Hey, if China wants to be the world’s leader, let ‘em

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During 1967, Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, a French journalist, published an influential book, Le Defi Americain (The American Challenge).

In it he argued that France and Europe were losing a “silent economic war” with the United States. The book sold more than half a million copies in France alone, and provoked both serious policy changes and a continental sense of “malaise.” So superior were the Americans, the book contended, that even the most brilliant and innovative European technology was doomed to be swept away by the Yankee juggernaut.

As an example, Servan-Schreiber cited the Anglo-French Concorde, the world’s first supersonic passenger airplane, which would soon go into service. The Concorde, he predicted, would be obsolete before it made its maiden flight, leapfrogged by the advanced technology embodied in the proposed American SST.

It didn’t turn out that way. The American SST never flew. The project was abandoned, and the Concorde — noisy, inefficient and expensive to operate — served only a niche market of wealthy transatlantic commuters. But Servan-Schreiber’s powerful screed helped accelerate the removal of intra-European trade barriers and the modernization of once-lagging national economies.

And now? It’s our turn to cry, our turn to quail before the economic might and technological competence of our principal supplier, creditor and competitor — China.

There’s reason for concern. The Chinese economy benefits both from highly advanced technology, and from low-cost labor. In China, government conceives, finances, and directs vast infrastructure projects that are accomplished in a fraction of the time that it takes us to plan such undertakings.

The Obama administration has made it a paramount goal to create a national high-speed passenger rail network. The first such train will operate between Tampa and Orlando, a distance of 84 miles. It’s scheduled to be operational by 2014.

By contrast, as the New York Times reported last week, China already has an operating network of superfast passenger and freight trains. With 42 high-speed rail lines already in operation or scheduled for completion by 2012, China is both upgrading its transportation network and creating a manufacturing base that will dominate the world market for high-speed rail. If China stays on schedule, it will have a national network of 8,000 miles by the time we complete our earth-shattering 84 miles across the Florida swamps.

The now operational Guangzhou-Wuhan bullet train, which has the world’s fastest average speed, travels 664 miles in slightly more than three hours. Trains traveling at speeds of 200 mph must run on arrow-straight tracks, precluding the use of existing railroad rights-of-way.

It’s highly questionable, as a practical matter, whether high-speed routes are buildable in this country because construction would require the use of eminent domain to acquire rights-of-way from tens of thousands of recalcitrant property owners. Those indignant folks would join with local governments, environmental non-profits and anyone else with a dog in the fight and kill the railroad before a single foot of track was laid.

By contrast, China’s remorselessly efficient autocracy moves such projects forward, regardless of local sentiment or human cost.

“As the Chinese train whizzes across the countryside,” the Times reported, “tile-roofed homes in ancient villages gape windowless, hints of peasant relocations that the government has not publicly quantified.”

That’s one story — and there are dozens more. It’s what happens when you combine the extraordinary competence and energy of the Chinese nation with buccaneering capitalism and a national commitment to economic growth at any cost.

Can we compete? The short answer is no. We value clean air, unpolluted lakes and rivers, historic neighborhoods, private property rights and due process. That’s why northwestern Colorado will never be sacrificed to shale oil, why mountain lions will continue to roam our mountains, and why we celebrate ranchers and farmers who care for their land, and pass it on undiminished.

There are lots of would-be Servan-Schreibers out there, warning us that the American century has passed, and that we have to adapt or perish. That’s fine — but we’re neither going to adapt nor perish. The Obama administration’s quixotic attempts to rebuild and modernize our energy and transportation infrastructure won’t have much impact. We’re too broke, too slow-moving, and too sclerotic to keep up with the Chinese … so what can we do?

Give them a job. Let the Chinese take over as the world’s cop on the beat. It’s a nasty, thankless task — nobody likes you, crazies fly airplanes into your buildings, and it costs a fortune. No country wants the position (remember the much vaunted “coalition of the willing” in Iraq?). Yet China, which depends upon world economic and political stability, will take the job sooner or later — so why not sooner?

I suspect that they’d be competent, brutal and efficient in their new role. And as for us, we might not miss the high taxes and unproductive investments that go with a wartime economy.

We might even put our military-industrial complex to work building high-speed trains …

John Hazlehurst can be reached at john.hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.

One Response to Hey, if China wants to be the world’s leader, let ‘em

  1. I hear China have an excess of 22 million males. Put them to work in the UN peacekeepers. I bet Iraq could use 2 million Chinese peace keepers to tame that country of Islamic fanatic. how about send 3 million Chinese peacekeepers to look for bin laden in the mountains. i bet they will find him. what else can we do with the 22 million peacekeepers? Send them in to Haiti to rebuild. they can rebuild the whole country in 1 year if they work 24/7 365 days. hmmm..how about put 1 million men to rebuild the bay bridge…Cal Tran taking too long. they can rebuild it in six months. the endless possibility with 22 million Chinese peacekeepers.

    February 19, 2010 at 10:35 pm