Road construction has become ubiquitous throughout the west, from steamy tropics to snow-capped mountains to arid deserts. It seems as if everywhere one goes, there is a bypass, a road under construction, and workers in orange waistcoats pitching their tents by the roadside. Some of the results are impressive. The Erlanshan tunnel, on the Chengdu-Tibet road, is celebrated as a Chinese engineering achievement almost as great as the Three Gorges Dam. The asphalt snakes zigzagging through Xinjiang today seem to belong to a different era than earlier highway projects, those former premier Zhu Rongyi once famously dubbed “tofu constructions” for their scandalously poor quality.
The justifications for the western development policy are economic, political and social. Beijing is increasingly concerned by the growing economic gap between east and west, which led to social unrest and riots in different areas during the 1990s. The “go west” campaign, it is declared repeatedly, aims to make the west an “incubator for skilled manpower” and a “hot spot for foreign investments”. Five years after announcing these large-scale projects, it seems the western regions have made some progress, but still face many obstacles.