A maglev train leaves Shanghai's Pudong airport. More are planned. Photo: Handout

Maglev lines, high-speed railways and a cobweb of metro links. These are part of a long list of mega-projects being unveiled by China’s provincial authorities that may herald a new bonanza of infrastructure investment.

The projects will dwarf in size and significance Beijing’s 4 trillion yuan (US$565 billion) stimulus package rolled out to buoy up the sagging economy back in 2008.

The eastern province of Zhejiang has sought to revive its ambition to link its largest urban centers of Ningbo and Hangzhou to Shanghai via a cutting-edge maglev line that is about 300 kilometers in length.

The project, with a price tag of about 200 billion yuan ($28 billion), will see trains featuring a futurist linear look roar along at 600 kilometers per hour (km/h), slashing the commute time among the three cities to 40 minutes from two hours.

Bullet trains on existing high-speed trunk routes linking the three cities now cruise at 350km/h since the line’s completion in 2013.

The revived maglev line, a signature project of Zhejiang’s 3.6 trillion yuan transportation investment plan announced earlier this month to cover the next 10-15 years, was first broached for a feasibility study in the early 2000s, but was put on ice by Beijing due to its exorbitant cost.

Yet this time around the project is gaining traction as Beijing aims to rival Japan, which is revving up construction of a similar line, the Chuo Shinkansen, between Tokyo and Nagoya, with plans for an extension to Osaka.

Chinese engineers and workers can also draw on the experience of Shanghai’s 30km maglev experimental line to its Pudong airport that has been up and running since 2002.

An aerial view of the 36km sea-crossing bridge between Shanghai and Ningbo, completed in 2008. Photo: Xinhua

Zhejiang has also earmarked 100 billion for a cluster of sea-crossing bridges among Shanghai, Ningbo and Zhoushan that will form an offshore ring and high-speed rail link to span a vast expanse of the East China Sea. This will allow shortcuts across the water between Shanghai and Ningbo and Ningbo and Zhoushan.

These links will also connect two of the world’s largest container ports and combine them into one.

In Guangdong, China’s largest provincial economy, more projects are being launched to spur investment and spawn jobs and orders for all industries. The provincial capital of Guangzhou aims to extend more metro lines beyond its city limits to three neighboring cities on the west bank of the Pearl River estuary all the way to the border of Macau.

The city is also discussing a 100km-plus metro line with cities on the east bank to link the tech and innovation hub of Shenzhen.

Shenzhen also aims to more than triple its current metro system length of 300km – already longer than Hong Kong’s MTR – to 1,000km by 2030 with 16 new lines, to a metro service density that can rival Tokyo’s metropolitan area.

Lines in operation and under construction in Guangzhou’s fast-expanding metro system, which has 513km in service.
A sprawling new terminal building at Ningbo’s airport. The eastern province of Zhejiang has unveiled a multi-trillion yuan program to further boost the connectivity of its key urban centers like Ningbo. A maglev line to Shanghai is also being planed. Photos: Handouts

Observers say the slew of new projects being planned and built aims to cram 50 years’ worth of urbanization and infrastructure development in other countries into a time span of 10-15 years in these Chinese provinces.

Still, when cadres there promise the construction of these new roads and lines will not be held back by the impact of Covid-19, not all the ambitious plans will come to pass. When announcing these megaprojects, cadres usually give scant details about financing or completion dates.

But there is no doubt that sentiments can be boosted when better-off provinces like Zhejiang and Guangdong – both dynamos that are driving the Chinese economy – break ground on big projects, especially when there have been talks that Beijing may scrap this year’s GDP growth target altogether at the parliamentary session to be held on May 21.

Deputies of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference will be heading for the Great Hall of the People in Beijing to deliberate on plans for the rest of the year as the nation counts its losses in the wake of the epidemic. The two sessions were moved back from March due to the coronavirus scourge.

Cooking up new initiatives and projects is needed to rekindle spirits when President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang meet representatives and discuss and unveil fresh policies.

China’s economy was hammered by the pandemic in the first quarter, contracting 6.8% year-on-year as virtually all sectors were brought to a grinding halt.

Meanwhile, Xinhua reported that China’s finance ministry this week approved the issue of the third round of advance local government special-purpose bonds (SPB) that were worth one trillion yuan, a welcome move for provinces that aim to raise cash through various means.

Caixin also reported that the full annual SPB quota would be announced at the upcoming two sessions, and the number of such debts may far exceed last year’s annual quota of 2.15 trillion.

Zheshang Securities, a major stock trading firm, noted in a report that the preliminary data it collected had already shown a sharp nationwide rebound in infrastructure investments in March and it expected China’s annual growth in fixed assets investment could still hit the two-digit range for the entire year despite early stumbles in the first two months.

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