BY: KATHERINE GAN, SENIOR CONTRIBUTOR
Over two thousand years ago, the Silk Road was formally established, creating trade linkages between China and the rest of Eurasia. Surprisingly, after nearly two thousand years, this silk road has withstood the test of time and reemerged in the form of One Belt, One Road. This initiative, developed by Chinese leader, Xi Ji Ping, calls for massive investments in infrastructure and expansion of trade in the region. Ironically, as China has looked externally to build and improve roads and bridges, it has neglected its internal infrastructure, as spending has run amok and flooding has ensued.
While China has moved quickly to liberalize economically, it has forgotten the value of slow, comprehensive progress. Natural management systems such as lakes and ponds, which are intended to prevent water from flooding downstream, have been sacrificed to develop urban buildings. Additionally, while much attention has been directed to expanding infrastructure above ground (bridges and roads), the infrastructure underground has been neglected, as many roads are built without being properly leveled. In its push to build as much as possible, China has been hasty in its projects. Aged drainage systems are becoming more overtaxed, as the China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban Development admit that roughly 50% of China’s cities don’t meet national flood prevention safety standards. As a result, the nation is wholly unprepared to deal with floods. In July alone, flooding cost China about $33 billion dollars in economic losses. The Office of the Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters quantified that 32 million people in 26 provinces across China were affected by severe flooding, with 1.4 million individuals being forced to relocate. In addition, more than 760 people were found dead or missing, and over 800,000 homes were destroyed. This shows that there are severe humanitarian and economic consequences attributed to rushed, shoddy infrastructure.
Perhaps even more worrisome than the recent flooding news is the historical precedent of poor infrastructure spending. In 2012, the time spent in China for planning the design and construction of buildings was typically half of the time allotted in the United States. Consequently, Chinese buildings were only expected to stand for 25 to 30 years, in comparison to their American counterparts who achieve an average standing time of between 70 to 75 years. The issue isn’t that Chinese buildings will stand for shorter periods of time; rather, it’s that when a natural disaster occurs, the architecture is too weak to withstand the destructive outside forces. For example, in the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, school buildings mainly collapsed because of the use of low-quality cement, which ensured that any major stress would cause the building to fall. Aside from cutting corners in projects, there is also an issue of ineffective infrastructure spending. There have been allegations of bid rigging and graft, as low quality materials are used but charged at or around the same price as high quality materials. The reason why this corruption has been able to ensue is because China is a one-party state, which makes it virtually impossible for officials or civil society to force change and transparency.
The Chinese government wants to use infrastructure as the driver of economic growth and development. However, there are concerns that doing so leads to much excess waste and mismanagement. A study by Oxford university researchers found that nearly all Chinese infrastructure projects have collectively amounted to 9.4 trillion dollars in debt and will lead the country to “an infrastructure-led national financial and economic crisis”. Moreover, in the long run, many economists argue that China needs to switch gears from an investment-based economy to one that is consumption-based.
It is easy for China to devote their attention and spending solely to infrastructure in attempts to spur economic growth. However, these rash decisions have undercut the effectiveness and safety of average citizens, presenting a need to create institutional reform and accountability in infrastructure spending. It will take courage from the Chinese government to enact slow, radical change that will allow for a truly successful Silk Road.