Greg Lindsay's Blog

September 26, 2010  |  permalink

China’s “Moon Shots”

In Sunday’s New York Times, Tom Friedman tolls the warning bell yet again about China: “China is doing moon shots. Yes, that’s plural. When I say “moon shots” I mean big, multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing investments. China has at least four going now: one is building a network of ultramodern airports…” The others includes high-speed rail, bio-sciences, and electric cars (which he spends the bulk of his column discussing).

Just how big is that network of airports? I quantify the scale and cost in the book:

Even before the crisis and China’s subsequent stimulus, the central government announced as part of its Eleventh Five-Year Plan that it would build a hundred new airports by 2020, at a cost of $62 billion. The first forty were ready last year. China is placing the single biggest bet on aviation of any country, ever. The vast majority lie inland, hugging provincial capitals and secondary cities bigger than any we have in the States. Full-scale aerotropoli are planned for China’s western hubs, Chongqing and Chengdu, and its ancient capital in the northwest, Xi’an. The others are slated for a mix of historic cities and outsourcing hubs like Changsha, Kunming, Hangzhou, Shenyang and Dalian. Shanghai built two for the crowds headed to last year’s Expo 2010, expected to be the best-attended World’s Fair in history.

Besides airports, China has laid as many miles of high-speed railroad tracks in the last five years as Europe has in the last two decades. The trains, in turn, are meant to keep people off the highways, to which it’s adding thirty thousand miles–enough to eclipse the American interstate highway system. China’s planners have internalized the lessons of America’s Eisenhower-era infrastructure boom, designing a world-class system for moving people and goods quickly, cheaply and reliably across any distance, whether locally by highway, regionally by rail, or globally by air. The plan is to pick and up move large swaths of the Delta hundreds or even thousands of miles inland. There is nothing to stop them.

If China’s leaders want to do something, they just do it. This is both their greatest strength and in the long run their greatest weakness. Remember what they said about democracy? It just gets in the way. This is how Foster’s dragon was built in five years flat, at a cost of ten thousand flattened homes. Multiply that times a hundred, and you have the initial human costs of China’s aerotropoli.

 

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is the director of applied research at NewCities and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion.  He is also a partner at FutureMap, a geo-strategic advisory firm based in Singapore, a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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