(p. B4) China is full of wasteful infrastructure that the government likes to brag about but that doesn’t serve the most urgent needs of the public.
The Chinese government likes to say the country has the longest and fastest high-speed railways in the world. But except for a couple of lines that connect the megacities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, most lines operate below capacity and at a great loss. About 80 percent of China’s high-speed railways constructed in the past decade were built in distant and poor regions, China State Railway Group said last year.
Zhao Jian, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University, warned in an article that high-speed railways could become the “gray rhino” that crushed the Chinese economy because many local governments had taken on a lot of debt to build them. But most of those railways move people, not freight. So they would make sense only in densely populated areas where people were willing to pay more for speed.
Local leaders are interested in infrastructure projects because their economic payoff, while minimal, is immediate — people get construction jobs, and companies get building contracts. Such a short-term approach dominates in China’s political system, in which cadres are deployed to run toward the goal set by their leader regardless of the financial or human cost.
The Shangqiu government brags that there is about 150 square feet of green space for each of the 2.3 million residents in the city’s central municipal area. One of Shangqiu’s biggest infrastructure projects this year is a wetlands park. After building many roads to nowhere, local governments have been spending big on urban beautification projects in recent years.
It’s nice to have green space for everyone. But like most inland Chinese cities, Shangqiu isn’t wealthy. Its college graduates are complaining on social media that it’s difficult to find a job that pays more than $300 a month. Its basic pension provides its seniors with $17.80 a month, after a $1.50 raise this year.
Many Chinese people who are at least 60 years old live on pensions like this. According to official data, in 2021, $54 billion in basic pensions was distributed to more than 162 million people, or about $28 a person each month on average. The residents would probably prefer that the government spent on unemployment protection, bus service and welfare instead of high-speed railways and green space.
Shangqiu is far from an exception.
A resident in Pucheng, in the northwestern province of Shaanxi, complained on the local government’s online messaging board in February  that there was no bus service between downtown and the railway station.
“This is the most basic public service,” the resident, who signed with the name Li Hongbo, wrote. “I felt that people’s livelihood has deteriorated. I hope the leaders can pay some attention to it.”
For the full commentary, see:
Li Yuan. “THE NEW NEW WORLD; China’s Cities Splurge and Debt Piles Up.” The New York Times (Wednesday, March 29, 2023): B1 & B4.
(Note: bracketed year added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 28, 2023, and has the title “THE NEW NEW WORLD; China’s Cities Are Buried in Debt, but They Keep Shoveling It On.”)