Dwarfing the Great Wall - a glance at China's latest megaprojects

By Daniele Pestilli on January 17, 2015
Thumb chi three gorges dam
The Three Gorges Dam in Hubei province is the world's largest power station and cost a whopping $26 billion. (CC)

Megaprojects in China have always been a part of the nation's DNA: the terracotta army built in the late third century to guard Emperor Qin in his afterlife is composed of more than 8,000 life-size soldiers and 520 horses, each portrayed with individual characteristics. The Great Wall, built for the same emperor in order to protect China from foreign invasions, spans more than 21,000 km (13,000 miles) and took more than 20 years to complete. Its construction is said to have required approximately 3.6 million workers and claimed one million lives.

China currently has the largest standing army in the world, with 2.3 million people ready for mobilization at any given moment. Shanghai Yangshan Port is the world's biggest container shipping port, and with its six lanes and 42.5 km (26.4 mi) in length, Jiaozhou Bay Bridge is the longest sea-crossing bridge on earth. The Three Gorges Dam, spanning the entirety of the Yangtze river, is the world's largest power station by annual energy generation. There are many more such projects: New Century Global Center, the largest building by floor space and Gansu Wind Farm, the world's vastest collective wind turbine farm are also among China's proud large-scale achievements.

There is a Chinese saying: “If you want to be rich, you must first build roads.” China has done just that: a YouTube video explains that China is working to complete the largest expressway system in the world by 2020. This National Trunk Highway System, as it is called, spans a whopping 111,950 km (69,560 mi) to date. That is approximately 37 times the length of the United States from coast to coast.

On January 12th, the New York Times published an article explaining that China's agenda to display its grandeur is nowhere near finished. Plans for a new 220 billion yuan ($36 billion) tunnel are underway. This tunnel, which will connect the port cities of Dalian to Yantai will span twice the length of the one under the English Channel, and in fact will be longer than Japan's Seikan Tunnel and the Channel Tunnel combined. To make things a little more exciting, the tunnel will be crossing two earthquake-prone territories beneath the Bohai sea: the Tanlu and Zhangjiakou Penglai fault zones. In 1976, the Tangshan earthquake in northeastern China – which happens to be the largest earthquake of the 20th century – killed tens of thousands of people.

The 123 km (76 mi) Bohai Sea tunnel, scheduled for completion in 2026, may be undergoing a feasibility study as soon as this April, China Daily reports. Its life span is expected to be 100 years, and will cut the journey from these two cities by eleven times – from 8 hours to only 40 minutes – running at a speed of 220 km per hour. The project, according to Yantai's mayor, Wang Liang, is aimed to boost the city's economic growth. Some researchers say profits of 20 billion yuan a year can be expected upon the tunnel's completion.

The project can pay for itself within 12 years – Wang Mengshu

According to director of geology for Iceland's Mann-vit, Matthias Loftsson, special attention must be placed on flooding due to seismic displacement. Safety concerns have also been underlined by Chinese engineers and the China Earthquake Networks Center, who agree that worker safety is paramount during the construction process and after. The plan is to build at least 30 meters below the seabed in hard rock, but given the landscape's instability, there is no assurance that damage to the tunnels will not occur.

Safety is not this megaproject's only concern. Some economists are worried that such large-scale works might have the undesired effect of stunting the Chinese economy for a long time.

According to the New York Times, Chinese government debt alone was $3.1 trillion in 2013. In July last year, the Financial Times published an article saying that China's national debt is 250% that of its entire economy (up from 147% in 2008). However, to put things in perspective, this is only slightly more than South Korea's debt-to-GDP ratio, better than the U.S. and U.K.'s ratio, and half of Japan's, which tops the list with its terrifying 415% debt ratio.

When China decides to build something, there is little to no internal opposition given the country's one-party system despite the construction's ostensible folly. In May 2014, the U.K. daily The Guardian wrote that Beijing was discussing a high-speed rail line that would connect China with the U.S. via Russia and Canada. Boasting a length of 13,000 km and with trains traveling at 350 km/h, the project would enable passengers to comfortably travel between two continents in two days. Yet any megaproject is inherently risky: if implemented correctly, if safety is truly held paramount, if costs do not make China plummet into even greater debt, if the natural demolition that ensues is sustainable – then the benefits are clear. The truth is, however, that most megaprojects counter all of the above "ifs". Initial planning is often inaccurate, costs regularly exceed the initial budget, delivery times largely exceed those promised, and negative effects on natural landscapes as well as human accidents frequently ensue.

Whether these projects are truly needed or are merely unnecessary projections of China's might is a question open to debate. What is certain, as economist Huang Yukon tells the New York Times, is that megaprojects are

part of the blood, the culture, the nature of its society. To have an impact on the country, they’ve got to be big.