A Chinese boy kicks a soccer ball against the wall at the entrance to Beijing's Forbidden City. The Forbidden City once was the palace of China's ruling emperors, and was so named because commoners were forbidden to enter the high walls of the complex.
Big projects fan Chinese nationalism
Ambitious projects and hosting the 2008 summer Olympics boost national pride
SUPER engineering and architectural projects are worn as a badge of honor and pride in Chinese history. The most prominent examples are the 3,000-mile-plus Great Wall defending China against its northern enemies and the Grand Canal connecting Central China with northern China. Architectural standouts include the Forbidden City and the growing number of skyscrapers in Beijing and Shanghai. As a whole, such projects are a source of great nationalistic pride.
The first major engineering achievement of the post-1949 Chinese government was the Nanjing Bridge. There had never been any bridge running across the Yangtze River at Nanjing. In 1958, Chinese authorities requested Soviet engineers working in China to study the feasibility of building such. The Soviets had designed and planned a span, but soon rolled up their plans and took them home in the wake of the Sino-Soviet split.
In 1960, Chairman Mao Zedong directed Chinese engineers to design and build the Nanjing Bridge. The task was especially challenging given Chinese engineers' lack of relevant experience and the Yangtze's fast currents, plus rapidly rising and falling tides. Nevertheless, work on the bridge commenced in 1960. Upon completion in 1968, Chinese engineers had created a bridge 4 miles long and 525 feet wide that had two decks for vehicular traffic and trains.
THE BRIDGE contributed significantly to Chinese self-esteem and self-reliance. It has long been an automatically included stop for both foreign and domestic tour groups visiting Nanjing. In practical terms, the bridge facilitated train travel and sped the movement of goods, resulting in greater economic benefit for both producers and consumers. The bridge also enabled more rapid deployment of troops and weaponry.
Located on the Yangtze River close to Chongjing in western China, Sun Yatsen's 1919 dream was finally realized in a May 20 topping-off party. The Three Gorges Dam is the largest dam in the world, standing 544 feet high and covering 1.4 miles in length, making it five times the size of the Hoover Dam. The price tag is reported at $25.2 billion.
IN APRIL 1992, former Premier Li Peng vigorously promoted the dam in the National People's Congress despite obstreperous objection from one-third of the representatives in the normally docile body. Trained as a hydroelectric engineer and having had held many important positions dealing with power generation, Li clearly saw the need for added power. Considered underdeveloped, western China's living standard and economy will benefit from added power. The dam will provide 2 percent of national energy needs by 2010. In other words, 18,200 megawatts of power, or enough power to supply a city four times the size of Los Angeles. Moreover, the Yangtze River's incessant overflowing has claimed more than 300,000 lives during the last century. The dam should prevent overflowing.
While the benefits are clear, so are the costs. To create the dam, two cities, 11 counties, 116 towns and 1,200 villages had to be flooded, taking with them many cultural and architectural relics. With no place to live, 1.3 million villagers had to be relocated and 172,000 still have to be moved. The government appropriated $4.82 billion, or $375 per person, for use in an area where incomes are as low as $180 a year, to compensate and resettle residents of communities that are now under water. However, many residents are unsatisfied claiming that party cadre did not pay them what they were due and pocketed the difference.
Dai Qing, a journalist turned activist, ended up serving 10 months in a maximum security jail after publishing her book, "Yangtze! Yangtze!" The book depicted the dam as a waste of money and an environmental disaster. Environmentalists and scientists contend that the reservoir behind the dam will evolve into a huge cesspool that will contaminate water for the 30 million residents in the greater Chongqing area. Nevertheless, the Three Gorges project represents an achievement on the scale of the Panama Canal.
On July 1, the Chinghai-Tibet Railway was officially opened by President Hu Jintao, enabling travel from Golmud in Chinghai Province to Lhasa in the Tibet Autonomous Region. The 708-mile railway is the first to connect Tibet with China proper and enables rail travel from Beijing to Lhasa, a distance of 2,500 miles taking 48 hours to cover.
COMPLETION of the CTR has set new engineering and technical world records. For instance, the construction of the world's highest rail track at the 16,640 feet altitude of Tanggula Pass and Fenghuoshan Tunnel, the world's highest rail tunnel at 14,700 feet above sea level. Of the Golmud to Lhasa stretch, 80 percent is built at an altitude greater than 12,000 feet, more than half is on permafrost and there are 675 bridges. The permafrost is not always so permanent, resulting in the ground becoming muddy. Chinese engineers had to modify their construction plans and create a system circulating liquid nitrogen and nitrogen gas into the ground to keep it frozen.
No doubt the railway will speed the delivery of freight to and from Tibet. A Chinese Academy of Social Sciences study concludes that by 2010, three-fourths of all freight to and from Tibet will be transported by rail. While the government pitches the economic growth that will follow, Tibetans see those benefits largely accruing to Han Chinese. Critics see the railway more as a tool to exercise greater control over Tibet, to protect Chinese defense concerns and to facilitate extraction of natural resources. Additional concern is expressed about the harm to the environment and animal life.
Reflecting Chinese superstitious belief that the number "8" brings good luck and prosperity, the Beijing Summer 2008 Games will commence on 8/8/2008 at 8:08. China's hosting of the games further symbolizes the country's growing global economic and political stature, just like the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 did for Japan. Perhaps that explains China's selection of "The Same World, the Same Dream" as the Games' motto.
HOSTING THE Olympics requires first-rate logistical, technological and managerial skill. Working in a methodical fashion, China is unlikely to evince the worry that Athens did when many feared that it would be unable to successfully host the 2004 Olympics. Already 300,000 houses have been demolished to make room for the 36 stadiums, 59 training centers, convention center, Olympic Village, Olympic Aquatic Park and the Wukesong Cultural and Sports Center.
Closely covered by media throughout the world, the Olympic Games not only serve as a global arena for athletic events, they also are a global stage for political protest. Chinese authorities already are concerned about activity of the Students for Free Tibet and other supporters of Tibet's independence. Also politically sensitive is how Taiwan should participate, if it participates at all. Will the mainland Chinese insist that Taiwan participate as "Chinese Taipei"? If so, will Taiwan accept that or just stay home?
China's celebrated engineering and architectural projects show its growing technical and managerial skills and the party's ability to deliver results that clearly build China's nationalistic pride while taking, if only momentarily, people's attention off the country's rampant corruption.
Bill Sharp is adjunct professor of East Asian International Relations at Hawaii Pacific University. He writes a monthly commentary about events in Asia for the Star-Bulletin.