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China sets out vision of tunnel link to Taiwan

THE COUNTRY that brought you the Great Wall of China and the Three Gorges Dam has designs on another mammoth construction project. Professor Wu Zhiming, of Qinghua University in Peking, believes there is a "good possibility" that in 30 years time there will be a rail tunnel linking the mainland with Taiwan.

Forget for a moment that China has still not lifted its threat to use force should Taiwan press for independence, or that Taipei still bans almost all direct transport, mail and telephone links with the mainland, because Professor Wu is a man with a vision. He has selected four possible routes for the proposed tunnel, the shortest of which, from Pingtan Island off the southeast China coast to Xinzhu in Taiwan's north, would be 144km (90 miles) long, with an estimated cost of 1,440bn yuan (pounds 108bn).

"Building a tunnel under the Taiwan Strait has been my dream since the idea occurred to me when travelling through the Channel Tunnel at the beginning of 1996," Professor Wu told yesterday's officialChina Business Weekly.

The paper said that Professor Wu's "bold conception has found favour with scholars in the last three years". To encourage research, Qinghua, China's premier science and technology university, has set up a Taiwan Strait Tunnel Demonstration Centre with Professor Wu as the director.

Apart from the huge political and financial assumptions involved in arguing for such a venture, there are the technical considerations.

Professor Wu admitted that any tunnel would have to be built on a stable stratum "avoiding seismic belts and fault zones". He said it would take 16 years of research and feasibility studies and a further 16 years of construction.

The past 50 years has seen a political stand-off between the mainland and Taiwan, which Peking persists in viewing as a renegade province.

Professor Wu does not explain how the assumed political breakthrough will occur, or whether Taiwan will be reunified with the motherland, but forecasts that by 2030, annual passenger traffic across the Taiwan Strait will reach 261 million while freight will be 517 million tons.

Professor Wu, 58, has never visited Taiwan, but said he hoped to journey to the island through the proposed tunnel in 2030 - when he will be nearly 90.