Luliang’s planned “Liquor City” has run short of funding. Workers have yet to finish this replica of the Great Wall, which is supposed to surround a massive factory complex producing baijiu, an often expensive Chinese hard liquor.
When you drive the new expressway to the airport in the Chinese city of Luliang, you are as likely to come across a stray dog as another vehicle. When I recently drove it, a farmer was riding in a three-wheel flatbed truck and heading in the wrong direction. But it didn’t matter. There was no oncoming traffic.
That’s because the city’s $160 million airport, which opened in 2014, gets at most five flights a day and as few as three. Officials began building the airport when this coal town was still booming. Since then, though, global commodity prices have plunged as China’s old industrial economy has sputtered. The airport has become a white elephant.
“Because this place is economically backward, the flow of passengers is small,” says Wu Dexi, a local corn and tomato farmer who brought his 78-year-old mother to the empty terminal because she wanted to see an airplane for the first time. “People’s income is too low, they can’t afford this.”
Wu Youfu (at left) and his uncle, Wu Dexi, a farmer, took Youfu’s grandmother to visit Luliang’s airport, a popular attraction for curious local farmers. It was conceived when this coal city was booming. Now the economy is in recession.
No country has built so many roads, bridges and airports as quickly as China. Many projects, including the nation’s remarkable high-speed rail network, have had big benefits.
But Anne Stevenson-Yang, research director at J Capital Research, an economic research firm in Beijing, says the government has simply built too much. She says lonely airports like the one in Luliang are not uncommon. There’s another one northwest of Beijing in Hebei province, in a place called Zhangbei.
“It’s an impoverished county,” Stevenson-Yang says. “They built the airport in order to increase the revenue of the county. But nobody ever agreed to land there.”
In other words, the airport in Zhangbei has no planes.
Stevenson-Yang says local officials across China have greenlighted lots of infrastructure projects not because they make economic sense, but just to boost GDP. Now, she says, some are having the opposite effect: They’re dragging growth down.