Geographies in Depth

7 Chinese superstructures that leave the rest of the world in the shade

A man runs around the China National Grand Theater in central Beijing October 11, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Lee

China's infrastructure is racing to keep up with its economic growth Image: REUTERS/Jason Lee

Keith Breene
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Long-Term Investing, Infrastructure and Development

China’s economic power has grown at breakneck speed. Its ever-strengthening political might reflects that fact, as does an increase in its military muscle. But there are other, less obvious, areas in which China is rapidly becoming a world leader.

The country's infrastructure is racing to keep up with its economic growth and, as it does so, we are seeing many new engineering projects on a truly remarkable scale.

Here are some of the Asian giant's most significant projects.

World’s largest floating solar power plant

China invests more each year in wind, hydro and solar power than any other country on earth. It has many major projects under construction and recently switched on the world’s largest floating solar power plant.

Floating over a flooded former coal-mine, the facility is located in the city of Huainan, in China’s eastern Anhui province. It has a capacity of 40 megawatts (MW), enough to power a small town.

Image: Sungrow Power Supply

The Huainan plant represents a giant step forwards in scale. Previously, the largest floating solar array was a 6.3MW plant located in the UK. That will be overshadowed by a plant in Japan, due to come online next year, that will produce 13.7MW - still a long way behind China’s new facility.

The New Silk Road

The ancient and historic trade route between China and Europe is coming back to life as one of the biggest infrastructure projects of the 21st century, with major implications for economies throughout the world.

One Belt/One Road, the all-encompassing effort to restore old trade routes and streamline the transport of goods from Asia to Europe, has already received more than $51 billion from China, and more than 100 countries have signed on, with free trade, collaboration agreements or other partnerships.

Image: The Wall Street Journal

This massive project is centered on two main routes: land and sea. On land the focus is on transportation infrastructure and energy. For the sea, investment in ports and new trade routes are the main pillars.

The super-telescope

As symbols of scientific power, this takes some beating. The Five-Hundred-Metre Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, is a vast radio telescope which is substantially larger than the next largest one, the Aricebo Observatory, in Puerto Rico, with a diameter of 305 metres.

The telescope, which is the size of 30 football pitches, has been built into a natural crater in the south-western province of Guizhou.

Image: Xinhua news agency

The $180 million project officially opened in 2016 and is effectively a giant ear, listening for radio waves emitted by objects in deepest space. Because the waves have travelled for great distances in space they are incredibly weak, which is why bigger really is better.

The telescope will help scientists learn more about how the universe was formed as well as searching for new stars and any signs of extraterrestrial life.

The Mars probe

China isn’t just keeping an eye (and ear) on the heavens, it has a very active space programme too.

In fact, China’s space age started in 1970 when its first satellite Dongfanghong 1 was sent into orbit.

Since then there have been more satellites, rockets and, in 2003, the first taikonauts, as China calls its astronauts.

The telescope will help scientists learn more about how the universe was formed as well as searching for new stars and any signs of extraterrestrial life.

In 2013 China landed the first probe on the moon for nearly 40 years.

Image: Chinese Academy of Sciences / China National Space Administration

The country plans to send another probe to the moon in 2018 but, more ambitiously still, has committed to sending a mission to Mars by 2021.

Wu Weiren, chief designer of China’s moon and Mars mission, told the BBC: "We will orbit Mars, land and deploy a rover, all in one mission."

While the budgets for the US and Russian space programmes have shrunk considerably since their heyday during the Cold War, funding for China’s space programme is rising.

The space station

While many of the world’s space agencies, such as NASA, ESA and Roscosmos, are civilian organizations, China’s space programme is military.

And that means taikonauts cannot currently go to the International Space Station as the US says it fears sharing its technology could result in a breach of America’s national security.

China’s solution? It is building a space station of its own. A prototype space lab, Tiangong-2, launched in 2016, and a larger version will follow.

Image: People’s Daily

That China is able to go it alone with a project of this size shows just how much money is being allocated to this kind of cutting-edge science and how determined the country is to become a world leader.

The super-collider

When the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) built the Large Hadron Collider, it was by far the world’s largest and most powerful particle collider, as well as being the largest, most complex experimental facility ever built and the largest machine in the world.

Built in collaboration with over 10,000 scientists and engineers from more than 100 countries, the collider is in a 27 kilometre tunnel beneath the France–Switzerland border near Geneva.

That all adds up to an impressive project by anyone’s standards, but China now plans to build a much bigger one. It has announced its intention to build a particle collider between 50 and 100km in circumference, with the first phase of the project's construction scheduled to begin between 2020 and 2025.

The facility is expected to generate millions of Higgs bosons, sometimes dubbed the “God particle”. These endow mass, making them a fundamental building block of the universe.

The project is intended to generate seven times the energy of CERN’s collider, where the particle’s existence was demonstrated in 2012.

Have you read?

South-to-North Water Diversion Project

The prosaic name belies the stunning scale of this project.

In order to address water shortages in many of China’s northern cities, including Beijing, massive amounts of water are being diverted from the wetter south.

The project’s eventual goal is to move 44.8 billion cubic meters of water across the country every year, more than there is in the River Thames in London.

Image: Zhao Peng/Xinhua Press/Corbis

The infrastructure includes some of the longest canals in the world, pipelines that weave underneath riverbeds, a giant aqueduct and pumping stations powerful enough to fill Olympic-sized pools in minutes.

It is the world’s largest water-transfer project, unprecedented both in the volume of water to be transferred and the distance to be traveled—a total of 4,350 km, about the distance between the two coasts of America. The US, Israel, and South Africa are home to long-distance water transfer systems, but none on this scale.

Almost half a million people will have to be relocated.

The cost is budgeted at some $60 billion and way well run much higher. This is civil engineering on a truly grand scale.

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