China’s infrastructure

Updated 11 February, 2014

China seems to be obsessed with infrastructure

Since Liberation in 1949, one slogan has stayed constant through all the turmoil and twists and turns, and that is ‘reconstruction’. In truth, apart from industrialisation in the north east under Japanese rule during the mid-30s to mid-40s, industrial plants were not a major investment throughout the first half of the 20th century. War spending absorbed most of the foreign aid, mainly from the US. So it was really construction without the ‘re’ – a code word for industrialisation!

With this focus, China was able to provide energy, transport and other infrastructure that enabled it to become the ‘factory of the world’, displacing Germany by 2009 as the world’s number 1 exporter.

China’s total power capacity by the end of 2013 is 1,250 G Watt. It added 94 G Watt of power in 2013 which is higher than that of the entire UK capacity.  BTW: an average nuclear power station generates around 1 G Watt. China surpassed the US in energy generated in 2012. $45bn will be spent in 2009 in upgrading the national electricity grid.
Constantly berated for being the source of pollution caused by old coal power stations, China is investing substantially in new coal power stations using advanced supercritical clean coal technologies. But it takes time to replace the old with the new when the economy is growing so fast!
China is also investing in nuclear power stations and wind farms as well as in solar energy. In 2012 China vaulted past Denmark, Germany, Spain and the US to become the world’s largest maker of wind turbines. Vestas of Denmark has invested in their biggest wind turbine plant in China. China not only makes them but deploys them extensively. They are mainly deployed in the windy deserts to the west of China, but as producing ramps up, they will be exported as well. Some 20GW of wind power was in operation by the end of 2009.

China has also become a world leader in solar voltaic panels with both indigenous firms and foreign-owned plants. Not only are these good for the ‘green’ agenda but also for jobs. It is estimated that over 1 million workers were employed in manufacturing ‘green’ plant in 2008 and some 100.000 new ‘green’ manufacturing jobs are being added each year.

In addition to making solar voltaic panels, solar heat collectors that work by recirculating water warmed by exposure to the sun is being installed in a big way.


Extract from – Renewable World

 “Buildings in Rizhao, a coastal city of nearly three million on the Shandong Peninsula in northern China, have a common yet unique appearance: most rooftops and walls are covered with small panels. They are solar heat collectors.

A combination of regulations and public education spurred the broad adoption of solar heaters. The city mandates all new buildings to incorporate solar panels, and it oversees the construction process to ensure proper installation. To raise awareness, the city held open seminars and ran public advertising on television.

 In Rizhao City, which means City of Sunshine in Chinese, 99 percent of households in the central districts use solar water heaters, and most traffic signals, street and park lights are powered by photovoltaic (PV) solar cells. In the suburbs and villages, more than 30 percent of households use solar water heaters, and over 6,000 households have solar cooking facilities. More than 60,000 greenhouses are heated by solar panels, reducing overhead costs for farmers in nearby areas.

In total, the city has over a half-million square meters of solar water heating panels, the equivalent of about 0.5 megawatts of electric water heaters.The fact that Rizhao is a small, ordinary Chinese city with per capita incomes even lower than in most other cities in the region makes the story even more remarkable. The achievement was the result of an unusual convergence of three key factors: a government policy that encourages solar energy use and financially supports research and development, local solar panel industries that seized the opportunity and improved their products, and the strong political will of the city’s leadership to adopt it.”

Apart from taking shares in oil companies and signing contracts with various national oil companies, China is laying a 7,000km pipeline to move gas from Turkmenistan via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

In addition to coal and nuclear, hydro-electric is the third main contributor, which is a major renewable energy source. We have all heard, read or seen pictures or videos of the Three Gorges Dam along the Yangtze. It is generating around 15GWatts and will eventually generate 22.5GWatts. The reservoir is 600KM long which is about the distance from London to Aberdeen in north Scotland.

China has the most hydro-electric capacity in the world. China’s 12th Five-Year Plan for Energy Development, released in January 2013, includes the goal of generating 11.4 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2015. The government’s aim to install 160 GW of new hydropower capacity, raising China’s total hydropower capacity to 290 GW. That would be more installed capacity than in all of Europe combined.

Chinese plans for sustainable energy to make up 8% of total energy by 2020, up from today’s 4% – a major achievement when met.

Road and rail transport

There is the continuing expansion of transport. By the end of 2013 there are 105,000 km of highways of which 8,000 km are multi-lane ‘super-highways’ or expressways, with another 5,000 km under construction, second only to the US. This has exceeded the length of highway network of 83,000 km by end of 2015, in  12th five-year plan.

This is closely followed by massive expansion of the railways to 100,000 km by the end of 2013, planned to expand to 120,000 km by the end of 2020. It is second to the US, again and ahead of India with 64,000 km but not expanding at the same rate as China. Of that, the 12th five-year plan aims to complete 45,000 km of high-speed track by the end of 2015. However, the collision between two high-speed passenger trains at Wenzhou in July 2011 has put a pause to the Chinese programme while investigations are underway to identify the root causes, be they technical or human. The recent arrest of the railway minister for corruption does not help either.


On 3 July 3, 2006: “After crossing 4,000 km, the first train to travel from Beijing to Tibet pulled into Lhasa today, inaugurating the world’s highest railway. The last link took five years and around $4 billion.”

The highest point is 3.7km. Ben Nevis the highest peak in the UK is 1.3km and the highest in Europe Mont Blanc is 4.8km. At such heights oxygen is rarefied, so passengers need a health certificate before they can embark. Even then, a conductor comes around at the highest points with a portable oxygen tank and mask for ordinary passengers. First class passengers have their own masks, much like the airlines!

The longest rails are the Trans Siberian 5,800km, and the cross-Canadian 3,000km. 


Air transport

China announced at the China Civil Aviation Development (CAAC) Forum, May 2009 that it would set up a national public air transportation system over the next three to five years. CAAC will reinforce and improve Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou airports as national hubs. There will be one flight between the three hubs every 30 minutes; and 30 long-haul international flights will be opened. Meanwhile eight regional hubs will be set up, and every one or 1.5 hours there will one flight between the eight regional hubs and the three national hubs. Artery network construction of 12 airports in Hangzhou, Nanjing and other cities will also be completed, and flights should be arranged every 1.5 to two hours.

This national and regional hub and spoke approach has become necessary due to the intensity of flights currently crisscrossing the country in a ‘random’ fashion.  China has between 1,200 and 1,500 civilian aircraft. Airbus is predicting that is going to treble over the next 20 years. BTW – China is the top buyer of civilian aircraft and India is not far behind.

Sea transport

Let me not swamp you with more statistics. Suffice it to say that more container ships load and unload at Chinese ports than any other country in the world.


Again – not hitting you with any detailed statistics. There are more mobile phones in China and after the US, more Internet users than anywhere else. Land lines and broadband are also catching up.


China has a very uneven distribution of water. The south is well watered by the monsoon, with three main river systems supplied by the snows of the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau. But the north is relatively dry with unreliable rivers and sand storms blowing from the Gobi desert to the west. As many school kids will know, the Yellow River is also known as the River of Sorrow, alternating with flooding and drought.

As long ago as Kublai Khan (and reported by Marco Polo) there was a Grand Canal to connect the rivers in the south to ones in the north. However, that was for transport rather than to balance water supply.

The late chairman Mao Zedong proposed the idea of the diversion project in 1952, to ease the growing water shortages in the cities of Beijing and Tianjin and the northern provinces of Hebei, Henan and Shandong. Fifty years later, after extensive research, planning and discussion, on 23rd August 2002 the project was approved by the State Council (equivalent to parliament) and work began on the eastern route of the project in December, construction commencing on the central route a year later.

The South-to-North Water Diversion Project is the largest of its kind ever. It involves drawing water from southern rivers and supplying it to the dry north. When finished, the work will link China’s four main rivers – the Yangtze, Yellow River, Huaihe and Haihe – and requires the construction of three diversion routes, stretching south-to-north across the eastern, central and western parts of the country.

Key data:

Eventual Diverted Volume: 44.8 billion cubic metres per year

  • Eastern Route       14.8 billion cubic metres per year
  • Central Route       13.0 billion cubic metres per year
  • Western Route      17.0 billion cubic metres per year

Eventual diversion:               3,723km est.

  • Eastern Route       1,156km
  • Central Route        1,267km
  • Western Route      1,300km est.

The complete project is expected to cost $62bn by completion planned for 2050 – more than twice as much as the Three Gorges Dam.

There is longer term concern about the gradual evaporation of glaciers in the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau. This should be of great concern as the northern rivers in India have the same sources!

In conclusion

Focusing on infrastructure investment is not unusual for a newly industrialised country. This was the case with Europe and the US c150 years ago.

What is surprising is that India, until very recently despite embracing central planning, has not invested in infrastructure anywhere approaching that of the Chinese.

Note that many of the ‘green’ technology require the use of rare earths. China has a near monopoly of these minerals, though large deposits have been found elsewhere such as Greenland and Kazakhstan. And other countries with known deposits are beginning (or restarting) mining operations.

As we will show elsewhere, India is only now awakening to the need to invest in infrastructure.

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