The tragic bullet train collision in Zhejiang, China that claimed 40 lives and injured over 120 on July 23 has made harrowing headlines in the past couple of weeks. In the U.S., as usual, the Chinese government’s knee-jerk media black-out has led to criticism. But instead of criticizing, perhaps a more productive perspective would be to ask what lessons the U.S. can draw from the tragedy.
At the heart of this high speed rail scandal is the question of infrastructure maintenance — and with the U.S. infrastructure rusting away, it is a question we have to consider seriously ourselves. For China, the bullet train incident is an opportunity. The government has been trying to improve infrastructure, and it has failed, now with enormous human consequences. But the media attention, both abroad and among the alarmed public, is pushing for government accountability. As China learns the lessons of public scrutiny, for international on-lookers like the U.S., there is also an opportunity to take a page from China’s five-year-plans and start looking towards long-term infrastructure investment.
For both China and the U.S., infrastructure presents a sizeable problem. Whereas China’s infrastructural problems often stem from cutting corners and corruption during the construction process, America's own ancient bridges and roads lay forgotten with a lack of proper maintenance. Overall however, infrastructure represents a long-term investment that is far more suitable for the iron-fisted communist government than for a democratic system in the U.S.
One example of Chinese governing efficiency at its best (and also most ruthless) is the construction and face-lifting in Beijing during 2008 Summer Olympics. The magnificence of projects such as the Bird’s Nest belied the thousands of dislocated Chinese who had to give up their homes for construction. These same kinds of construction projects are an everyday occurrence in China, and are what drives the feverish pace of infrastructure renovation.
The same renovations in the U.S. have little leverage and would take years to travel through our legislative system, where calls for infrastructure reform have fallen on deaf ears for years. The Obama administration has made a pointed effort to introduce more funding but has seen little success. Look no further than the national infrastructure bank Obama proposed in 2010. Meanwhile, a bipartisan coalition of senators proposed a similar bank in April 2011. Yet, there has been little in the way of government action. In the meantime, civil engineers keep slapping our infrastructure report card with "D's."
While I am not proposing that what authoritarian China does to its citizens in its bullish rush to infrastructure development is correct, the U.S. must acknowledge the flaws in its own bureaucratic system. The U.S. government holds its checks and balances close to heart, but the same healthy fear of abuse of power ties politicians to short-term goals in order to please their constituency and cling to office. The idea of infrastructure repair is dangerously nebulous in terms of immediate benefits to the American people, especially in a time of economic crisis. Thus, politicians are less than willing to breach the infrastructure debate or invest anything more than the immediate future during campaign trails or their terms in office.
Meanwhile, China’s authoritarian government has made significant investments in infrastructure in the long-term. Has it always worked out? Looking at the recent turn of events not only with the bullet train collision but also with the collapse of four bridges, the short answer is no. But what does not work in an authoritarian government that makes little attempt to check corruption should not be automatically crossed off the U.S. government’s list. China does have the right idea in looking ahead and investing heavily in infrastructure improvement. Perhaps if we did the same by investing in public works, we could also generate the jobs that the U.S. so desperately needs, while also repairing an infrastructure system that is in dire straits.
For China, the train incident is a gigantic blip on the radar, but the communist government will not be slowing its infrastructural investments anytime soon. The same kind of sustained, constant initiative is exactly what the U.S. needs to give the economy a good kick in the rear. As we survey the situation on the other side of the planet, perhaps it would be good to do the same and realize the potential to create jobs and feed into the sagging economy while securing our bridges and roads. China has tried and failed, and will probably be making progress soon.
The U.S., in the meantime, hasn't tried at all, and is slowly slipping into ineptitude.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons