According to an old Chinese proverb: “If you want to get rich, first build a road”. It is advice that Chinese policy-makers seem to have taken to heart: the nation has built 10,000 kilometres of highway a year since 2011 – and it’s not slowing down. Recent data shows the nation’s highway network now stretches 149,600 kilometres, making it the longest in the world.
According to Dr Miguel Hidalgo Martinez, a lecturer from the Department of China Studies at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, the rapid development of China’s highway network coincided with the centralisation of infrastructure spending that began in China in the 1990s. Before then, China’s highways were funded and administered individually by regional governments.
“By the late 1980s, there was a big problem in China with protectionist regional economies,” says Martinez. “The regions were using the highways to protect their own markets, charging such high toll fees that they blocked the free mobility of people and commodities.”
The Chinese Central Government realised that the road system was not working in the best interests of the national economy. So, as part of sweeping economic reforms in the 1990s, it assumed financial responsibility for road building. “Local governments remained in control of the planning and decision-making process for infrastructure development, including roads, but the Central Government handed out the money,” says Martinez.
Then, in 2005, Beijing announced it was also taking control of the strategic planning of the nation’s highway infrastructure. It outlined an initiative called the 7918 Network: a national grid comprising seven highways radiating out from Beijing, nine highways running from the north to the south of the country, and 18 highways crossing from east to west.
“They weren’t starting the process from scratch,” says Martinez, “they simply took control of existing projects and framed them in a national context. That was a game-changing reform.”
When the Global Financial Crisis hit in 2008 and China’s export sector contracted, the Central Government accelerated construction of infrastructure projects such as the 7918 Network as a means of stimulating the domestic economy. “After that was complete, they started to build ring roads around huge metropolitan regions and connecting those ring roads to the national network,” says Martinez.
Today, China continues to pour money into its highway system. According to Martinez: “The Central Government is now using road-building to facilitate its larger regional strategies – for example, the formation of megalopolises.” It is also beginning to connect the highway network to the international logistics corridors it is building as part of the Belt and Road initiative, such as the Yu’Xin’Ou freight train line between Chongqing and Duisburg, Germany.
Martinez says the story of China’s highway system demonstrates how centralised infrastructure spending can defeat regionalism if properly administered. A nationwide plan can also ensure that economic benefit is evenly spread.
The Chinese government’s unwavering commitment to roads suggests it views consistent infrastructure spending as a fundamental good. “The Central Government continues to invest in the highway system, regardless of how much it is being used,” Martinez points out. In the process, it is providing short-term economic benefit as well as ‘future proofing’ the nation’s transport infrastructure.