Grand Canal extension stops short of the sea

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 July, 2010, 12:00am

In 605AD, a Sui dynasty emperor named Yang Guang decided that China should have a 2,000-kilometre canal between Beijing and Hangzhou that should be deep enough for large cargo ships, and more than 40 metres wide.

The decision immediately drew criticism from some senior officials, who estimated it would take decades, if not centuries, to build the canal.

By one account, the emperor had their tongues cut off, and the project - now called the Grand Canal - was completed in five years.

For more than 1,000 years, nearly half of China depended on the canal to transport food, commodities and even armies. But the rise of railways and major roads and a severe drought in the north in recent years rendered it largely defunct. Then in 1995, as the canal was approaching total disuse, the government decided unexpectedly to lengthen it.

The extension, largely using a river connecting Hangzhou and Ningbo, was to be only 230 kilometres long.

With the availability of modern machinery and plenty of money, as well as the government's reputation for quick action, the extension should have been relatively easy to build.

But 15 years later, the unfinished project has become both a laughing stock and a thorny issue - especially considering the quick delivery of Emperor Yang's vanity project. Government agencies have refused to talk about the delay. Theories range from a change of leadership to an unexpected rise in costs due to rapid economic development in the region.

It seemed a good idea at the time. Ningbo has one of China's biggest deep-sea ports, and Hangzhou serves as the business logistics hub for Zhejiang , a province that, with 10,538 kilometres of functioning waterways, handles nearly one-third of the country's river cargo transport.

In fact, according to a study by the Provincial Planning, Design and Research Institute of Transportation last year, more than 80 per cent of Zhejiang's cargo transport is by water - a stark contrast to the shrinking importance of river transport virtually everywhere else on the mainland.

The Ministry of Transport says 1.4 billion tonnes of cargo was transported by riverboat in 2008, but the amount carried by trucks was more than 12 times that. And only one in 300 passengers travelled anywhere by boat. Now, at any given moment, more Chinese are travelling in the air than on any river.

But because river transport cost less than half of overland transport and Zhejiang's watery infrastructure was so reliable, Xu Yunhong, then Ningbo's Communist Party secretary, who had trained as an architect, came up with the project and convinced the provincial and central governments to endorse it in 1995.

Xu was arrested in 1998 for bribes solicited by his wife and son and was sentenced to 10 years in jail.

His fall dealt a severe blow to the canal project, but the worst was yet to come. Rising costs of land, raw materials and labour inflated the initial budget of three billion yuan to 7.4 billion. When the canal finally reached the outskirts of Ningbo in 2007, engineers told the government that to get it through the city and reach the port, they would have to destroy a substantial part of the most thriving business district - which had been entirely rural in 1995 - and rebuild six bridges, at a cost of at least 10 billion yuan (HK$11.4 billion).

China News Service, quoting an internal document, said the government had decided to keep cargo ships from entering Ningbo through the canal. To get their cargoes to the seaport, big ships would have to unload them onto trucks or small boats. In the end, 7.4 billion yuan was spent on a canal to the middle of nowhere.

In its report on the project, China News Service said: 'The local government did not understand, support and help the investigation. Ningbo did not give us any response.'

Transport companies that saw the sense in the canal extension and invested a lot of money building large cargo ships to profit from it now face substantial losses. They have filed petitions to the city, provincial and central governments, but none of them has received a reply.

'River transport works extremely well with bulky production materials such as cement, steel and coal,' said Zhou Bo, a senior consultant with logistics specialist Torch Management Consultancy in Hangzhou. 'Factories and power plants along the route were really celebrating when the construction began. Unfortunately it is not finished yet.'

Officially, though, it is. On January 2, 2008, the People's Daily published a story about the completion of the extension with a photo of a 500-tonne cargo ship sailing between riverbanks planted with trees.

But Sun Feng , general manager of the Ningbo Chain City Shipping Company at Beilun port, wonders where that ship came from.

'I haven't even seen a 50-tonne ship,' he said. 'The only 'cargo' that comes down the canal is water. Trucks transport everything into and out of the port. It's vanity projects like this that, sooner or later, will cause the Communist Party to collapse.'

Slowing down

2,000km built in 5 years from 605 AD

230km unfinished in 15 years from 1995

1.16 million tonnes of goods carried in the Tang Dynasty

Less than 900,000 tonnes of goods carried in 2010