Why China’s Infrastructure Projects Zoom

Paul Goldberger had a piece in a recent New Yorker on why and how airports are so poorly designed from an aesthetic perspective. Near the end he expresses awe at size and pace of construction of China’s new airports. I myself remember being stunned by the sheer capacity of China’s airports — dozens of unused gates, built in anticipation of expansion. Goldberger makes this important point when comparing the new Beijing terminal to Heathrow’s new BA terminal:

The Beijing terminal cost $3.65 billion to build, which in China bought a structure bigger than all five terminals at Heathrow put together, for less than half the cost of the new Terminal 5. The project was conceived, designed, constructed, and opened in four years, whereas the Heathrow terminal, from conception to completion, took twenty years…These widely divergent timetables are not a matter of Chinese efficiency versus British dallying: the British, like the Americans, pay the price of democracy. The Chinese government does not have to contend with environmentalists, financing problems, or recalcitrant airlines; the public hearings over the Heathrow terminal took the same amount of time as the entire construction of the Beijing one. China simply decrees what it will build, and floods the construction zone with migrant workers whose daily pay probably wouldn’t buy a British construction worker’s lunch.

And that lack of democracy, of course, is what makes China so different from emerging-market rival India. China kicks India’s butt from an infrastructure perspective. But perhaps India has the more sustainable political infrastructure in the long term.

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