the Road at Last
Hoffmann/Network Photographers for TIME.
China hopes an ambitious plan to build a vast, nationwide highway system
will link its remote western provinces to the global economic mainstream
A Journey Toward Salvation:
The toll collector is asleep in his booth on the border of rural Zhongxian
county, 180 km and several decades of development away from the industrial
city of Chongqing. At the toot of a horn, he puts out his hand to collect
the four renminbi (50) the county charges motorists to share a narrow,
potholed strip of pavementmore akin to an obstacle course than a
toll roadwith the ducks, water buffalo and yoke-bearing peasants
who really rule the local roads. This day the ragtag traffic wends its
way to the town of Shuanggui, where a morning market blocks the only through
street, and locals go about buying and selling poultry and hot Sichuan
peppers without so much as a nod to the snarl of vehicles. After all,
the market has been a major destination on this road for centuries, and
speed of passage has never been a priority.
Until now. With the recent opening, not far away, of a key leg of the
high-speed expressway that will eventually link the Tibetan capital of
Lhasa with the port of Shanghai, Zhongxian's parody of a toll road has
suddenly become a conduit to the real thing: a $150 billion, 30,000-km
national highway network. Drivers who can afford the $5 toll to enter
the four-lane expressway near Shuanggui get their money's worth, making
the trip to Chongqing in three hours, instead of the usual eight. As roadbuilders
tunnel their way east through the high mountains, the words of ancient
poet Li Baithat "getting out of Sichuan is more difficult than getting
into heaven"are finally obsolete.
Following in the tire tracks of the U.S. Interstate system and the German
Autobahn, China's Gaosu Gonglu, or expressway, is designed to connect
the landlocked interior with the dynamic coastal provinces. When completed
in 2020, the network will be second only to that of the U.S. in size.
The super-highway grid currently boasts some distinctly Chinese characteristicsfrom
chronically empty fast lanes and the heavy security needed to keep cyclists
and pedestrians out, to the collapse of a bond scheme designed to help
finance the network. But planners expect that eventually the road system
will bring the whole country, including backwaters like Zhongxian, into
the global economic mainstream. "Even in the age of the new economy, development
means roads," says Hong Kong construction magnate Vincent Lo, head of
a consortium promoting investment in China's central and western provinces.
For a country that boasts the world's seventh-largest economy, China is
staggeringly underdeveloped in its transportation infrastructure. Before
the National Trunk Highway System was launched in 1992, there were only
866 km of road (mostly unpaved) for every million Chinese, compared to
24,312 km of paved road per million Americans. Despite progress, the situation
in China's vast west remains far worse than in the rest of the country.
More than 5,000 of the small villages in Chongqing municipality have no
roads at all. Developing the west is critical to the central government's
strategy for stimulating economic growth, and roads are the key to opening
up the region. "Liberating the west will release huge productivity, because
that's where the cheap labor is," says Fan Jiang, a bond expert at Goldman
Sachs in Hong Kong. "But that will not happen unless you lay down power
lines and roads."
has come to that conclusion relatively recently. Two decades ago, the
launch of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms sparked a bitter debate between
the powerful railroad lobby and proponents of highways. "Railroads were
the dominant mode of transport during the era of the planned economy,
when goods were allocated and delivery schedules were not paramount,"
explains Richard Scurfield, a World Bank transport expert in Beijing.
"But in a market economy, goods must get to the market in a short time,
and that means highways."
Hoffmann/Network Photographers for TIME.
It wasn't until 1987 that a Princeton-educated Hong Kong capitalist named
Gordon Wu finally gained approval for his plan to build China's first
long-distance toll road, between Hong Kong and the boomtown of Guangzhou.
It took Wu another year to persuade his joint-venture partner, the Guangdong
provincial government, to build the highway with six lanes instead of
four. "They accused me of being extravagant, insisting China would never
have that many cars," says Wu. Early on it looked as if his critics might
be right: revenues did not cover the interest Wu owed on the bonds sold
to finance construction. He was saved from default by $67 million in government
back-up loans. Those tided him over until 1997, when the toll road finally
began to pay for itself. By then Wu's highway was making converts of those
who had condemned it as a high-speed safety hazard, or derided it as an
"Autostrada del Solo" for its lack of cars.
"Suddenly everybody was building highways," says Goldman Sachs' Jiang,
"especially when the government ruled they could charge tolls to pay for
them." To skirt regulations requiring central government approval for
projects costing more than $30 million, eager developers chopped their
road projects into less costly segments and got permission to float bonds
overseas with the backing of local officials, who provided illegal financial
incentives. The borrowing spree climaxed during the Asian financial crisis,
when Premier Zhu Rongji took steps to rein in free-spending provincial
and local governments. His refusal to recognize guarantees on cash flow
shortfall payments on bonds not officially authorized by Beijing led to
the collapse of several toll road companies, which defaulted on interest
payments and stuck foreign investors with estimated losses of $460 million.
Beijing, however, did not let the pace of roadbuilding slacken. Instead,
the government said it would pour another $1 trillion into infrastructure
Though the core of the grid is not slated for completion until 2010, the
impact of each new link is already dramatic. "People's concepts of distance
has been completely changed," says Zhang Jianfei, a senior engineer in
the Ministry of Communications. "A decade ago 100 km meant a day's travel
to most Chinese. Now it means one or two hours." Zhang, who studied in
the U.S., recalls how intrigued he was to discover that the same produce
was sold coast-to-coast for about the same price, regardless of season.
Increasingly, that is the case in China, too. "Twenty years ago cabbage
was the only vegetable available in north China, and it was stacked along
the streets in winter," says Zhang. Now that improved roads allow transport
of produce from the south, those piles are gone.
Not all of China's 800 million peasants have been won over, however. Their
opposition to tolls slapped on local roads prompted Zhu to explore other
means of financing road construction. But his preferred alternativea
national gasoline taxis now being stalled by farmers demanding exemptions.
"I call the phenomenon pwapeasants with attitude," says Jeff Muir,
Hong Kong-based managing director of Chongqing Seagram Co. Muir travels
regularly by road from Chongqing to Zhongxian, where Seagram is developing
Florida-quality oranges in China's traditional citrus-growing region.
"The road is a metaphor for the tensions between the traditional rural
way of life and the agents of change." He points to the way defiant peasants
take over the shoulders of newly paved local toll roads to dry corn and
rice, or roll rocks onto the road to obstruct truckers, whom they blame
for endangering livestock and luring women to work in roadside brothels.
Only when peasants benefit from sharing the roads they once monopolized
do they begin to feel responsibility for maintaining them. Like millions
of other poor farmers in China's "wild west," Lei Xinyu migrated east
in search of wages in 1994. He returned to Zhongxian last year when he
heard that Seagram was offering $2 a day for help in transforming rice
terraces into orange groves. When he saw that the road between Shuanggui
and his home village had been paved during his absence, he saved his wages
to buy a motorcycle and now makes up to $5 a day taxiing his neighbors
to the market. "Now that the roads are better, people like to go to other
towns to buy what they need," says Lei.
History shows that building roads is the easy part of a vicious cycle.
Dealing with the ensuing traffic and pollution will be harder, as the
U.S. experience with smog and creeping suburbia has proven. Chinese transport
experts argue that with only 14 million vehiclescompared to 200
million in the U.S.China has a long way to go before its auto emissions
equal those of the industrialized world. In the meantime, China's toll
collectors will have plenty of time to sleep.
Write to TIME at firstname.lastname@example.org
From Sapporo to Surabaya Home | TIME Asia Features Home
TIME Asia home