbol of a newly created public spirit, which, should animate the body politic, giving it a life and a vigour now unknown.

A detachment of Chinese troops engaged in artillery practice has been known to train their cannon directly across one of the leading highways of the Empire, to the great interruption of traffic and to the terror of the animals attached to carts, the result being a serious runaway accident.

Village Roads in 19th Century China

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: Each road in the Chinese countryside “is simply a forced contribution on the part of the owner of the land to the general welfare. It is so much soil on which he is compelled to pay taxes, and from which he gets no more good than any one else. Each land-owner will, therefore, throw the road on the edge of his land, so that he may not be obliged to furnish more than half the way. But as the pieces of land which he happens to own may be, and generally are, of miscellaneous lengths, the road will wind around so as to accommodate the prejudices of the owner in this particular, which explains the fact that in travelling on village roads it is often necessary to go a great distance to reach a place not far off. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“An ordinary road is only wide enough for one vehicle, but as it is often necessary for carts to pass one another, this can only be done by trespassing on the crops. To prevent this the farmer digs deep ditches along his land, resembling gas-mains. Each farmer struggles to protect his own land, but when he drives his own cart, he too becomes a “trespasser”; thus a state of chronic and immitigable warfare is established, for which there is absolutely no remedy. The Occidental plan of setting apart a strip of land of uniform width, free from taxes and owned by the state, the grade of which shall be definite, is utterly beyond the comprehension of any Chinese. Where land is valuable and is all private property, road repairs are out of the question. There is no earth to repair with, and without repair, the roads soon reach a condition beyond the possibility of any repairs. Constant travel compresses and hardens the soil, making it lower than the adjacent fields; perpetual attrition grinds the earth into banks, which by heavy gales are blown in the form of thick dust on the fields.

“In the rainy season the fields are drained into the road, which at such times is constantly under water. A slight change of level allows the water to escape into some still lower road, and thus a current is set up, which becomes first a brook, and then a rushing torrent, constantly wearing out its bed. This process repeated for decades and for centuries turns the road into a canal, several feet below the level of the fields. It is a proverb that a road 1, 000 years old becomes a river, just as a daughter-in-law of many years’ standing gradually “summers into a mother-in-law.”

“By the time the road has sunk to the level of a few feet below the adjacent land, it is liable to be wholly useless as a thoroughfare. It is a canal, but it can neither be navigated nor crossed. Intercourse between contiguous villages lying along a common “highway, ” is often for weeks together entirely interrupted. The water drained from the land often carries with it large areas of valuable soil, leaving in its place a yawning chasm. When the water subsides, the owner of the land sallies out to see what has become of this section of his farm. It has been dissolved in the canal, but if the owner cannot find that particular earth he can find other earth just as good. Wherever the light soil called loam, or “loess, ” is found, it splits with a vertical cleavage, leaving high banks on each side of a rent in the earth. To repair these, the owner takes the soil which he needs from a pit excavated by the side of the road, or more probably from the road itself, which may thus in a single season be lowered a foot or more in depth. All of it is his land, and why should he not take it? If the public wish to use a road, and do not find this one satisfactory, then let the public go somewhere else.

“If a road becomes so bad as to necessitate its abandonment, a new one must be opened, or some old one adapted to the altered circumstances. The latter is almost sure to be the alternative; for who is willing to surrender a part of his scanty farm, to accommodate so impersonal a being as the public? In case of floods, either from heavy rains or a break in some stream, the only feasible method is thought to be to sit still and await the gradual retirement of the water. A raised road through the inundated district, which could be used at all seasons, is a triple impossibility. The persons whose land must be disturbed would not suffer it, no one would lift a finger to do the work — except those who happened to own land along the line of the route — and no one, no matter where he lived, would furnish any of the materials which would be necessary to render the road permanent.

“An illustration of this state of things is found in a small village in central Chih-li, where lives an elderly lady, in good circumstances, a part of whose land is annually subject to flood from the drainage of the surrounding region. The evil was so serious that it was frequently impossible to haul the crops home on carts, but they had either to be brought on the backs of men wading, or, if there were water enough, toilfully dragged along on stalk rafts. To this comparatively enlightened woman occurred the idea of having her men and teams dig trenches along the roadside, raise the road to a level above possible flooding, and thus remedy the trouble permanently. This she did wholly at her own expense, the emerging road being a benefit to the whole country-side. The following winter, during which the contagious influenza was world-prevalent, there were several cases in the village terminating fatally. After five or six persons had died, the villagers became excited to discover the latent cause of the calamity, which was traced to the new highway. Had another death occurred they would have assembled with spades and reduced it to its previous level, thus raising a radical barrier against the grippe!

“The great lines of Chinese travel might be made permanently passable, instead of being, as now, interrupted several months of the year, if the Governor of a Province chose to compel the several District Magistrates along the line to see that these important arteries are kept free from standing water, with ditches in good order at all seasons. But for the village road there is absolutely no hope until such time as the Chinese villager may come dimly to the apprehension that what is for the advantage of one is for the advantage of all, and that wise expenditure is the truest economy — an idea of which at present he has as little conception as of the binomial theorem.

Funding of Road Infrastructure in China

Funding for road construction and maintenance in China derives from a combination of government and commercial sources. Only a small share of funding has been provided by central government budgetary revenue. A 10 percent vehicle purchase tax is collected on the purchase of vehicles; revenue of the special taxation is dedicated to road development projects. Tolling is widely allowed, which is believed to have enabled rapid expansion of the country’s road system over the last two decades. [Source: Library of Congress Law Library, Legal Legal Reports, 2014 |*|]

Effective 2009, a fuel tax reform abolished road maintenance fees, which had been a stable source of funding for road maintenance.. The reform also significantly increased the oil product consumption tax, revenue from which is to be used not only to substitute the road maintenance fees, but also for several other purposes. |*|

Under the Highway Law of the People’s Republic of China (Highway Law), funding of road construction may come from appropriations made by various levels of government, including those deriving from special funds collected through taxation; loans from domestic and foreign banks or foreign governments; investment made by domestic or foreign economic organizations; funds raised from enterprises and individuals to build highways (which must be on voluntary basis as required by the Highway Law); and funds raised through other means that conform to laws or regulations of the State Council.

Before 2009, road maintenance fees (RMFs) were collected from owners of vehicles for the maintenance, repair, technology reform and improvement, and administration of highways, based on the rational of “who uses, maintains.” The RMFs was abolished along with five other road-use surcharges during a fuel tax reform plan that was implemented from 2009. |*|

Toll Roads in China

Under the Regulations on Administration of Toll Roads, upon approval and in accordance with the laws, tolls may be collected from users of Government-repaying-loan highways: highways constructed by a competent department for transportation under a local government through a loan or funds raised from enterprises or individuals; and Commercially operated highways: highways constructed with investments provided by domestic or foreign economic organizations, or highways with the right to collect tolls on government-repaying-loan highways assigned to such organizations. [Source: Library of Congress Law Library, Legal Legal Reports, 2014 |*|]

Limits on Lengths of Toll Collecting: The number of years that tolls can be collected for each toll road is subject to approval and is limited by law to a maximum period of time, as follows: A) For government-repaying-loan highways, fifteen years, which may be extended to twenty years for those highways located in a central or western province. B) For commercially operated highways, twenty-five years, which may be extended to thirty years for those highways located in a central or western province. |*|

Tolling revenue is required by law to be limited to highway uses. According to the Highway Law, upon approval, tolling is allowed for highways built with loans, funds raised from enterprises and individuals, and investment made by economic organizations. |*|

In practice, toll financing has been used widely, which is believed to have enabled rapid expansion of the country’s road system over the last two decades. Only a small share of funding has been provided by central government budgetary revenue. According to the Ministry of Transport, in the year 2012, a total of RMB1112.490 billion (about US$183.93 billion) was invested in highway construction nationwide. Only 1.8 percent of the overall funding came from central government budgetary revenue, and 17 percent from vehicle purchase tax (VPT) revenue. Local government self-financing counted for 33 percent, domestic loans 36.4 percent, and foreign investment 0.4 percent. |*|

China’s Vehicle Purchase Tax

The Chinese vehicle purchase tax (VPT) is a special tax dedicated to road development projects. It provides a stable funding source for road development (17 percent in 2012). According to statistics released by the Ministry of Finance, the VPT revenue in 2013 was RMB259.6 billion (about US$42.9 billion).[Source: Library of Congress Law Library, Legal Legal Reports, 2014 |*|]

A 10 percent surcharge on purchasing vehicles was first created in 1985. According to the document creating the vehicle purchase surcharge, the entire income from the surcharges must be used to fund the country’s road development. On January 1, 2001, the surcharge was replaced by a formal VPT. Vehicles subject to the tax include automobiles, motorcycles, electric vehicles, trailers, and transport vehicles for agricultural use. |*|

The VPT rate remains 10 percent on the taxable price of vehicles, to be paid in a lump sum within sixty days after the date of purchase and before a vehicle is registered. According to the regulations governing the VPT, the tax is levied only once on each vehicle, so that purchasing a vehicle for which a VPT has been paid is not subject to the tax for a second time. |*|

The VPT is collected by the central government, and allocated to local governments to fund road-development projects. In addition to construction projects for roads, bridges, and tunnels, construction projects for road passenger and cargo hubs (including logistics parks (areas zoned for purposes relating to logistics) and inland waterways may also be funded by VPT revenue. [Source: Library of Congress Law Library, Legal Legal Reports, 2014 |*|]

Annual revenues from the VPT have grown steadily in recent years, primarily due to the rapid increase in vehicle ownership. According to a report by the Asian Development Bank, it increased from RMB21.6 billion (about US$331 million) in 2000 to RMB116.4 billion (about USD$17.8 billion) in 2009, of which about 90 percent was used for highway-related purposes. Image Sources: 1) University of Washington; 2, 9, 10) 3, 5 ) Nolls China website ; 4) Mongabey ; 6) CIA; 7) Gary Braasch; 8) Julie Chao; Wiki Commons; 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 July 2022

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