Monday, December 23, 2013

A WAKE UP CALL FROM CHINA Part Four of Four Parts

There’s one good thing about a nation developing late and developing fast: it can pretty much pick and choose from among all the best ways of doing things. This is exactly what China, with its vast cash reserves and virtually unlimited labor, is now doing.  As a result, it’s no longer just playing catch-up with the United States. In many ways, it’s playing leapfrog.

Technology in China’s developed areas--where most of its people live--has already long been on par with our own. Internet cafes flourish, and the most sophisticated computers and display systems are ubiquitous in banks, stores, and transportation facilities. These things shouldn’t surprise Americans, since most of our own high-tech goods come from China in the first place. What may surprise people is that some parts of China’s infrastructure have already begun to surpass ours.

For example, modern China’s communications network, developed just as our old hardwired telephone infrastructure was becoming obsolete, is almost entirely cellular. Here, everyone from the high-roller in his Benz to the farmer in his rice paddie carries a cell phone. Never has a nation so vast and populous been so well connected.

The bulk of China’s electrical distribution system was also built fairly late in the twentieth century. For starters, this gives it a definite aesthetic edge--the Chinese use tidy and permanent concrete stanchions to carry power lines instead of the dilapidated wooden poles and tangles of wire that make up much of our own power grid. 

But even this modern system is advancing. A number of Chinese cities now have plans afoot for complete undergrounding of all existing power distribution systems--a sweeping improvement which, owing to its cost and complexity, has long eluded municipal governments in the U.S. And since the Chinese are loathe to risk a loss of face by announcing plans they can’t fulfill, we can fully expect these undergrounding projects to be realized, and sooner rather than later.

Chinese traffic controls, mostly developed in the thirty years since the Opening, have already led American systems for years. For example, the digital countdown signals only now being adopted by some American cities were already commonplace during my first visit to China in 1994. 

Moreover, the newest traffic controls have entirely superseded the redundant clutter of red, yellow and green lamps found in the U.S. Instead, Suzhou’s signals use a compact and attractive stanchion with a single, bold LED arrow that changes color to indicate both traffic direction and status. If you can’t quite picture this, don’t worry--your town will probably be installing these systems in five or ten years, and no doubt they’ll be made in China.

These advances may seem trivial, but they’re emblematic of China’s spectacular rate of progress over the past thirty years. Now, having largely caught up with the West, the Chinese have both the desire for bigger plans, and the resources to fulfill them. 
Is all this bad news for America? It depends on your point of view. If we’re content to be slowly but surely surpassed by the nation we patronizingly call our “workshop”, then we can relax. If not, we’d better wake up and smell the tea.

Monday, December 16, 2013


When it comes to environmentalism, the Chinese are bad, bad people, right? Not exactly. Thanks to their government’s knack for disseminating ideas, the Chinese are acutely aware of their environmental troubles. Given their many other priorities, the surprise is that they’ve already started grappling with the problem.

The Chinese have had basic energy conservation practices in place for years. On my first visit to Shanghai in 1994, for example, I was surprised to see solar water heaters crowding the rooftops of practically every apartment block--something we don’t see in the United States even today. And things have only improved since then. Energy-saving fluorescent lamps are now the rule rather than the exception in China, not only in commercial and industrial buildings, but in residences as well. Even more efficient LED lighting is widely used in traffic signals, street lighting, and many other applications. 

While China’s streets are regrettably teeming with more cars than ever, they’re also increasingly well populated with innovative and affordable electric bicycles, scooters, and utility vehicles. Granted, since these are recharged by being plugged into the nation’s largely coal-generated electrical grid, their environmental friendliness remains arguable-- yet they’re nevertheless a more visible sign of innovation than we find on our own SUV-clogged streets. And while American automakers are only now fielding viable green transportation--thanks mainly to the incredible shortsightedness, stupidity and greed of upper management--their scrappy Chinese counterparts are almost certainly hard at work on the design of zero-emission vehicles that will someday ease China’s pollution troubles, and perhaps our own as well.

None of this is to excuse China’s deficiency in other areas of environmental policy. Its tolerance for industrial polluters, in particular, is a disgrace. Yet this is a calculated economic decision aimed--with spectacular success--at attracting foreign investment. Lax restrictions on polluters are in fact one major reason so many American corporations have moved factories to China. Yet this current lassitude will also come to an end when the Chinese government’s environmental priorities inevitably supersede those of economic growth. 

When will this happen? In the United States, gross industrial pollution continued utterly unhampered for a century. At China’s current rate of progress, and despite its posturing to the contrary, industrial polluters may well be brought up to Western standards within the next decade. 

What’s more, when the Chinese decide they’re ready to tackle their environmental problems full force, they’ll move quickly. Unlike us fiercely independent-minded Americans, the Chinese are far more amenable to sweeping change being imposed from the top down--a deep-seated cultural trait that stems, not from China’s trifling time under Communism, but rather from its nearly three and a half millennia under dynastic rule.

The result is that official pronouncements--whether they concern spitting on the sidewalk, smoking in restaurants, or wasting electricity--are acted upon with a sense of earnestness and devotion that’s quite impossible to imagine here in the United States. So when an exemplary environmental policy finally reaches the top of the agenda, those bad, bad Chinese may yet become Mother Earth’s best friend.

Next time: A wake up call for Americans.

Monday, December 9, 2013


Americans are no doubt getting tired of hearing how well things are going for China. Having painted just such a rosy picture in my last report from Suzhou--my Chinese home away from home--I thought I’d dwell on a few of China’s biggest shortcomings, at least for this installment. 

At the moment, the People’s Republic is in the news for one of its characteristically blundering foreign policy moves--this time, the sudden expansion of its air defense zone over the entire East China Sea, which has set a whole slew of Pacific Rim nations on edge. But this sort of calculated high-level posturing, driven by the PRC leadership’s deep political insecurities, is a topic I’ll leave to political pundits. Instead, I’ll examine things of more immediate concern to Chinese citizens. 

Anyone arriving in a Chinese city will recognize a problem it shares with the United States--too many cars. But while the U.S. has hopefully reached a saturation point at around 1.2 cars for every licensed driver, car ownership in China is still in its infancy, with less than one in twenty-five Chinese owning a vehicle. Should the Chinese aspire to American levels of automotive lunacy--and there’s no reason to think they won’t--Mother Earth could potentially be hosting another billion or so pollution-spewing cars. Hopefully, before this cataclysm approaches, China will manage to leapfrog current internal-combustion technology (as it has leapfrogged America’s old hard-wired telephone infrastructure) by developing practical zero-emission vehicles.

This brings us to a Chinese problem that’s literally inescapable--its abysmal air quality. On a typical day in any developed part of the country, the sky is a monochrome grayish-white, with a peripheral haze that can often limit visibility to less than a mile. Because the sun is seldom evident as more than a diffuse patch of glare in the sky, daylight is virtually shadowless, making even China’s enchanting, emerald-green landscapes look flat and dreary. 

The Chinese are acutely aware of this problem, though they ascribe it, not to the rising tide of cars on their streets, nor even to their none-too-tidy heavy industries, but rather to their heavy dependence on dirty, coal-fired power plants. For the time being, however, they seem resigned to sacrificing their once-clear skies to rapid development--much as the United States was for the first half of the twentieth century.

Last, and perhaps most dispiriting, modern China remains a nation with an astonishing indifference to quality--a problem that’s hardly improved since I first came here in 1994.. In general, manufactured items, whether cheap or expensive, remain exasperatingly third-rate. And yes, this assessment includes many familiar American brands “manufactured in China to So-and-So’s strict quality standards”--a claim that’s basically balderdash. 

This disinterest in quality and durability extends clear up to the scale of China’s heroic new buildings. More often than not, the workmanship beneath those gleaming exteriors of marble and granite is breathtakingly shoddy. The effects of an acid-laden atmosphere don’t help matters any, leaving many buildings literally falling to pieces after a few short years. 
Since thirty-five years have now passed since China’s economic Opening, these shortcomings can no longer be explained away by the country’s years under strict Communism, by government corruption, or by its haste to catch up with the West. 
Rather, the problem persists because, with ready markets for slipshod products at hand, there’s simply no incentive to improve them. 

Yet as China is eventually forced to compete with other developing countries that can undercut its heavy market advantage, its current indifference to quality--insulting as it is to the nation’s brilliant past--will no doubt tarnish its brilliant future as well. 

Next time: Sorry, more good news about the People's Republic.

Monday, December 2, 2013


America’s recession has proved to many world citizens that capitalism isn’t the unassailable force it’s often claimed to be. The Chinese, in particular, now perceive little of substance separating their status from that of the United States--oh, except maybe that little matter of differing political systems. And since the Chinese government--now Communist in name only--has led its people to almost unimagineable prosperity in a single generation, the vast majority of Chinese are well pleased with it. Ergo, they’re not so much angered as perplexed by outside criticism of a system that, for most of them, has worked wonders.

My Chinese home away from home, Suzhou, is an ancient canal town two hours outside of Shanghai. Like other Chinese cities along the populous eastern seaboard, it lacks absolutely nothing in the way of material wealth. Suzhou’s boulevards are well stocked with new Audis, Cadillacs and BMWs, and its shopping centers feature a seemingly limitless array of fancy boutiques in addition to the requisite Starbucks, McDonalds and KFCs. China’s abundance of consumer goods shouldn’t surprise Americans, since it’s the wellspring of so much of our own materialist excess. What’s notable is that ever greater numbers of Chinese can afford these luxuries, right up to big-ticket items such as fancy cars and second homes. 

Suzhou, where I summer more-or-less yearly, changes with the jaw-dropping rapidity one can only experience in China. The stodgy phalanxes of six-story apartment blocks that used to comprise the bulk of my neighborhood are now ringed by a dozen or so glittering ten-story apartment towers. Meanwhile, that longtime Asian commercial standard--rows of dark, cavern-like shops resembling one-car garages, with rusty rolling grilles for storefronts--are slowly but surely giving way to sparkling glass facades and crisply finished interiors. 

China’s planning mirrors its system of government--sweeping and draconian at the highest levels, yet basically laissez-faire at the grass roots. Fortunately, the Chinese haven’t yet succumbed to the kind of obsessively ordered zoning found in America. While Suzhou is now regrettably surrrounded by a profusion of vast and dreary American-style boulevards seemingly leading nowhere--a consequence of trying to keep one step ahead of frenetic growth--the typical residential area, old or new, remains a dense commingling of apartments blocks, businesses, and light industry. In the modest village near my home, for example, the streets fronting the apartment blocks are lined with a cornucopia of businesses--restaurants and clothiers, a farmers’s market, banks, florists, tobacconers, barbers, hardware stores, an array of fabricators building windows, cabinets, or ironwork, and even a few motorcycle mechanics whose service bay is the broad sidewalk outside their shops. 

Ironically, the seeming chaos of combining these disparate usages, so offensive to density-shunning, zoning-obsessed American planners, is exactly what makes these urban areas lively, useful, safe and inviting at all hours. The only thing missing from them, in fact, is the countless acres of parking that utterly preoccupy our planners in the U.S.. Why? None of the village’s cavalcade of amenities is more than five minutes walk from any apartment. 
No matter how we choose to compare their goverment and ours, or their planning and ours, how many American cities can make that claim?

Next time: A bit of the bad news.