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China goes on a building spree

In tiny Boao, on China's southernmost Hainan Island, the sleek new glass-and-steel train station rises above the town like a modern-day version of New York's Grand Central Station. And the sleek white bullet train whisks passengers along the island's coast to the airport in Haikou in less than an hour.

world Updated: Oct 26, 2011 00:59 IST

In tiny Boao, on China's southernmost Hainan Island, the sleek new glass-and-steel train station rises above the town like a modern-day version of New York's Grand Central Station. And the sleek white bullet train whisks passengers along the island's coast to the airport in Haikou in less than an hour.

Except on a recent journey, there were hardly any passengers.

The high-speed Hainan train, built at a cost of about $3 billion, is in many ways a metaphor for China's infrastructure building boom of recent years: efficient, super-modern, costly and so far vastly underused.

Since late 2008, when China enacted a fiscal stimulus program to avert the contagion effects of a global economic slowdown, the country has embarked on a building binge, including highways, high-speed rail lines, bridges and nearly a hundred airports.

To many who have looked on with envy, this amounts to investing in the future.

"Building a world-class transportation system is part of what made us an economic superpower," US President Barack Obama said in his September speech to the Congress. "And now we're going to sit back and watch China build newer airports and faster railroads?"

The bigger problem, say many here, is not the infrastructure but the debt incurred to build it. "China has a lot of debt," said Guo Tianyong, a professor in Beijing. "For China to have an economic crisis is not unforeseeable."

(In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post. For additional content from The Washington Post, visit www.washingtonpost.com)