The Beipanjiang Bridge: a monument to progress

‘What nature rent asunder long ago, man has joined today’, declared the chief engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge, Joseph Strauss, upon its opening. For Strauss, bridges were a ‘monument to progress’. As he put it: ‘A great city with water barriers and no bridges is like a skyscraper with no elevators.’

The Beipanjiang Bridge

What, then, would Strauss have made of the Beipanjiang Bridge, which was this week unveiled as the world’s highest bridge, standing 565 metres above a river in south-western China. To get a sense of the scale, it stands 24 metres taller than New York’s One World Trade Centre, and is around twice the height of the Shard in London. Views from the top are similar to those you would get from an airplane.

This feat of engineering smashes China’s previous record (eight out of 10 of the highest bridges in the world are located in China). But the significance of it goes far beyond the record books. The Beipanjiang Bridge is a critical part of a highway that connects two remote provinces in China, the mountainous Guizhou province and the Yunnan province.

Upon opening later in the year, the bridge will help make travel as far east as the city of Hangzhou straightforward for residents of these provinces, who would otherwise have had fly or take extremely long train or car journeys. For the people of Guizhou and Yunnan – whose combined population is considerably greater than that of the UK – this bridge will help make the great hubs of Chinese industry and commerce accessible.

The unveiling of the Beipanjiang Bridge follows the announcement by the Chinese government of over £500billion in investment in infrastructure over the next three years alone, which the South China Morning Post says will fund a further 303 projects covering railways, highways and urban rail.

Back in 2012, China reached the milestone of having more of its population living in cities than in the countryside for the first time in its history. An astonishing 691million people have been liberated from what Karl Marx termed the ‘idiocy of rural life’. Infrastructural projects, ‘monuments to progress’ such as the Beipanjiang Bridge, further hasten this liberation – and will allow for the establishment of new urban areas, previously too remote to develop.

From start to finish, the Beipanjiang Bridge took a mere three years to complete. Contrast that with infrastructural plans in the UK. The recent departure of the CEO of HS2 – which, even if it remains on track, is only scheduled for completion in 2033 – and the constant dithering over expanding London’s airport capacity show just how bad the UK’s track record is in terms of infrastructure projects.

While there is exciting talk about building the world’s longest tunnel under the Pennines, connecting Sheffield and Manchester in what transport minister John Hayes has dubbed ‘the most ambitious project since the construction of the first motorways 50 years ago’, discussions about its viability are likely to last far longer than it will take China to complete all of its 303 new projects.

Back in 1924, Joseph Strauss praised San Francisco as one of the only cities that has ‘all the energy, all the wealth, all the courage and all the ability’ to bring a project as audacious as the Golden Gate Bridge to fruition. The same can now be said of China. Following the EU referendum, the UK has an opportunity to be far more ambitious with infrastructure. Here’s hoping the government takes note of the courageous approach being taken in the East.

Patrick Hayes is a spiked columnist.

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