“China’s history is marked by thousands of years of world-changing innovations: from the compass and gunpowder to acupuncture and the printing press. No one should be surprised that China has re-emerged as an economic superpower.” —Gary Locke
Westerners have often criticized China’s ‘creative’ interpretation of the concept of intellectual property, but even its harshest critics recognize the Asian superpower’s ability to build large-scale infrastructure projects at a breakneck pace. America does not want to emulate the absolute government control that has allowed China to build futuristic bridges and airports in record time. However, there are still some things we can learn from our biggest global competitor.
The White House itself has invoked China’s grand achievements in its quest to secure more infrastructure funding from Congress. The administration believes that the only way to compete with China is to spend at least $2 trillion on upgrading bridges and mass transit, modernizing neighborhoods and airports, and making broadband access universal.
The skylines of China’s largest metropolises are nothing short of mesmerizing. Its grand airports and auditoriums amaze tourists and locals alike. Explore any important Chinese city on Google maps, and you will find a level of modernization in infrastructure that far surpasses American cities of similar size. Scholars have coined the phrase “China envy” to refer to the effects of this phenomenon.
According to urban planning historian Thomas J. Campanella, China is doing the kind of things America used to do: amazing the world with grand structures that push engineering and architecture forward. The question is, if China has emulated us, can we now emulate China?
There are some basic differences between the two nations which make emulation difficult. On the one hand, China has leapfrogged from rudimentary infrastructure to suborbital spaceships and bullet trains. America is at a different stage and moves at a different pace. Chinese leaders don’t need approval from the opposition in Congress; they have total control. If the Chinese administration wants to build a bridge, they just go ahead and do it. Democracy is a bit more complicated, but we naturally welcome the complexities, considering how stifling the political atmosphere is under communist rule.
Another difference some analysts have pointed out is that the current Chinese President and his predecessor both studied engineering, so they were naturally keen on innovation in their field. Meanwhile, U.S. presidents have seldom had such backgrounds. The American public has more often elected lawyers to rule over our nation.
China envy is understandable. Our competitor is home to 49 of the planet’s 100 tallest skyscrapers. It also boasts a million bridges. While the U.S. spends 2.4 percent of GDP on infrastructure, China spends 8 percent. This was an important selling point for the White House’s ambitious infrastructure plan.
Located in a mountainous region with over 1,500 rivers, China has built bridges of fantastic proportions to keep urban centers and important agricultural areas connected. The Pingtang Bridge in Guizhou province links two sides of a canyon that are 7,000 feet apart. The spectacular, 7-mile-long Hutong Yangtze River Bridge efficiently provides railway and highway access to Shanghai from Jiangsu province.
As climate change forces us to reevaluate Americans’ preference for private cars and the neglect of our railway systems, the inferior car ownership that was once a disadvantage for China is now an advantage. By 2025, high-speed trains will service 98 percent of Chinese cities. Subways are common in many of them. Today, the country boasts a high-speed rail network totaling more than 23,500 miles, or eight times the distance between New York and LA. Chinese workers travel on bullet trains at 215 miles per hour, much faster than their American counterparts.
The gap between China and the U.S. when it comes to infrastructure is one of astronomic proportions. A few years ago, Bill Gates announced that China had used as much cement in three years as the U.S. in 100 years. China currently produces 14 times more steel than the U.S. and about 2.2 gigatons of cement per year, roughly half of the 4.5 gigatons our country used in the 20th century. In China, city planners have not focused on short-term return on investment, but on broader societal benefits. For example, World Bank officials were not enamored with the idea of creating a subway in Shanghai; the region’s geology made the project far too complex. The World Bank suggested buses would be a better solution for the city’s transit, but Chinese officials didn’t listen and went ahead. Thirty years later, the Shanghai subway has become an example of efficiency, transporting more than 10 million people every day. It is as if China followed a different logic, one that often pays off.
According to Mr. Campanella, “We need a bit of China to be stirred into our game. . . We’re over privileging the immediately affected residents. What we don’t do is give requisite weight to the larger society.” China’s modernization has, however, not been without cost. Accelerated construction creates pollution, and not all the country’s massive structures are green or energy efficient. President Xi’s country is conscious about pollution, and it has poured significant resources into green infrastructure projects like wind and solar farms.
There is a boldness in China’s infrastructure planning, a pioneering spirit that we would do well to imitate. What American jurisdiction would spend billions on a new state-of-the-art airport only 50 miles away from a recently modernized one? China has done it in Beijing. In a way, it seems that China is seeing beyond the here and now, planning for tomorrow, and this is something we can learn from our competitors.
Marc Gravely is the founder and lead attorney at Gravely Law and author of Reframing America’s Infrastructure: A Ruins to Renaissance Playbook.