Garnett Roper: What the North-South Highway teaches about the Chinese
A friend of mine who had recently travelled to China told me that on his return journey from Beijing, when he landed at New York's JFK International Airport, he felt he had landed in the Third World.
Many of us in Jamaica have never travelled to China, but we have been given a remarkable opportunity to view Chinese civilisation upfront through a variety of projects, the most significant being the soon-to-be-opened North-South Highway from Mammee Bay in St Ann to Caymanas in Kingston and St Andrew.
The North-South link will reduce travel time from Kingston to Ocho Rios from 90 minutes to 45 minutes and will have already opened some of the most beautiful Jamaican countryside for further economic and social development. It is a game-changer - some would even say a life-changer, in many respects.
What has been on display through this project for all who care to notice in Jamaica is Chinese forward thinking, organisation, planning and efficiency, Chinese work ethic and Chinese social ethic as a society founded in social egalitarianism.
This US$600-million project is to be opened in three phases, starting January 28, 2016. The first phase will open from the Angels exchange bypassing the Bog Walk Gorge, permitting motorists to connect to the Treadways to Moneague leg. In February, both the Caymanas and Mammee Bay legs will open. Between January 28 and March 10, 2016 when the highway will be fully opened, motorists will use the highway at no charge. Tolls will become fully applicable as of March 10, 2016.
There are six exits on the new highway. Motorists will collect a card when they enter the highway and pay their toll when they exit. This means that only one toll payment will be required. The further one travels on the highway, the greater the toll one pays.
I was privileged to be part of a touring party headed by the 'Minister of Efficiency', Dr Omar Davies. Many things became apparent to me on that tour. First, there are more people at work than is readily discernible. There are 1,600 Jamaicans at work in the construction phase of the project employed by China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC). This is in addition to those who are subcontractors. Jamaicans are most engaged in the construction of the storm-water systems that are most elaborate, intricate and environmentally friendly.
Second, Chinese engineering is on par, if not ahead, of the best that is available anywhere in the world. The interchange at Mandela will result in minimal traffic congestion when one either enters or exits the highway at that point. The highway is constructed with an underlay of concrete overlaid by asphalt.
The asphalt is made in Unity Valley along the corridor of the highway that is already opened. It is made from local products and bitumen purchased from Petrojam. Two thousand tonnes of asphalt is made each day at a cost substantially less than it is imported elsewhere from Trinidad. I hope that this asphalt-producing plant will be one of the legacy projects of which use will be made to benefit the entire Jamaica, not just the North-South corridor.
The very accessible and cordial deputy general manager of CHEC's Americas Division, Qiwu Yang, who accompanied us on the tour, indicated that the Chinese are building on a time horizon 40 years into the future. What this means is that the Chinese are here to stay; this is just not a summer fling, it is more akin to a marriage without an expiry date. And I hope that this will be manifest undoubtedly, and not only in the complexion of babies to be born to the union of Jamaica and China, but more particularly in the social and work ethic of the Chinese rubbing off on our social and work ethic as a Jamaican population.
The prodigiousness of Chinese workers is already legendary in Jamaica. What is inescapable is the simplicity with which they live and they attire themselves. All Chinese members of the team live on the same compound and have similar living quarters.
All executive and general managers, all engineers and all workers at whatever level live on the same compound and enjoy the same facilities. I am sure that the work one does determines the pay one gets.
The drive along the highway and as one descends from Chalky Hill into the Mammee Bay roundabout with a clear view of the Caribbean Sea is breathtakingly beautiful. The verdant countryside, whether of St Thomas in the Vale or of Golden Grove or of Lydford is a sight for sore eyes. All of a sudden, property values along the corridor have been raised together in a manner that the values are equalised. It does not matter if you live in Bog Walk or Walkers Wood, you are 10 minutes apart and at most 30 minutes from many towns.
The Chinese have acquired 27 acres of land near Laughing Waters on the sea coast. They also have other acreages on the landside. They intend to build three hotels. Construction is expected to commence soon. They have also put in a bid for the Norman Manley International Airport and, if successful, they will build a home port on the old runway and receive cruise ship visitors from Beijing in China.
The Chinese have planned for Jamaica. The question is, has Jamaica begun to plan to make the most of the highway and the Chinese expansionism in our midst?
The day we toured was the 91st anniversary of the birth of the late PNP president and former prime minister, Michael Norman Manley. We raised a toast to his memory when we met for lunch at the headquarters of Section 3 of the highway.
Michael Manley's foresight in 1974 to have recognised the People's Republic of China, long before the US and others then thought to be enlightened saw it fit to do so, is the reason the Chinese have now come to Jamaica with largesse and an expansionist vision. That is what we did as a country 41 years ago and we are reaping the fruits of it today.
The question is, what will we reap 40 years from now from the actions we take today?