As Donald Trump likes to say, “China is beating us on everything.” While that’s a debatable proposition, there is one area where China is far ahead of the United States, and that’s in resilient transportation systems.
This is a big deal: Transportation systems represent a huge portion of public and private spending — to the tune of $1.2 to $1.4 trillion globally each year. And, in an era rocked by climate change and other disruptions, those systems must be able to weather all kinds of shocks — from fuel shortages to flooding. They must be, in a word, resilient.
What does a resilient transportation system look like? First, it offers a diverse range of choices: If the train isn’t running, there are easily-available alternatives, like biking or taking a bus. Resilient transportation can be fueled by multiple energy sources, for the same reason: If oil prices spike, the system can run on electricity powered by the sun or the wind. Resilient transportation systems use fossil fuels sparingly, which helps mitigate climate change, reducing the likelihood of future disasters that may threaten transportation infrastructure or fuel sources. Finally, the most resilient systems are seamlessly connected to one another — offering maximum mobility at every scale, and for every mile of the journey.
When the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949, transport was underdeveloped. Total railway length was only 21,800 km, half of which was paralyzed. Highway traffic length was only 80,800 km, and civil automobiles numbered only 51,000. Inland waterways were undeveloped, and only 12 civil air routes were operative. Postal outlets were limited. The major means of transport were animal-drawn vehicles and primitive boats.
Following the founding of the PRC, the Chinese government decided to create the basic conditions to restore transport. During the economic recovery period (1949-1952) damaged transport facilities were repaired, and water, land and air transport were resumed. In 1953 China began to develop transport in a planned way. During the First (1953-1957) and Second (1958-1962) Five-Year Plan periods and the economic adjustment period (1961-1965) China tilted state investment in support of transport. It renovated and built a number of railways, highways, ports and piers, and civil airports; expanded the transport infrastructure coverage in the western and remote regions; dredged major navigation channels; opened new international and domestic sea and air routes; expanded the postal network; and increased the amount of transport equipment.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), transport was seriously disturbed, but facilities, equipment and routes kept increasing; in view of the severe delays in unloading and transshipment, and overstocking at major coastal ports, port infrastructure construction was accelerated; and pipeline transport developed.
The reform and opening-up policy adopted in 1978 ushered in a new stage of social and economic development, bringing about the rapid development of transport. The Chinese government prioritized transport development, increased pertinent policy support, made pioneering attempts to open wider the transport market and establish social financing mechanisms, and reversed the adverse situation that transport was unable to match social and economic development.
China implemented the contract responsibility system in railway operation; issued three policies for supporting highway development, namely, raising highway maintenance fee levied on highway users, collecting vehicle purchase tax, and building highways with loans and repaying the loans with tolls. Highway construction and water transport engineering projects started to adopt public bidding. Ports were the first to be opened up to the outside world, and sea transport was the first sector to go global. Civil aviation began to operate as an enterprise, and an air transport market took shape. The postal services management system was reformed, Express Mail Service (EMS) was set up, and postal savings services were resumed. Investment in transport development was increased and non-government capital was attracted to go into transport infrastructure construction. In 1988 the Shanghai-Jiading Expressway was opened to traffic, the first expressway on China’s mainland.
In 1992 China set the reform goal of establishing a socialist market economic system. Reform and opening-up efforts were furthered in transport while the development of various modes of transport achieved breakthrough progress. Since 1997, it has raised its average railway speed six times as a result of large-scale construction. A plan was made to build a transport framework where highways, waterways and ports play the major role, and put in place an advanced transport support system. A goal was set to accelerate related construction. China began to collect civil airport construction fees, and set up a civil airport infrastructure construction fund, a railway construction fund and an inland water transport construction fund in succession. To address the Financial Crisis starting in Southeast Asia, China implemented proactive fiscal policies to speed up investment in highway construction, which spurred the emergence of large-scale expressway construction. Around that time, the country implemented the strategy of developing the western regions, and enhanced the construction of railways, highways, airports and major gas pipelines there. It set the goal of “building asphalt and cement roads in rural areas to facilitate urbanization,” bringing a new upsurge of rural road construction. China furthered the reform of the port management system and accelerated the construction of ports. It separated postal services and telecommunications services, and government functions and enterprise operation in postal services, promoting modern postal services integrating information flow, capital flow and logistics.
Since the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012, the construction of a modernized comprehensive transport system has been accelerated. In 2013 railway sector realized separation of government functions from commercial operations, and the institutional reform to establish an efficient government department to exercise unified management of transport by air, water and land, as well as postal services was basically completed. The transport sector has pushed reform to a higher level by enhancing law-based management, promoting comprehensive, smart, green and safe transport, and formulating development plans to serve the Three Initiatives - the Belt and Road Initiative, the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei integration initiative and the Yangtze River Economic Belt initiative. China has expedited the building of a comprehensive transport infrastructure network, and reinforced the connectivity of multiple modes of transport, advancing modern logistics in this sector and securing comprehensive transport services. It has enhanced the supply and management of basic public services for transport, supporting the development of transport infrastructure in contiguous impoverished areas, urban and rural passenger transport and urban public transport. China has also promoted balanced development of transport in its eastern, central, western and northeastern regions. In this regard, western China has quickened its pace in developing high-speed railways, and overall central and western China’ s transport conditions have been greatly improved. In 2013 the Motuo Highway in Tibet was opened to traffic, indicating that every county in China now had access to highways.
Over the past 60-odd years China’s transport has undergone the phases of bottleneck, preliminary alleviation and basic adaptation to socio-economic development demands. China has narrowed its gap with world-class transport, and surpassed the latter in several fields. A modernized comprehensive transport system is now emerging on the horizon.
In order to achieve the emerging economy status and realize the Pakistan dream of the great rejuvenation of the Pakistan nation, higher standards must be set for the development of transport in Pakistan like China has adopted in span of past three decades. Transport promotes development, exchanges bring about cooperation, and interconnectivity enables mutual benefits. The Pakistan government should continue to improve the country’s transport services so as to better serve Pakistan’s socioeconomic development, and continue to strengthen cooperation with countries such as China for effective management in the area of transport. It will help in taking new opportunities and address challenges together to realize common development and prosperity.
The writer is a Master Trainer/Advisor at the Pakistan Industrial Technical Assistance Centre Lahore, under the Federal Ministry of Industries and Production, Islamabad.