Editor’s note: Arrol Gellner is currently on an extended stay near Shanghai. The following is one of a series of columns comparing the built environments of America and China.
"So do the Chinese still like Obama?" I asked a longtime Chinese colleague who’d just picked me up from the Shanghai airport. I expected a spirited answer one way or the other, as was usual when questions about America came up. Instead, he just shrugged. "They don’t really care," was his reply.
This, in a nutshell, summarizes China’s current level of concern for the United States. With the Chinese economy still roaring and development in high gear, events in America — superpower or not — are rapidly becoming irrelevant.
I’ve just returned to China after a year-and-a-half absence. My previous visit came during the early throes of our euphemistically named "recession," and even at that time, I thought I’d detected a faint shift in how Americans were regarded.
But now the difference is obvious: America has become a peripheral concern to the Chinese, not the other way round. As we hummed down the well-lit, glassy-smooth expressway between Shanghai and my sometime home in Suzhou, the reasons were obvious.
Thanks to the country’s huge cash reserves and vast labor force, China’s infrastructure is improving at an astonishing rate. The central government has, for better or worse, the far-reaching power to make things happen, and lately it’s been for the better.
In Suzhou, an entire ring expressway system has been built in the span of two years, while the brand-new subway system, begun from scratch in 2008, will be finished next year.
By contrast, at my permanent home in the San Francisco Bay Area, the work of designing, approving and constructing a new Bay Bridge in the wake of the 1989 earthquake has thus far taken 21 years, with construction still under way. While there’s something to be said for proceeding with caution, any Chinese would find such glacial progress ridiculous.
Even setting aside America’s current economic malaise, the labyrinthian complexities of getting any project off the ground in the U.S. virtually guarantees that China’s infrastructure will eclipse our own in the coming years — regardless of whether our economy makes its long-touted recovery.
It’s easy to criticize the Chinese juggernaut approach to development, but we needn’t look far to find its analog: In late 19th century America, swamps were drained, railroads driven through, resources extracted, factories erected — in short, nothing was allowed to stand in the way of national progress as we understood it in those distant years.
Today, China is in much the same phase of its ascendancy and is, at least in its own view, equally entitled to develop as it sees fit.
At the core of the friction between the U.S. and China and, for that matter, many other developing nations, is the perception of American hypocrisy — the idea that we Americans, who’ve had the past luxury of making development mistakes aplenty, now presume the moral authority to lecture the nations who follow in our footsteps.
It’s one big reason we’re increasingly seen as the emperor with no clothes, and why, more and more, what we think doesn’t even matter.