A Bridge Too Far?

China Keeps Ramping Up Infrastructure, But The Payoff Isn't Always Clear

 

The longest, the highest, the biggest arch: China's record-setting bridges come in all shapes and sizes. But while they may produce impressive structures, these construction projects often don't spur the intended economic activity.

US$300 million

Chishi Bridge construction cost—50 percent more than its initial budget

The country is home to 81 of the world's 100 highest bridges, and the building bonanza shows no signs of slowing. China leads the world in economic infrastructure spending by a wide margin, and President Xi Jinping has heralded such projects as crucial to the economic development of the country.

Despite the government's enthusiasm, however, less than one-third of the country's road and rail projects that were built between 1984 and 2008 were genuinely economically productive, according to a sample of projects that were analyzed in an Oxford Review of Economic Policy article published last year. Without stricter controls, the reports’ authors conclude, poorly managed infrastructure projects could push China into a financial crisis.

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Chishi Bridge in China's remote Hunan Province

PHOTO BY FAN JUNWEI/XINHUA/ALAMY LIVE NEWS

“[Infrastructure's] good for the economy, but too much of this is pernicious,” Atif Ansar, an author of the report, told The New York Times. “‘Build it and they will come’ is a dictum that doesn't work, especially in China, where there's so much built already.”

Take the cable-styled Chishi Bridge in China's remote Hunan Province. It cost US$300 million to construct—50 percent more than its initial budget. But since opening in October 2016, the toll bridge remains underused, resulting in a lack of revenue to help the project sponsor service debt taken on to finance the project.

The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge project has also encountered problems, falling years behind schedule and reportedly more than tripling its original CNY37.5 billion budget. As of April, nine workers had died, with local media estimating more than 600 injuries.

Safety remains an important project challenge to tackle, but it's not the only one, says Austin Williams, former associate professor in the department of architecture at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University and now senior lecturer at Kingston University, London, England. Although the Chinese government has prioritized building infrastructure, the talent needed to execute these projects hasn't kept pace. Workers are entering the infrastructure sector with low technical skills, says Mr. Williams.

If the building boom is going to continue, “Bringing in foreign skills is not enough,” he says. “The training of homegrown construction and project managers with critical skills and leadership is essential.”

—Kate Rockwood

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