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How China Spends More Money on Roads than Arms

Last week, China rolled out a once-in-a-decade overarching plan for the national road network. The new roadmap charted another 60,000 km by 2035 on top of the 400,000 km outlined in the previous 2013 edition. It explains how China annually spends 2.4% of its GDP on road construction. To put it in perspective, China’s yearly defense budget, often portrayed as gargantuan to feed the “China threat” hysteria, only accounts for 1.4% of the GDP.

(Note: The portion allocated for state-level roads, the ones outlined in the plan in question, accounts for around 36% of the total road-building finance. The other four levels of roads in China are pertaining to provinces, counties, townships and villages, which take up the rest of the funds and each build and maintain roads in their respective purview.)

China’s road-building drive has recently kept relatively low-profile vis-a-vis the high-speed rail, which has risen to a living metaphor of China’s capacity to expand infrastructure. However, roads are the blood veins that generally sustain the world’s second largest economy. Up to now, three-quarters of the country’s freight transit relies on road transportation. And the number of automobiles in China by this March hit 300 million, which nearly doubled in the past eight years. Chinese have been chanting the famous phrase “If you want to get rich, build a road first” since the country began to embrace market economy in the late 1970s, and the infrastructure boom therefore becomes integral to China's success story. Over forty years later, however, nationwide road connections are still far from enough.

This new plan for the national road network, 5th of its kind in history, details every single state-level road that will break ground by 2035. Maintaining the so-called “7-11-18” and “12-47-60” layout for expressways and highways established in 2013, (The three figures refer to the number of radial, north-south, east-west arterial roads) this edition shuns major changes to the nationwide arterial structure, a move that featured the past four such documents. It shows China’s national road building has broken away from the massive expansion approach and entered a stage of elaborate planning. And some new arrangements in the blueprint offer interesting insights into the country’s focus in the near future. This article will help you connect the dots.

(Note: China’s state-level roads have been categorized into expressways高速公路 and highways国道 since 2004. Expressways are tolled, closed-off roads aimed at efficient and fast passage. Highways provide basic, free-of-charge traffic service.)

Cross-Region Balance

Road construction in western and frontier regions ranks high on the agenda. Among the few recent mainstay projects specified in the plan, three are related to these less accessible parts of China: border highways, Sichuan-Tibet connections, overall upgrade of road networks in west China. These efforts reflect China’s long-established national strategy of “coordinated regional development.”


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