China eyes improved national highway system with reasonable 'advance development': officials
Country owns systemic advantage on infrastructure buildup: experts
Published: Jul 25, 2022 08:44 PM
An aerial photo taken on July 24, 2022, shows winding mountain road in Nanjing, East China's Jiangsu Province. Photo: VCG

An aerial photo taken on July 24, 2022, shows winding mountain road in Nanjing, East China's Jiangsu Province. Photo: VCG

China plans to perfect its highway system by building and improving national road system, officials and experts said at a press conference on Monday, as the country ramps up efforts to upgrade infrastructure facilities and boost the COVID-19-hit economy.

Although China lags behind some developed countries in roads penetration or length per capita, China's speed and efficiency of pushing infrastructure projects have outpaced countries like the US, though competition in new infrastructure is fierce, experts said. 

Wang Songbo, an official from China's Ministry of Transport (MOT), announced specific targets China looks to achieve in improving its highway network on Monday. For example, China aims to have residents in all counties and cities be within a 15-minute trip to reach a national highway by 2035, Wang noted. 

China is also striving to build a national expressway system that connects all counties/cities in the country's border ports, while the national highway network is expected to link with Asia's highway networks, Wang said. 

Shi Liangqing, deputy head of the MOT's Transport Planning and Research Institute, said at the press conference that China's highway network should maintain reasonable advance development.

Chen Jia, a research fellow at the International Monetary Institute of the Renmin University of China, told the Global Times on Monday that advance development should mean carrying out some planned infrastructure projects ahead of original schedule and with a larger-than-planned investment plan. 

This is not only meant to improve some "shortcomings" in infrastructure construction, but is a strategic consideration to stabilize the economy at a time of rising challenges, Chen said. 

Experts warned that it's important to make sure that China's infrastructure plans, whatever their timing and structure, are made in a scientific manner. Unsound infrastructure projects will actually mean bottlenecks and have a negative impact on the economy, although they might support short-term GDP growth. 

"A scientific infrastructure plan takes into account factors ahead of time, such as how the region's industrial structure, regional development and population are expected to evolve, as well as how the infrastructure would pay off economically," Cong Yi, an economics professor with the Tianjin University of Finance and Economics, told the Global Times on Monday.

Take highways, for example. Cong said that planners should bear in mind that China's regional development is very uneven and different regions have different needs. Specifically, eastern China needs more high-speed rail transit, while such needs are not urgent in western China, where many regions still lack a complete highway network. 

"It's important that policymakers design local infrastructure blueprints based on a region's development standard, as well as understanding where local infrastructure weaknesses actually lie," he said. 

Wang noted that China would consider the varied characteristics of different regions in infrastructure needs. Officials will focus on strengthening backbone highway arteries and enhancing road network efficiency in eastern and central China, and expanding the scope of highway coverage in western regions, Wang said. 

Comparing highway construction in China and the US, experts said that China still lags behind in terms of per capita length, but it has largely outpaced the US in construction speed and efficiency.

According to Shi, at end-2021, every 10,000 people in China owned 37.4 kilometers of highways on average, about 18 percent of the US levels. In terms of penetration, China's expressway network covered almost all cities with more than 200,000 people, while US state highways connected cities with populations above 50,000.

Regarding construction of expressways and bridges in recent years, the US has lagged behind China, whether in terms of planning, construction volume or quality of construction, analysts said.

One example of the US' inefficiency in road building is the landmark California high-speed rail, which symbolized the US' ambition to "build and think big" when it was launched. It has gradually turned into an "alarming vision of a nation that seems incapable of completing the transformative projects necessary to confront 21st century challenges," a New York Times report said. The project remains in limbo. 

One reason for the situation is because the US' labor market is "distorted," Chen said, as the US increasingly lacks skilled blue-collar workers.

"Also, the US' budget constraints mean that it can hardly fulfill Biden's Build Back Better initiative, whose costs are ballooning along with inflation," he said. 

China owns institutional advantages over the US in pushing infrastructure projects, as much of China's land is publicly owned, and the government has stronger decision making power on improving infrastructure, Cong noted. 

Experts noted that in terms of new energy, 6G or artificial intelligence, China and the US are now competing fiercely, and there's no clear sign of either one winning the race.