GDP, Infrastructure, Train Crashes and Tofu Bridges

Earlier this month, Foreign Policy compiled a list of the 75 cities projected to be the “world’s most dynamic” by 2025, according to per-capita GDP growth. The list, which is based on a McKinsey Global Institute database of 2,065 cities, is dominated by China’s rapidly changing urban landscapes, as an accompanying FP brief explains:

[...]Over the next 15 years, the urban world’s center of gravity will move farther south and, even more decisively, east.

Which is why we’ve put together this unique index of The Most Dynamic Cities of 2025, some 40 percent of which are in just one country: China. Many are places you’ve never heard of, from Fuzhou to Wuhan, and speak to the massive transformation of a country that looks to lead the 21st century’s urban revolution as much as the United States reinvented the metropolis for the 20th. The West will not be quite eclipsed by 2025 — 13 U.S. cities make the list, though only three in Europe — but the sun is indeed setting.[...]

By 2025, 99 new cities are expected to enter the top 600, all from the developing world and overwhelmingly — 72 new cities — from China.[...]

[...]Barring some unforeseen disaster, the future of the world’s cities will largely be written in Chinese.

In a more recent FP article, James Traub reflects on the list described above, to see if China really is “eclipsing the West”. He looks closely at one indicator of growth in China: its massive development of infrastructure:

China’s growth has been investment-driven rather than consumer-driven, as in much of the West. That investment, above all, takes the form of the astonishing building and infrastructure projects that have propelled the growth of China’s cities — bullet trains, highways, ports, and giant manufacturing complexes. Local governments issue the debt for these projects, which now stands at a stupefying 10.7 trillion yuan ($1.58 trillion). The city of Tianjin — number three on the McKinsey list, behind Shanghai and Beijing — recently announced plans to invest another $236 billion in industrial development over the next four years. If enough of these speculative investments fail, city and regional governments could face unsustainable debt. A recent Economistarticle, however, argues that those debts have never endangered “the fiscal position of the country as a whole.” The claim that China’s economy is a house of cards may be an elaborate form of wish fulfillment.

China’s urban model is powerful but brutal, like China itself. Cities like Shanghai have bulldozed their past on the way to a glittering future. It’s not a model to be emulated, at least in the West: Urbanites, at least in the Old World and New Old World, want to live both on the cutting edge and in the past, and great cities like New York and London and Paris let them do so. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from China.

While Traub’s piece claims that China’s investment in infrastructure could serve as a lesson for the West, it also mentions the many pitfalls of rapid development that can be seen in China, exemplified, for example, by the 2011 train crashes in Wenzhou, or more recently by Beijing’s infrastructural inability to stand up to heavy rain in parts of the city. While China’s investment strategy may indeed be helping its cities dominate lists like the one compiled by FP, poor planning coupled with official corruption often creates disaster, and last week two infrastructural mishaps occured in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang. AFP reports on a train accident last Thursday in Jiamusi:

Two Chinese passenger trains collided Thursday leaving dozens of people injured, the official Xinhua news agency reported, in the latest accident to hit the country’s rail network. At least 24 people were hurt in the collision at Jiamusi station, in the north-eastern province of Heilongjiang, Xinhua said, citing a spokesman for the provincial railway bureau.

The online arm of the state-run People’s Daily newspaper said a train waiting at a station platform was hit from behind by another train coming from Hegang. It was not immediately clear whether the line in question was part of China’s high-speed rail network, which has been plagued by accidents and accusations of poor safety standards.

On Friday, a day after the Jiamusi collision, a newly opened bridge in Harbin collapsed. AFP reports:

Three people were killed and five injured when an eight-lane bridge in northeast China collapsed early on Friday, only nine months after it opened, state media said.

The bridge, part of an airport expressway in Harbin city, only opened last November after two years of construction that cost 1.9 billion yuan ($300 million), China News Service reported.

A 100-metre (320-foot) section broke off when four heavy trucks drove onto the bridge, plunging them to the ground, said a CCTV news reporter at the scene. The bridge was designed to handle up to 9,800 vehicles per hour.

Two people were killed on the spot, a third died later, and five remain in hospital.

[...]Thousands of people commented on the collapse on Sina Weibo, a popular Twitter-like service, with most blaming corruption.

“Just imagine, some corrupt official takes four-fifths of the project funds, that means the project manager can only make money by skimping on the job,” said one user.

According to the official Xinhua news agency, the Yangmingtan Bridge was the sixth major bridge in China to collapse since July 2011. Chinese officials have tended to blame overloaded trucks for the collapses, and did so again on Friday.

Many in China have attributed the recent spate of bridge collapses to corruption, and online reaction to the latest collapse was scathing.

“Corrupt officials who do not die just continue to cause disaster after disaster,” said one post on Friday on Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging service similar to Twitter.

Another Internet user expressed hope “that the government will put heavy emphasis on this and investigate to find out the real truth, and give both the dead and the living some justice!” A third user was more laconic, remarking, “Tofu engineering work leads to a tofu bridge.”