22 October 2016
Despite its fancy airport, fishing boats and a ferry are the main mode of transport from Dachangshan Island. Photo: Flickr
Despite its fancy airport, fishing boats and a ferry are the main mode of transport from Dachangshan Island. Photo: Flickr

White elephants in China: Nice airport but where are the planes?

When officials reopened the airport on sparsely populated Dachangshan Island off China’s northeast coast after a US$6 million refurbishment in 2008, they planned to welcome 42,000 passengers in 2010 and 78,000 this year.

However, fewer than 4,000 passengers – about 10 a day – passed through its gates in 2013, Reuters reported, citing data from China’s civil aviation authority.

Since February last year, China has approved at least 1.8 trillion yuan (US$290 billion) in new infrastructure projects to counter slowing economic growth.

The approvals come just as the full costs of the underused airports, expressways and stadiums built during the last spending spree are beginning to emerge.

While construction firms profited from the boom, China’s provincial governments took on US$3 trillion worth of debt, the local economies of the most exuberant weakening and becoming dominated by the building sector.

The economy in Liaoning province, where Dachangshan Island is located, was one of the slowest growing in China last year — the local gross domestic product expanded 5.8 percent, far undershooting the target of 9 percent.

“There needs to be serious discussions over the economic rationality of large-scale engineering projects. Do we really need this many high-speed lines and airports?” the report quoted Lu Dadao, an academic at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, as saying.

A government official and economist estimated in November that China has wasted about 42 trillion yuan on “ineffective investment” in the five years from 2009, with the problem worsening in the last two years.

Despite its modern airport, finding a flight to Dachangshan Island is not easy.

Staff at Zhoushuizi International Airport in the port city of Dalian, the destination of the sole published route, said flights to the Changhai airport on Dachangshan have not operated for the last six months.

On a recent Wednesday morning, the airport’s ticket counter was deserted apart from a female airport official. Still, its speckled grey marble floors were scrubbed shiny by a cleaning attendant, while the toilets were spotless.

“Call in two to three days to check if there’s a flight,” the official said. “The plane’s under maintenance.”

Outside, there is little sign the small airport has had much impact on the island of about 30,000 inhabitants. Instead of shops or eateries, fishermen’s homes surround the airport.

Ferries are the preferred mode of transport to Dalian, locals said.

Undeterred, the Dalian government plans to spend 1.48 billion yuan this year to expand the airport, which is in Dalian’s Changhai county, to accommodate 250,000 by 2020, as part of its latest drive to spur the economy and to turn the fishing outpost into a holiday destination, local media reported.

Wu Hong, an official from the county’s publicity department, said the airport expansion was meant to keep up with the island’s development.

He said Dachangshan received 1.1 million tourists last year.

Many of China’s local governments set up corporations to obtain loans for massive infrastructure and real estate projects, skirting rules preventing direct borrowing while amassing a debt pile now seen as a key risk to the economy.

New districts built to house thousands have been built, with some, such as Ordos in Inner Mongolia and Yujiapu in Tianjin, turning into ghost towns as China’s residential property market slumps.

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