China’s Lessons for the World: Transportation Holds the Key to Development

Guest commentary by William Jones *

The State Council of China on December 21 issued a China_Transport_White_Paper_2020 outlining the achievements that have been reached in uniting the nation and laying out the path forward for the nation. For China, transportation has always been the key to development. Ironically, the break-up of China in the 1800s – and the subsequent revolt and downfall of the Qing dynasty -was largely provoked by the strong popular reaction to the attempt by the colonial powers to control China’s burgeoning railroad system.

And when Sun Yat-sen was forced to cede the presidency to a former Qing general, Yuan Shikai, he agreed, with Yuan, during their very brief “honeymoon” to take the post as minister of railways, since Sun’s first concern was to create a transportation grid that would unite the nation – and the people. His map of a proposed railroad grid was the first major vision of bringing the country together. And when China entered the period of the reform and opening up in 1978, the question of upgrading the railroad system was of premier importance.

The Chinese economy was in the 1970s still suffering from a lack of transportation. At the time Chinese scholars were looking at the West for a clue as to how they should move forward. But by the 1980s in the West, with the growing anti-industrial stance of the growing environmentalist movement, railroads were being torn down, and the railroad was being viewed as a “sunset industry” overshadowed by highways and by air transport.

Fortunately, China did not follow that disastrous example, but decided to put their money on rail transit and increase the speed of the railroads. Since then, they have not diverted from that course. The recent White Paper projects this development into the future.

China of course is presently leading in the production of high-speed rail. The recently developed Fuxing high-speed train has run at 420 km/hr, and its traveling speed on the Beijing-Shanghai route is generally 350 km/hr. China now has over 140,000 kilometers of rail lines and 35,000 kilometers of high-speed rail, the highest in the world. What this means in time saved is that it takes only one to four hours to commute between large/medium-sized cities and adjacent ones, and 30 minutes to two hours to commute within city clusters.

Given the diversity of the country in terms of climate and geological conditions, it is not unusual that China has broken several records in railroad construction. As the White Paper notes: “China leads the world in technology for railways at high altitudes and in extremely low temperatures, and for high-speed and heavy-haul railways. It has solved the most challenging technical problems confronting highway construction in difficult geological conditions such as plateau permafrost, expansive soil, and desert. It also leads in core technologies for building deep-water offshore ports, improving massive estuary and long waterways, and building large airports.”  Not to speak of its prowess in tunneling. The Xi’an-Chengdu high-speed rail line traverses the Qin and Daba mountains and it has 127 km (79 mi) of tunnels, including six that are over 10,000 m (6.2 mi) in length.

China became the first in the world to realize autopilot on trains running at a speed of 350 km/h. 600 km/h prototype maglev trains and high-speed free gauge trains running at a speed of 400 km/h that can change tracks and are capable of making international trips have rolled off the production line. And combining the rail system with AI, Big Data and the Beidou Navigations System has made all aspects of travel much more convenient for travelers, from electronic purchase of tickets, comfort of travel, to keeping trains on schedule and safe (there have been no major accidents since 2012).

Much of this construction has also created the possibility of integrating larger development regions, cities and city clusters which previously were loosely connected, but which now can begin to operate as unified production nodes, with the subsequent increase in scale and integration which that entails. The prime example of this is the Greater Bay Area in southern China, which brings together a half dozen mulit-million-man cities, including Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Macau, in what will become the largest bay area in the world. But similar measures are being taken elsewhere; in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei corridor, with the creation of an entirely new city, Xiongshan west of Beijing in Hebei province. Similarly, along the Yangtze River Corridor, where, in addition to the considerable river traffic, they are building a rail connection along the course of the river. And similar developments are occurring in the Yangtze River delta, bringing together cities like Shanghai, Ningbo and Hangzhou.

Impact on poverty alleviation

And the successful poverty alleviation program would have been unthinkable except for the emphasis on upgrading the transportation grid. Many of the previously impoverished areas were in the countryside, many in mountainous or otherwise difficult to access regions. The gargantuan construction of roads and highways, and the railroads helped to bring them into contact with the mainstream of China’s commerce.

As the White Paper notes: “From 2012 to 2019 China built or upgraded 2.09 million km of rural roads, including about 1.1 million km in poor areas, bringing the total length of rural roads to 4.2 million km, and connecting another 51,000 administrative villages in poor areas with asphalt and concrete roads. From 2016 to 2019, China built 96,000 km of asphalt and concrete roads in poor areas to reach natural villages with relatively large populations and implemented a safety program on 458,000 km of rural roads, effectively preventing and reducing accidents.”

And the expansion of the railroad system to the nearest possible rural hub allowed the farmers to expand the market for their goods. As the White Paper tells us: “China has stepped up the construction of a three-tiered rural logistics network at county, township and village levels, which collected and delivered more than 15 billion parcels in 2019. Logistics companies are now able to offer better delivery services between urban and rural areas by transporting industrial products to the countryside and agricultural products to cities, and providing delivery services to the door.”

And further: “In 2019, an average of 2,328 passenger trains ran every day with stops in poor areas, and 594 special tourist trains were arranged to poor areas, which promoted tourism, retail and catering businesses and helped stimulate consumption in areas along the lines. To transport agricultural products from poor areas, railway transport services effectively scheduled freight trains such as point-to-point trains, express container trains and high-speed express trains, which have transported 1.71 billion tonnes of freight since 2018.”

And with the Belt and Road Initiative, China has brought the “transportation revolution” to the global arena, with the Belt and Road Initiative, in which “connectivity” is key. The White Paper also indicates that China is intent in becoming involved in global transportation governance, bringing their expertise to the service of the international community.

But the notion that developing and expanding the transportation grid is key to the development of a nation is not new. After all, the U.S. Transcontinental Railroad was the first successful attempt to encompass a nation with a railroad transportation grid. And this became the hallmark for all the following attempts to do something similar, in Russia, in Africa, in Asia and in Latin America. And, indeed, the first railroads build by Chinese engineers in the late 1800s were by engineers educated in the United States. Perhaps its time in this post-COVID environment for politicians and planners here in the United States to focus on our own transportation infrastructure and to rebuild a transportation grid that can bring people together and revive the real spirit of America in the world.


* Willian Jones is the Washington correspondent of the weekly magazine Executive Intelligence Review.