How to Do Stimulus: China’s High-Speed Rail Program

China's high speed rail line (photo: henrie via Flickr)I don’t want to be seen as some kind of apologist for China, given its horrendous human rights record. I think the President meeting with the Dalai Lama despite Chinese warnings sends the right message and is eminently responsible.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something from how China is reacting to the recession – with quick and massive stimulus that is succeeding in creating jobs and growth.

The world’s largest human migration — the annual crush of Chinese traveling home to celebrate the Lunar New Year, which is this Sunday — is going a little faster this time thanks to a new high-speed rail line.

The Chinese bullet train, which has the world’s fastest average speed, connects Guangzhou, the southern coastal manufacturing center, to Wuhan, deep in the interior. In a little more than three hours, it travels 664 miles, comparable to the distance from Boston to southern Virginia. That is less time than Amtrak’s fastest train, the Acela, takes to go from Boston just to New York.

Even more impressive, the Guangzhou to Wuhan train is just one of 42 high-speed lines recently opened or set to open by 2012 in China. By comparison, the United States hopes to build its first high-speed rail line by 2014, an 84-mile route linking Tampa and Orlando, Fla.

China spent $88 billion dollars on high-speed rail investment in 2009 alone, a substantial increase from previous years. It rivals the construction of the interstate highway system in America in the 1950s for its audaciousness and use of public monies to spur jobs and growth. And it’s working:

As China upgrades and expands its rail system, it creates the economies of large-scale production for another big export industry. “The sheer volume of equipment that they will require, and the technology that will have to be developed, will simply catapult them into a leadership position,“ said Stephen Gardner, Amtrak’s vice president for policy and development […]

Officials drafted a plan to move much of the nation’s passenger traffic onto high-speed routes by 2020, freeing existing tracks for more freight. Then the global financial crisis hit in late 2008. Faced with mass layoffs at export factories, China ordered that the new rail system be completed by 2012 instead of 2020, throwing more than $100 billion in stimulus at the projects.

Administrators mobilized armies of laborers — 110,000 just for the 820-mile route from Beijing to Shanghai, which will cut travel time there to five hours, from 12, when it opens next year.

You can do this far more quickly in a command economy, of course. But it’s the priority order that is striking. China needed economic stimulus, and rapidly accelerated public investment. The US (which actually has added more in stimulus than most countries in Europe) took a balanced approach based more on tax cuts. Aside from the question of what approach works better in terms of economic activity, look at the end result – practically all of China will be served by high-speed rail within a matter of years.

It’s not perfect. Some Chinese have complained about the fare costs. And again, a single decision-maker rather than a phalanx of competing interests makes decision-making that much easier. But there’s something that can be learned here. If you want to create jobs, rather than the Rube Goldberg approach of tax breaks and nudges toward private investment, just go ahead and create the jobs. In the long run you’ll have higher growth and a better quality of life for the nation.