(This is Part 2 of a multipart series. Read Part 1, "China’s growth has lessons for U.S."; Part 3, "China at forefront of environmentalism?" and Part 4, "China takes technology to next level.")

Americans are no doubt getting tired of hearing how well things are going for China. Having painted much the same 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 headaches for a change.

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 perhaps less than one in 25 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 20th 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 three decades 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 China.


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