China is in the midst of a construction spree unparalleled in human history. Over the course
of just 40 years, the Chinese will be adding a layer of infrastructure that will rival
what we in the United States have built in our entire past.
These are the Megaprojects that will lift China into the future.
China wants to make its capital, Beijing, the center of the world’s largest supercity,
by merging three provinces into one continuous megalopolis of 130 million people. That’s
six times the population of New York.
The region is called Jing-Jin-Ji. It will tie together the cities in the three provinces
along the Bohai Bay rim using advanced communications networks, new high-speed rail and subway lines,
and better highways.
Reports are that Beijing’s focus will be culture and technology, Tianjin will become
a research base for manufacturing, and Hebei will be the new home of many of the federal
bureaucracy jobs that will be relocated from the capital.
The project has the full backing of President Xi Jinping to catch the area up to China’s
more economically prosperous regions, like what Shanghai and Nanjing have got going on
in the Yangtze River Delta.
Covering roughly the total land area of the US state of Kansas, Jing-Jin-Ji will be unlike
anything seen before in the history of mankind.
And even though it’s still a work in progress -- part of a long-term vision -- that’s
not stopping people from moving into areas that are completely unready for them. “The
services are bad,” says a salesman who commutes a total of five hours a day on congested roads.
His 6-year-old child has more than 65 kids in his class.
They live in Yanjiao, one of the many tower-filled suburbs that are sprouting up all across Jing-Jin-Ji.
Yanjiao has about ¾ of a million residents, but just two very small parks and no bus terminals.
Why is this the case?
Because corruption is perceived as rampant at the local level in China, the central government
doesn’t allow cities to keep the little tax revenues they do collect. So communities
like Yanjiao have no way to pay for desperately-needed schools, roads or enough buses to adequately
serve their citizens.
The most vital piece of infrastructure that will help fix a lot of these problems is still
being built, Jing-Jin-Ji’s high speed rail network. With trains that can hit 185 miles
per hour, urban areas that were previously confined by the 60 miles per hour speeds of
a car or subway or train, can now greatly expand.
All those people filling the megacities in the North have a shortage of the single most
necessary resource for life: water. To solve that problem, the Chinese will soon be moving
44.8 billion cubic meters of fresh water each year from the wetter South to the dryer North.
There will be three canals in the project, a 716 mile-long Eastern Canal that will begin
at the Yangtze River and snake uphill, with the help of more than 20 pumping stations,
to reservoirs in Tianjin.
Route two will flow downhill from the Danjiangkou Reservoir on the Han river 785 miles across
the North China Plain to Beijing.
And the third route is the Big Western Line. It’s still in its planning phase, but it
will divert water from the rivers flowing into the Yangtze, sending it to the Yellow
The Central Government has rammed this project through despite many concerns over pollution
and the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of villagers. It’s also late and over budget
due to the soaring costs of building bridges and tunnels for the canals to cross the many
rivers and highways in its way. Then there are the fears that diverting water from the
Yangtze River could cause the world’s third-longest river to run low, devastating those whose
livelihoods depend on it.
One proposed solution to this problem is to give the Yangtze more water by redirecting
rivers in southwestern China. But this would affect India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand,
Cambodia, and Vietnam, potentially causing an international crisis.
For the immediate future though, the South-to-North water Transfer Project is a done deal. Following
the example of the American West in the previous century, China has completely reshaped its
environment using dams and canals, allowing for the arid North to support tens of millions
more residents than it otherwise could.
As the world’s most populous country, it makes sense China would have the world’s
busiest airport, and when the Beijing Daxing International Airport opens in 2018, it will.
With a maximum capacity of 130 million passengers a year, it will be significantly busier than
the world’s current busiest airport [Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson].
To make this work, Beijing-Daxing’s main terminal will sprawl over 7.5-million square-feet.
It’s unique starfish design was created by Zaha Hadid Architects to “provide an
exceptional passenger experience with minimal walking and increased connectivity."
The new Mega-Airport could have as many as nine runways: eight for civilian use and one
for the military, and will cover more than 6,600 acres in southern Daxing along its border
with Hebei province.
Construction will cost around $13 billion, and will include a dedicated high speed rail
line to connect the airport to the rest of Beijing’s transportation system.
Beijing’s existing Capital International Airport is already running well over-capacity
and has become the second busiest in the world even though it just opened in 2008. So to
ease congestion, it will stay open, providing the Jing-Jin-Ji supercity with two mega-airports.
But it’s not just passenger congestion that makes it hard to fly in China. Some analysts
say the root of the problem is that the military controls 80% of the airspace, which forces
civilian aircraft to operate in narrow corridors, slowing them down. That’s why flight delays
are rampant throughout the country.
But that’s an issue China can and will fix, because it knows that while the 20th century
was the century of the automobile, the 21st will be dominated by the airplane, especially
once faster, more efficient aircraft are introduced, making it even easier and cheaper to get around
our increasingly interconnected planet.
The Chinese aren’t just flying in record numbers, they’re falling in love all over
again with the preferred method of travel in the 20th century, as hundreds of millions
of Chinese acquire middle class status and the extra income to afford cars. This is presenting
a relatively new challenge: heavy congestion on their motorways. So to tackle this problem,
China has set itself apart from the rest of the world by embracing high speed rail at
a breakneck pace. It’s goal to build a system with more than 35,000 kilometers of track
is now more than half complete, making it one of the most expensive megaprojects in
The other reason behind this plan is to allow people to commute to work from much farther
distances than they could than if they had to drive, making high speed rail the key to
urbanization. And because China has as much high speed rail as every other country combined,
it will have more and more of the world’s largest cities.
In fact, of the top 10 urban areas on Earth with more than 20 million people, three of
them are in China—and those cities are growing so fast that two of the three weren’t in
the top 10 last year.
The explosion in high speed rail in China is especially mind-blowing when you consider
that it was first introduced there in 2007, that’s less than a decade ago. Since then,
daily ridership has grown from 237,000 to over 2.5 million.
To accommodate all those passengers, it’s Railway Ministry has swelled, and now has
the same number of employees as there are civilians working for the entire United States
China got to this point under the heavy-handed leadership of Minister of Railways Liu Zhijun,
or “Great Leap Liu,” who pushed his patriotic workers in shifts around the clock to plan
and build rail lines as fast as possible. He famously said, “to achieve a great leap,
a generation must be sacrificed.” Liu meant his workers, but when a poorly designed signaling
system caused a dramatic crash on a viaduct high above a valley in 2011, it was clear
that some of the first generation of passengers would be sacrificed as well.
News anchor: “China’s railway system has been plagued with problems including corruption
and quality concerns. Authorities have come under fire for the way they’ve handled the
accident, especially when they buried several carriages before carrying out an investigation.”
Bryce: But, despite the 40 deaths - and more than 200 injuries - in the Wenzhou train collision,
the attempts of the government to cover the disaster up, and Great Leap Liu’s subsequent
fall from grace, the high speed rail boom in China has roared on and the system is now
considered to be among the safest modes of transportation in the entire world.
It also leads the globe in annual ridership, has the longest single service at 2,400 km
from Harbin to Wuhan and has the fastest commercially operated train with peak speeds of 430 km/h.
Now, having successfully linked up much of its own country with high speed rail, China
aims to do the same for the rest of the world. It is building systems in Turkey, Saudi Arabia,
and South America, and is bidding on projects in Russia, Brazil, Myanmar, and the United
Now for the most dangerous project on the agenda. The world’s longest underwater tunnel
will connect the cities of Dalian and Yantai across the Bohai Sea, passing through two
deadly earthquake fault zones. At 76 miles long it will be longer than the current first
and second-ranked underwater tunnels combined, and at a cost of $42 billion, it will be extremely
expensive. But the Chinese calculate that it will be worth it.
For one, it will slash the eight hour drive between the two cities to under two hours.
It will also connect China’s isolated northern rustbelt with its wealthy east coast, adding
an additional $3.7 billion to the economy each year.
The experience could also establish the Chinese as the preeminent submarine diggers in the
world, and would be a serious practice run for far more ambitious potential future Mega-MEGA-projects
like connecting China to South Korea, or even Russia to the United States across the Bering
Strait--yes, that has actually been proposed.
This isn’t the first underwater tunnel project for Chinese engineers, either, who already
gained some experience by completing the 3.8 mile-long Jiaozhou Bay Tunnel in 2011. But
while the Bohai Sea is roughly the same depth as Jiaozhou Bay, the tunnel underneath it
will be 20 times longer.
When it comes to construction, if they’re lucky, the Chinese will encounter only soft
seabed, allowing them to use Tunnel-Boring Machines the whole way. But if they run into
harder rock, they’re going to have to use the “drill-and-blast” method embraced
by the Japanese during construction of the Seikhan Tunnel. Using tons of dynamite hundreds
of feet underwater is dangerous business, and it resulted in the unfortunate deaths
of four workers over the course of that project, and maaaany accidental leaks.
Reporter: “In 1976 the project hit its biggest crisis when 80 tons of seawater a minute began
leaking in. 1.5 km of tunnel flooded. It took five months to get back on track.”
Bryce: The Bohai Tunnel will also have to withstand magnitude 8.0 earthquakes. In 1976,
the deadliest earthquake in modern history -- a 7.8 -- killed a record 650,000 people
in Tangshan and surrounding areas. In 1969 a quake measuring 7.4 on the Richter scale
shook the Bohai Bay itself. And there doesn’t seem to be much the engineers can even do
about that threat besides simply reinforcing the strength of the tunnel walls. Of course,
they could simply not bore a long hole under a deep bay through two fault zones, but that
doesn’t really seem to be an option at this point.
Because officials throughout China are under enormous pressure to hit GDP economic growth
targets, and there aren’t many other options that could provide anywhere near as much economic
benefit as the Bohai Tunnel, which should break ground sometime in 2016.
By now you’re seeing the trend here: the world’s biggest city, the world’s longest
canal, biggest airport, longest high speed rail network and underwater tunnel. So the
fact that China is building the world’s largest Wind Power Farm too shouldn’t surprise
you. The Gansu Wind Farm Project will produce 20 Gigawatts of power by 2020, and will cost
nearly $20 billion to build. Turbines are going up at the staggering rate of 35 per
day across the three areas that make up the power base. In 2012, Gansu’s capacity surpassed
the total wind-generated-electricity produced by all of the United Kingdom, and it’s just
the largest of six mega-wind farms currently under construction throughout China.
But China isn’t embracing wind just to reduce its carbon emissions, it’s doing everything
it can to simply keep the lights on. Some parts of the country with booming middle class
populations suffer persistent electricity shortages because, just like us, people want
refrigerators, dishwashers, washer and dryers, and computers in their homes, but there’s
only so much energy to go around.
So China’s State Council is pushing for an across-the-board renewable strategy to
reduce its dependence on oil, coal and gas, the finite resources of the 20th century whose
extraction and consumption are subject to constant geopolitical tensions.
Since 2013, China has led the world in renewable energy production, with a total capacity of
378 installed Gigawatts, coming from projects as wide-ranging as Gansu to hydroelectric
power plants like the Three Gorges Dam, which spans the Yangtze River and is the world’s
largest power station of any kind. In just the last 10 years, China has increased its
solar panel production 100-fold to become the world’s leading manufacturer of the
With China now pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere than the number two and three emitting countries
- the US and India - combined, it’s vital for the future of the planet that it continues
using MegaProjects to create a lot more Megawatts of clean, green power.
Another answer is nuclear power, which is much less controversial in China because of
its prodigious demand for electricity--and the inability of its people to mount any real
challenges to the government’s plans.
Mainland China currently has 31 nuclear power reactors in operation, and another 24 under
construction. Compare this to the United States, which has 99 commercial reactors overall,
supplying about 20% of its electricity needs. However, the US currently has plans to build
just five more reactors--as it’s instead choosing to embrace natural gas, wind and
Even France -- who leads the world by generating 3/4 of its electricity from nuclear -- is
moving away from the technology, and will likely close nearly half its nuclear power
plants in the next decade.
The Fukushima accident in Japan, after the devastating earthquake there, also accelerated
the world’s break up with nuclear power, even causing China to briefly suspend new
projects. But while the rest of the world turns its back on nuclear energy, China is
doing the opposite, more than quadrupling its nuclear capacity by 2030. The marquee
project is the Haiyang Nuclear Power Plant in Shandong province, which will eventually
house eight AP1000 Westinghouse pressurized water reactors for a total capacity of 8,800
MegaWatts--four times more power than is generated by the Hoover Dam, a power station that provides
electricity for 8 million people in the American Southwest. And when you factor in that the
average home in China uses a fraction of what an American home uses, the Haiyang plant will
end up producing enough electricity for tens of millions of people.
But the $13 billion project is only the most powerful of the 13 different nuclear power
plants currently under construction across China--nine of which will have a maximum capacity
of more than 6,000 MW.
Most are near large cities where power is needed most, but this strategy raises concerns
that if there were an accident, tens of millions of residents could be exposed to dangerous
The neighboring Guangdong and Ling Ao nuclear power plants have 28 million people within
a 75-kilometer radius, including Hong Kong. That’s many more than the 8 million who
live within 75-kilometers of the San Onofre nuclear generation station in Southern California,
but the decision was taken in 2013 to shut the California plant down after numerous safety
concerns became known to the public--highlighting the opposite directions the two nations are
heading in when it comes to nuclear power.
The other issue China must deal with is how to dispose the many tons of radioactive waste
it will be generating, which is always a contentious issue because no one wants that in their backyard.
The current plan is for construction to commence in 2041 on a high level waste repository site
in the Gobi Desert.
On the whole, the danger of a costly nuclear accident that China would pay for in both
blood and treasure is fairly significant, but Beijing is apparently willing to live
with that risk, judging by its unrestricted embrace of nuclear power. But these are tough
choices, and it’s important to keep in mind that in the age of climate change and ecological
interconnectivity, nuclear power is still an infinitely cleaner alternative to burning
The final megaproject featured in our series perfectly highlights both China’s ongoing
struggle to maintain its unprecedented growth, and the unbelievable ambition that’s fueling
A constant challenge for most big cities is that there’s only so much land to build
on. For Hong Kong and Shenzhen - two neighboring metropolises with a total population of nearly
20 million - the boundary it’s running into is water. Specifically, the Pearl River Delta,
which separates the uber-populated eastern corridor from the far lesser populated cities
of Macau and Zhuhai on its western shore.
Today, to get to Macau (Ma-Cow) after landing at Hong Kong International airport, you are
faced with either a four hour drive around the mouth of the delta, or a long ferry ride
through frequently rough waters.
But that’s about to change, thanks to a $17 billion six-lane, multi-part bridge that
will cut the trip down to a 45 minute drive.
It is an incredibly complex project, and includes cost and construction sharing agreements between
mainland China and its special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau.
Inspired by both the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in the US and the Øresund Bridge that connects
Denmark and Sweden, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge will not only have to withstand typhoons,
but to avoid cutting off one of the world’s busiest shipping routes into Hong Kong and
its unusually deep natural harbor it will plunge underwater as a tunnel. And at 28km,
its longest stretch will be as if 15 Golden Gate bridges were lined up end-to-end-to-end-to-end.
And that’s not even the craziest part. Because Shenzhen doesn’t want to be left out, it
too will build a megabridge across the delta just a few miles to the north.
Basically, the region is booming so fast, and competition to tap into the cheaper land
and labor available on the western side is so great, that Shenzhen and Hong Kong have
both committed to building multi-billion dollar megabridges, and will essentially race to
see who finishes theirs first.
As you can see from a close look at the map, cities with populations totaling more than
40 million people surrounding the delta, thus revealing the master plan: to lay the foundation
for China’s second megalopolis, an urban area that could eventually exceed 100 million
We started this video with Jing-Jin-Ji, and we’re ending it with what I’m calling
Hong-Guang-Zhong. Two megalopolises, each serving as perfect bookends to our story of
China, a country that is counting on infrastructure megaprojects like those we’re profiled to
serve as the foundation for its rapid urbanization. But how well it manages that urbanization
will largely define whether it continues its ambitious rise for the rest of the 21st century.
For TDC, I’m Bryce Plank. This has been another Daily Conversation original multi-part
documentary. If you found the topic of China’s addiction to megaprojects as fascinating as
I do, hit that like button and share it with your friends and followers, it really helps
me out! If you made it here to the end of this video, thank you so much for watching!
Click on the on-screen annotations to enjoy the other mini-documentaries I’ve made like
the future megaprojects in the rest of the world, the most interesting energy sources
of the future, the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or my take on the immigration history
of the United States of America.