China’s historical tradition of infrastructure building

Shenzhen

It shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise that China has been so successful in building such a strong and efficient transportation and industrial infrastructure including – among many other marvels – the world’s largest highway and high-speed train networks. The ability to build and manage massive public works projects has been an integral part of the DNA of the ruling class and bureaucracy since at least 2000 BC when the legendary sage king Yu the Great is said to have created a network of dikes, dams, and canals to control the flooding that plagued the rich farmland around the Yellow River.

Other examples that spring to mind include the stunning mausoleum of the first Qin Emperor (who also built a national road system), the Grand Canal linking Beijing and Hangzhou, and of course the Great Wall, which was cobbled together by successive emperors in an ultimately fruitless attempt to keep out northern barbarian invaders.

While public works carried out in feudal and imperial China contributed to economic growth by helping agriculture and trade to flourish, the ruling class and bureaucracy traditionally looked down on the money-grubbing business community and saw them more as a source of tax and (in some cases) personal income than a force for development. Indeed, some Chinese historians go as far as to blame Confucius for holding back the progress of the country because of his disdain for the profit motive!

The big difference now is that the central government works very closely with both local government, academia, and industry to ensure that the huge infrastructure investments it makes maximize economic growth and accelerate industrial, commercial, and urban development. Of course, this process has generated its fair share of white elephants, including some notorious ghost towns in the middle of nowhere, but overall it’s been extremely effective.

Other countries would profit from studying it more closely.

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