China's Rail Plans: Putting the good of the country above the tourist trail
FAR EASTERN ECONOMIC REVIEW: JUNE 19, 2009
By Kathleen E. McLaughlin
Only last fall, Sanjiang in the province of Guangxi, was the China of every tourist's dream. Stunning mountain rice terraces serve as a backdrop to quaint villages of airy, traditional wooden houses and peaked, covered bridges.
Inside, people of the Dong and Buyi ethnic minorities -- the women adorned in traditional smocks and knotted head coverings -- move about the slow business of farming through picturesque paddies and green fields.
These days, a large swath of southern China, from Guangdong through Guangxi and Guizhou, is under heavy construction, the earth making way for a train the government hopes will help spur the local and national economies. Massive dirt-moving trucks roar fast over narrow mountain roads, coating villagers and water buffalo with dust in their wake. Tunnel crews bore through huge, untouched mountains, setting off regular rounds of explosive charges, shoring up the insides as they go. Local life has been altered dramatically since the train crews started work six months ago.
This is China's economic stimulus plan at work and it isn't a pretty sight. The area's pristine and unique exterior seems perched on the edge of toppling into the white-tile-blue-glass abyss of urban economic development that has served to bring the rest of China into economic prosperity and modernization. Locals want higher incomes, but there are struggles to preserve the elements that make this a prized cultural tourist attraction.
The Guiyang-Guangzhou rail line is but one small part of China's massive efforts to spur continued economic growth through infrastructure development -- with a large segment dedicated to expanding the nation's passenger and freight railway networks. This particular piece of the stimulus puzzle is an 857-kilometer double-track, electrified rail that, taken in isolation, probably would cause quite a stir.
Instead, it's not causing any stir at all. Outside of the poor, remote mountain villages, where dust and noise have taken over, and blocked roads and small landslides are now a daily part of life, hardly anyone has noticed or heard about the project. There is no international outcry, no demands to stop the train. Locals are displeased about the disruptions, but practical as ever about the future. "The train project has had a major impact on our lives and was causing too many problems," said Cen Zhongbao, mayor of Dayu village in eastern Guizhou. "We had to get the higher-level government to move the (construction) road out of the village."
Mr. Cen spoke while standing amid the village's outdoor market, as peddlers groused nearby over the lack of new business the train crews have brought to Dayu. The crews, living in a camp down the road, are nearly all Han Chinese, brought in by contractors from outside provinces to lay the rail line. The villagers are almost all from the Buyi and Dong minorities, and nearly all are poor. Mayor Cen said the train itself won't be a problem for the village when it begins operation in 2015. Trouble is that now, the village's main road has been overtaken by construction crews that have altered daily life in unbearable ways.
Trucks roar through town, blaring their horns until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., villagers said, and the noise begins anew early every morning. Everything from fruit to meat to storefront windows is covered in a thick layer of grime from the trucks. "The government in charge has agreed to move the road this summer and repair the damage to our road," said Mr. Cen.
His village is not the only place along the train route to express discontent about the rail project. In a Dong minority village near Sanjiang, a man who would only give his surname, Xiang, worked at rebuilding his home from one of the seasonal fires that often sweep through this region. The train project, he said, hasn't done much for his village but cause trouble. Local farmers are rarely hired to work on the project, but local residents must put up with the noise, dust and disruption of construction. "We don't really get any benefits," Mr. Xiang said. "If the boss is from Hunan, he brings in his own workers from Hunan."
"Of course, it's good from the country, but it's not good for us because they're taking over the town and the work . . . It's impossible for a project this big to benefit everyone, so we have to help the country first," said Mr. Xiang. "We can only help our own family after we help the country."
But Zhang Guoxiang, a tunnel construction engineer from Anhui province, explained that it's too difficult for construction companies to train local farmers to blast through mountains. Most of the workers brought in for these initial stages of construction are skilled and have some experience in laying rail lines. The resulting job creation will help pick up the slack, badly needed as China struggles to cope with the loss of millions of factory jobs in recent months amid the global downturn.
As always with big infrastructure endeavors, there are hazards. The World Bank, which recently decided to help fund the train's $12.5 billion construction with a $300 million loan, rated this project a Grade A environmental risk, triggering the need for extensive environmental impact assessments and mitigation plans to address everything from protection of fragile ecosystems to the vast numbers of social issues faced by ethnic minorities who live in the path of the rail line.
According to studies on file with the bank, the project's potential to develop the economy of China's poorest province, Guizhou, is worth the temporary disruption to local life. John Scales, transportation sector coordinator for the World Bank in China, said environmental and social upheaval from train construction is relatively easily mitigated and nearly always short-term.
That's because once the train is completed, nature and human life typically resume with little disruption. Unlike a highway or an airport, electric trains don't spew local pollution. In addition, he noted, the train's original route has been modified many times in consideration of environmental problems and other issues. The final plan, Mr. Scales said, is a rail line that is 77% tunnels and bridges.
"This is actually a brilliant line because it connects the poorest province in China, which is Guizhou, to one of the richest, which is Guangdong," said Mr. Scales. "So it helps to move people and freight from the coastal regions, the economic powerhouse of China, to the inner region. But it also facilitates movement throughout the regions, and that's because rail is a network."
The new line will cut passenger travel time between the two provincial capitals down to an estimated five hours from the current 24 hours . Freight will move more slowly, at 120 kilometers per hour, but still at a far accelerated speed. The hope is to attract industry to Guizhou and other internal provinces, now hamstrung in development in part because of their lack of infrastructure and transportation options. A strong rail network could allow manufacturing to take hold in the interior, bringing further weight to the long-held Chinese government westward expansion and development plans.
Critics of the ongoing westward development policy of rail networks say its implementation often leaves much to be desired. Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch said the organization has not studied the Guiyang-Guangzhou project railway in detail but is concerned with the general process that has surrounded "Go West" rail lines. Often there is "zero local input, no ownership of the development process, no obvious development beyond the 'ribbon development' it creates along the track," he said.
"What we have seen in the case of similar projects in Xinjiang and Tibet was a process of marginalization of local ethnic communities, who are forced either to commodify their economies (tourism is the big eco blueprint that is supposed to deliver benefits to the local minorities) or be left behind," Mr. Bequelin said.
But this is most certainly not Tibet or Xinjiang, a fact underscored by the lack on any international attention focused on the project. The Guiyang-Guangzhou rail line is 300 kilometers shorter than the &GBP 252;bercontroversial Qinghai-Tibet railway that drew intense international criticism. But it involves the same issues: minority peoples, cultural and social impacts and a sensitive, diverse environment. And still, nobody is looking.
Locally, nongovernmental organizations say the train is bound to cause problems for poor minorities in the areas, but few have studied it extensively. Plus, the national economic stimulus package that has already left the station is unstoppable. "This might bring economic benefits to the local people. It will certainly have a big influence on the local culture and create some culture shock for the locals," said Zou Zhongdian of a Guiyang-based ngo called Green Home. "In the end, the people will become Han-ified."
The line will cross through 48 environmentally sensitive sites, according to the environmental impact statement published by the World Bank, from famous karst mountains and caves to scenic rice terraces and forest parks across three provinces. It will be built within the habitat of 27 rare and endangered animals (22 of which are birds) and broach areas of rare trees. It presents all the problems of an electrified rail, including noise and vibration issues after completion. Although more than 43,000 people are slated for relocation, farmers in the area are blas&GBP 233; about pending moving plans -- many say they don't know the final plans, while others say the compensation proposals look more than fair.
Yet despite all this, the project has barely registered with environmental and social-welfare groups. The reason is likely a combination of factors. First, though Guizhou is home to some of the most pristine scenery in China, ethnic minorities and treasure troves of interesting history, it is also remote and very poor. Few international ngos work here and those that do tend to focus on health care and social issues affecting the poor. Second, unlike Tibet and Xinjiang, there are no international politics at play. The minorities of Guizhou are not vocally battling the Chinese government for greater autonomy.
But perhaps the most important reason is this: On the grand scale, this massive train tearing up the unbroken earth across a stretch of southern China is too tiny to notice. It is just one small fraction of the country's vast railway expansion. "It's staggering if you look at it in isolation," said Mr. Scales of the World Bank. "But if you look at everything else that's going on, it's really only one of many projects."
Inside the bank's Beijing office, a map of China hangs from the wall near Mr. Scales' desk. The country is covered in a mass of red lines that overwhelm the eastern half and coast, like intricate blood vessels running through the body. Each red stroke represents a new train line either planned or currently under construction, in a maze of infrastructure that will double China's rail network. By 2020, the country plans a rail system of 120,000 kilometers. The world's fourth-busiest passenger lines and second-busiest rail carrier, where passenger traffic doubled from 1997-2007, is working to build a new system to meet demands that have outpaced supply for years.
In the plans: a new dedicated passenger line from Beijing to Guangzhou that will travel 300 kilometers per hour; and speedy coastal routes connecting Ningbo, the second-busiest shipping port, to all eastern points as far as south as Shenzhen. A new line traverses the northeast, connecting major cities across the rust belt with Beijing, while two big east-west arteries transect China at the middle.
Most of the projects have been in planning stages for years, on hold as China grappled with concerns about its booming economy overheating. Last fall, the onset of the global financial crisis put those fears on ice and in November, the government unveiled plans for a two-year, $587 billion spending spree to rejuvenate the economy. Most of the stimulus was not new projects, but rather previously planned public-works endeavors that could be fast-tracked to final approval.
When the stimulus plans came through, expanding China's rail networks was a pillar of the plans for economic development. The real impact of China's stimulus spending is still in question, with a recent central government audit showing that only 48% of local governments had raised adequate matching funds. Yet the scope of the massive and intricate network of rail projects, if they proceed as planned, will change the face of the nation.
"This will never be repeated in the history of the world. Never," said Mr. Scales, with a certain amount of awe.