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China Building Bridges to Nowhere (A Long Time Ago Too)

China has been doing what it does for a very, very long time, and our reaction has always been pretty much the same.

I was reading a little about Joseph Needham the other day when I came upon this:

“It is interesting that one of the things which the early Portuguese visitors to China in the 16th century found most extraordinary about the bridges was the fact that they existed along roads often far from any human habitation. “What is to be wondered at in China,” wrote Gaspar da Cruz, the Dominican who was there in 1556, “is that there are many bridges in uninhabited places throughout the country, and these are not less well built nor less costly than those which are nigh the cities, but rather they are all costly and all well wrought.”

I found this interesting, as Needham’s recording of the West’s reaction towards China’s infrastructural strategy hasn’t really changed all too much in the past 450 years. The words of this 16th century Portuguese explorer isn’t much different than those of 21st century foreign analysts about China constructing highways, train stations, airports, new cities, and, yes, bridges in under-inhabited places. 

Since the beginning of China’s economic boom period 16,000 kilometers of high-speed rail lines have been created, the largest highway network in the world had been laid, 800 skyscrapers have been erected, and over 129 million new homes have been built as the country consumes over 50% of the concrete, 35% of the steel, and 30% of the coal supplies in the world. Each year China constructs enough floor space to cover the surface of Hong Kong two times over.

Although the placement of much of this infrastructure often doesn’t seem to make much sense to those looking in from the outside — especially as the byproduct of this construction bonanza has been myriad highways to nowhere, so-called ghost cities, unused airports, vacant tech parks, 600 million square meters of unoccupied floor space, and, yes, colossal, expensive bridges in places where few people use them.

But as China continues blanketing the country with a contiguous framework of infrastructure, we have to remember that they’ve been doing this for a very, very long time and our reaction has seldom ever been much different.

Filed under: China

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 89 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3515 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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  • Anirban Choudhury February 2, 2016, 5:22 am

    The Art of War By Sun Tzu
    Chapter I. Laying Plans/ Article 2.
    “It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected”

    For the Chinese State Planner, roads of national importance having assets like bridges needs to be built to last and secured for time immemorial. Therefore highways of national importance are made outside city to protect its flanks from getting encroached.

    On the other hand in India, the national highway approaches and its flanks get encroached by non synergistic land-use in less than a decade. The road of national importance ceases to function as planned and needs a City Bypass road, constructed later on land acquired at high cost.

    THEREFORE THERE IS NOTHING WRONG IN BUILDING BRIDGES ON NATIONALLY IMPORTANT HIGHWAYS, AWAY FROM CITIES SO THAT THE CREEPING CITY AFTER A CENTURY CANNOT FUNCTIONALLY LIMIT THE HIGHWAY.

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