A massive network of long distance highways, designed to connect more than half of the China's 1.3 billion people, is nearing completion. Claudia Blume reports from VOA's Asia News Center in Hong Kong.

Chinese officials say the vast bulk of the 35,000-kilometer-long network of highways will be completed by the end of this year, after nearly 15 years of construction.

The network was built at a cost of $122 billion. Five north-south roads will link the Mongolian and Russian borders in the North with China's southern provinces, while seven east-west roads connect the prosperous East coast with the remote Western provinces, which have been largely left out of the country's economic boom.

Workers are still building the most difficult part of the road network, in the mountainous provinces of Yunnan and Guizhou in the Southwest. Those roads are scheduled to be completed in the middle of next year.

Weng Mengyong, China's vice minister of communications, says the roads will connect to more than 93 percent of cities with a population of at least 500,000, and all cities with populations of more than one million.

Weng says the roads are of national significance in terms of politics, economy and national defense.

He says the roads will raise the living standards of people and enhance the ability of local governments to improve public services and deal with emergencies.

Three quarters of the roads in the new network are highways. In the past two decades of rapid economic development, China has given high priority to highways connecting major industrial centers.

Beijing plans to complete a national highway network within 30 years that will span 85,000 kilometers. That would make it the world's second largest, after the interstate highway network of the United States.

But officials say the government is also building more small roads for farmers in remote parts of the country.

They say by 2010, every small town and a number of major villages in Western China, and all major villages in the eastern and central provinces, will be reachable by paved road.