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.

4 comments on “Why China’s Infrastructure Projects Zoom
  • Ben: You make an interesting point about political sustainability of policy choices. But could things not be changing, or be very different from what is reported? From a policy perspective, it is vital to understand the ‘what-if’ scenarios for the growth trajectories of both countries.

    A feature article on the Dalai Lama in the weekend FT suggests that one of the reasons why the torch protests are so strong is that many religious minorities in China are supporting the cause of Tibetan Buddhism for reasons inter alia of their own freedom. Not that they will not be equally ruthlessly crushed, but it is the taste of freedom that may change China’s government’s relationship with its people.

    Likewise, I believe that some developmental basics in India need no democracy at all; they just need _doing_ at all. Building highways and airports, as well as building basic facilities such as sanitation and clean water are both needed. Too much reliance on individual enterprise probably will also change the Indian government’s relationship with its people, especially as the economic boom creates greater socio-economic disparity that can neither guarantee sustainability nor assure the long term future of such growth.

    Oh, and I travelled long-haul from Heathrow’s T5 in the week after it was ‘launched’ and suffered the ignominies of being everybody’s pet flogging boy. The experience was seamless, swift and relaxed, and no bags were lost to or from SFO.

  • That’s not the only difference. The people in power in the Chinese government are there for the long haul. That means that they have all of the incentives of say… a US firm. If a contractor does a bad job, that contractor gets blacklisted, etc.

    In the US government, all of the officials are in power only for a short time, so the organizational dynamics are all in the other direction. Firms underbid and overcharge as a matter of course. Shoddy quality is the standard because by the time the next contract rolls around, it’s someone else in government making the decision.

  • @nordsieck

    Not quite. China’s leadership is in there for the long haul, but the contractors are more often pre-chosen. Shoddy quality is the standard on China’s projects as well because, by and large, most things are of shoddy quality here still…contractors are doing a standard acceptable job, making money by shaving costs down to the bone.

    An interesting way to phrase the difference: In America, the business leaders have long term vision and will, while political leaders are focused on the short term. In China, it’s the opposite.

  • checkbook democracy, muscle power democracy, hardly democracy…. and the corruption that basically takes have the designed thickness of the roads and puts it is someone’s pocket makes india an infrastructure joke …. it is will, and caring, that is the difference, i amean, did democracy stop america from making infrastructure?

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