Imagining America as China

In honor of Hu Jintao's visit to DC this week, two useful (IMO) thought experiments for understanding China's situation:

1) All of the Americas within US borders. I mentioned yesterday that Thomas Barnett had given a realistic brief appraisal of China's strengths and weaknesses in an NPR interview. A point I particularly liked was this tip for comparing American and Chinese scale:

If Americans wanted to imagine what it would take to be "strong" in the way China currently is, he said, all we'd have to do is think of moving the entire population of the Western Hemisphere into our existing borders. Every single Mexican. (Rather than enforcing the southern border, we'd require everyone to cross it, headed north.) Every Haitian, Cuban, and Jamaican. Everyone from Central America. All 190 million from Brazil. And so on. Even the Canadians. China, by the way, is just about the same size as the United States, though a larger share of its land area is desert, mountain, or otherwise nonarable.

If we did that, we'd be up to about a billion people -- and then if we also took every single person from Nigeria, and for good measure everyone in hyper-crowded Japan too, we'd finally be up to China's 1.3 billion size. At that point, like China, we'd have tremendous scale in everything. Rich people. Big businesses. A huge work force. Countless numbers of multi-million population cities. And we would also have a tremendous amount of poverty, plus pressure on resources of every kind, from water to food to living space. Just as China does now. Scale gives China some strengths. But it also creates tremendous challenges, as Americans would recognize if we thought about this prospect for even a minute. Seriously, reflect on this, and consider that it is China's reality now.

2) The 'Zipper Street' principle. I mentioned yesterday the complex analysis of "What Hu knew and when Hu knew it" about China's new "stealthy" fighter plane. A Western reader in Shanghai sends a reminder of an explanation that Westerners should always consider when interpreting news out of China but that too rarely makes its way into our press accounts. This reader says:

>>As a decade-long American resident of Shanghai... I read your piece "'Threat Inflation': The Chinese Stealth Fighter" in which you raised the question of how aware was President Hu of the debut flight of China's newest fighter, and what this says about Chinese civil-military relations.

I can't help but wonder if the most likely explanation isn't the least sinister one - simply, poor inter-departmental communication and coordination.

During my time living here I have observed that this is such a common occurrence that I regard it as almost a characteristic of Chinese organizations in general.

I'm sure you've encountered many examples during your sojourn living here, so I will remind you of just one: the city water department tears open a street to lay new water pipes. A month later, the city sewer department jackhammers up the fresh concrete to install new sewer pipes. A couple months later, the new pavement is ripped up again to install telephone lines. All of this repeated jackhammering, noise, dust and disruption of traffic is a great inconvenience to residents and businesses of the street, as well as a waste of labor and materials.

It would seem that a small amount of communication and coordination between departments of the same city government could prevent this, yet the phenomenon is so common that locals have a name for it: "zipper streets."

After noting many similar incidents great and small, I think we ought not to overlook the possibility that the leadership's apparent lack of awareness may have been nothing more than a common Chinese bureaucratic communications and coordination failure.<<

My wife and I use to marvel at one "zipper street" that was dug out, paved, and dug again in at least three full cycles during our time in Shanghai. Something similar happened with a subway entrance near our apartment in Beijing. That doesn't prove a "blunder" explanation for the stealth fighter case, but it needs to be borne in mind.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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