Random Notes on Chinese Infrastructure

I caught the last train from Shanghai to Beijing at 5.50pm. Coupled with the fact that the windows on the train were slightly tinted, it meant that within the first 30 minutes of a 5hr 30 minute journey, it was quite dark already. But China doesn’t seem to have an electricity problem so I could see lights everywhere. More importantly, as we were leaving a big city, I was keen to see where the development would ‘end’ so to speak. It didn’t. I kept seeing roads and bridges all well-lit in the night. Most of them were empty too – just 10 lane highways and bridges everywhere.

So on the journey back, I decided to take an earlier train so I could complete the journey in daylight. The journey from Beijing to Shanghai is around 1320km, significantly more than the journey from Lagos to Kano. It wasn’t just one road running alongside the tracks, it was different highways we were crossing. In 2011, the Chinese highway system surpassed the American Interstate Highway System in terms of total length. America started building theirs in 1957 and continued up until 2010. The Chinese built their first one in 1988…

It occurred to me that whenever I hear stories about poor countries that suffer food wastage due to logistic problems – like Nigeria where 80% of tomatoes routinely go to waste – I never hear China mentioned. Nigerian cows for instance will give anything to be transported on Chinese roads. It surely must be a lot easier and cheaper to move goods across China. Just think of the amount of business that has been made possible with this kind of infrastructure. This is probably why Western companies are falling over themselves to set up car plants in China. Those roads might be empty now, but as more people get wealthy, they will need cars.

When I landed at Shanghai Pudong airport, I was struck by how imposing the airport was. But then I noticed there was no other flight landing at the same time as we did. We cleared immigration in a few minutes and went to get our bags. I counted 20 luggage conveyor belts. Huge ones as well. Only ours was working. After leaving Shanghai, the first station we stopped at was Nanjing South which had 30 platforms. Depending on the size of the town, the stations we passed through had anything from 8 to 30 platforms. Modern, shiny, well-lit. Conversely, as we landed at the 99% full capacity Heathrow in London, our plane made a u-turn and started to taxi to the terminal. I looked out the window and counted 4 planes waiting in line to land. Yet the govt here can’t build a new runway or airport for love or money.

Seemingly empty roads, bare airports, more train station platforms than they need. In a country like China which still has huge amounts of poverty. What’s going on? This, for me, illustrates the paradox of infrastructure – you need to build it when you are poor because you wont be able to afford it when you are rich. Yes. Or to perhaps put it another way; if you build it, they will come…eventually.

Back to the train journey; every few minutes a high-speed train would pass us heading in the opposite direction. They also have a lot of expensive high-speed trains. Some months ago, I saw the photo below showing Chinese high-speed trains at a terminal and it looked almost beyond belief that they would have that much stock. But when trains pass you by every 20 minutes heading in the opposite direction on a 5 hour journey, you know they definitely have a lot of trains.

Since 2004, CRH (China Railways High-Speed) has taken delivery of around 1000 trains each one with an average of 10 cars. What the Chinese have built in 8 years took the Germans and British decades to build. They have so far spent something in the order of $300bn constructing tracks at breakneck speed. And as we traveled, you could see construction of elevated train tracks all over the place.

It’s also interesting that while here in the UK for example, normal speed and high-speed trains share the same tracks (meaning that signalling and scheduling have to be top notch), the Chinese simply built separate tracks entirely to accommodate the high-speed trains. No matter how uncharitable you are determined to be, it is hard to conclude that what they have achieved is anything other than remarkable.

As I was looking at all those roads, an idea came to my head. We know that Nigerian politicians and government officials love nothing more than to ‘commission’ or ‘launch’ things. They love cutting ribbons in front of cameras. Well, since we are friendly with the Chinese, why don’t we come up with some kind of exchange programme where we send our politicians to China anytime they want to open a new road to commission it for them? And just for the fun of it, we watch to see which one will develop arthritis in their wrists.

How about housing? Beijing is a really intimidating city. All the buildings are huge and imposing. But yet again, as you leave the city, you begin to see endless new developments sometimes seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Obviously there are a lot of Chinese people in China and it might be that the government is anticipating more migration from the Western provinces and is simply building these houses for that purpose. Or perhaps they plan to knock down some old buildings in the center of the towns and move people out to the suburbs. The things we refer to as ‘serviced flats’ or ‘luxury apartments’ in Nigeria are considered an efficient way of housing the masses in China. Of course if you are going to build a block of 20 floors, it has to be ‘serviced’. But we have now turned it into such a big deal (partly because of the ridiculous cost of cement in Nigeria) that it is not even an option anyone considers when talking about solutions to the huge housing problems we face in Nigeria.

Or the Subway system? Shanghai has 13 different lines and Beijing has about 15. And more are being built to cope with ever increasing number of people using them.

I don’t know how they do it, but building things has become easy for these guys. Or perhaps they have always been that way – they did build the Great Wall after all. But in a world where ‘infrastructure’ has become a cliché, it is quite something to see what its like first hand. When you approach the Shanghai Hongqiao Airport and Railway Station (They are side by side), you will be mesmerized by the flyovers to and from the area from all corners. It is infrastructure porn for lack of a better way to describe it.

The Chinese government is huge (they invented the bureaucracy after all) and can be deeply corrupt – the Bo Xilai case recently comes to mind. But for those who believe in the power of government to do big things. You can’t say the Chinese government isn’t ‘working’. A guy I met at the airport who has been visiting China for the past 10 years told me that 2009 was the year when they went ‘crazy’ with building stuff. This is probably why so many of the roads and bridges looked new. I suspect that Nigerians will vote for this kind of waste and corruption in their government by a landslide if given the option.

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Maybe there’s hope for us in Nigeria. The obvious evidence from China is that the more you do something the better you become at it and can do it even cheaper. The high-speed trains were initially imported under a technology transfer agreement. Today they are built in China and have started exporting them to other countries notably Georgia. It’s hard to get to 1000 trains when you have to import every single one. And you are not making a lot of progress when someone who left office in 1993 can still claim bragging rights that he built the most important bridge in the nation’s commercial capital.

It’s also hard to imagine a company like Julius Berger for instance continuing to dominate construction in a country like China (although Julius Berger is now a majority Nigerian owned company). They don’t like to rely on foreign technology for too long. They are very clever people and will quickly find a way to ‘own’ it. Once that ownership has been achieved, it then becomes like clockwork for them to rapidly deploy it.

Then there’s Chinese labor. This is probably the strongest thing about them. It’s not just that there are 1 billion China men available to work for a pittance, they are also very skilled. I am told that some Nigerians are now importing Chinese laborers for construction work in Nigeria. Actually this makes perfect sense to me and if I was awarded a big construction contract in Nigeria today, I’d seriously look into shipping in Chinese workers to do the job. The last time I was in Lagos, I was in a car passing through Yaba and saw a Lagos State government built bus stop. I couldn’t help but be irritated at how uneven the lines were and how shoddy the whole construction looked…which undoubtedly cost millions. It looked like it had been moulded together using someone’s bare hands. We must do better.

But I remember reading a quote attributed to Ratan Tata where he was talking about his motivation for developing the Tata Nano and he said ‘we need to take care of this segment of the market because if we don’t do it, the Chinese will come and do it for us’.

That one too is an option. We can always decide we can’t be bothered to master this infrastructure business and just pay someone else to do it for us….like the Arabs have mostly done. One thing is for sure though, we will be playing catch up forever if we continue as we are doing.

Shrugs. Some more photos below

FF

Infra - Housing 2 Infra - Housing 3 Infra - Housing 4 Infra - Housing 5 Infra - Housing 6 Infra - Housing Infra - Roads 2 Infra - Roads 3 Infra - Roads Infra - Trains 2 Infra - Trains 3 Infra - Trains

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8 thoughts on “Random Notes on Chinese Infrastructure

  1. Nice summary, I’d say, of Chinese infrastructure…, especially given that it was a view from travel between two major cities. I have read of the Chinese “ghost cities” in the past. They are essentially brand new cities complete with huge housing projects, roads (and other transport infrastructure), electricity, malls, schools, hospital (at least the physical buildings) and everything that makes for city living, except that they are all empty. Again, these were built at lightening speed. They were built in anticipation of the fact they will be needed to accommodate the expanding middle class, and to create living and working environments for them, and their future families. That is “futuristic thinking”, given that the other option for the expanding middle class is to emigrate (they are in numbers here in Canada, and in the United States). It also reduces the challenges of having to deal with urban slums or unplanned development (of the type that abound in the Nigerian urban space away from Abuja (some will swear that they exist in Abuja’s suburbs). It is definitely best to keep a large chunk of the productive workforce at home (Nigeria can learn a thing or two from that), and it is definitely an incentive when “inviting” the diaspora to come back home. There has to be somewhere to come back to. (Emigration surely has its benefits: the scientific, economic, social and entrepreneurial skills acquired most of the time were not available at home, or the opportunities were simply not there.)

    1. The trains that leave on the hour take 4hrs and 55minutes.
      In between those ones there are around 4 trains every hour and those ones take around 5hrs and 30minutes.

      The difference is in the number of stops they make along the way (around 5 stops each).

  2. The Chinese have always been skilled at building. They were exported to California to help with building in the rails in the 1800’s.

    Their education is very much advanced. Rote, discipline and practice. Though some would argue that it doesn’t allow for a lot of initiative. I think that would come. The investments in Education is crazy.

    I am a bit concerned about the construction bubble in China though, I have seen several documentaries of ghost cities and white elephant projects. These allow lots of corruption and inefficiencies. Don’t ask me how they should be using the money if they weren’t building, I don’t know (SWF? Buy half the world?). The problem I guess, is that there is so much money, the hot money has to be washed/recycled somehow…

    At least their system works, for now. One can only wish Nigerian corruption is like this, it allows needed infrastructures to be built.

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