(This is Part 4 of a four-part series. Read Part 1, "China’s growth has lessons for U.S."; Part 2, "As China grows, so do its problems"; and Part 3, "China at forefront of environmentalism?")

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 paddy 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 20th 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 30 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 10 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 30 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.


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