May 25,2011

Another Misinformed Commentary on China's High-Speed Rail

By Adam Mayer

As we've pointed out here on China Urban Development, there is no lack of misinformation about China in the Western media. This has been the case for many years and will likely continue into the future. Predicting the collapse of China has even become a career for some pundits.

I started a site (www.chinaurbandevelopment.com ) to offer a fresh perspective differing from most Western writers in that I actually live in China and work in an industry directly related to the country's development. I have no illusions that China will transform itself to be more 'democratic' like the West, nor do I think that the West needs to copy China's top-down development model to compete economically. What works in one culture will not necessarily work in another.

That being said, some of the negative commentary about China's ambitions  is due at least in part to a poverty of ambition in the West. The latest example of this is an article from Washington Post editorial writer Charles Lane. Lane visited China for a few days recently and became an expert on the country's high-speed rail system after taking a trip on the line from Beijing to Tianjin (a city he self-admittedly had never heard of).

Lane's commentary reflects a common misunderstanding about China and its ambitions. He applies the same argument  to China as detractors of high-speed rail in the U.S. when he states:

"The fact is that China's train wreck was eminently foreseeable. High-speed rail is a capital-intensive undertaking that requires huge borrowing upfront to finance tracks, locomotives and cars, followed by years in which ticket revenue covers debt service - if all goes well."

Lane comes from the libertarian point of view  in that he insists every new piece of infrastructure must turn a quick profit, or else it is a waste of taxpayer money. To be sure, the position against high-speed rail holds some weight in the U.S. where the low-density nature of most of its urban landscape may not justify the high public expenditure of high-speed rail.

Yet China is building high-speed rail under a completely different set of circumstances. For one, China is still urbanizing substantially, creating a growing demand for high-speed intercity rail network. In addition, the country's domestic air travel market continues to expand upon an already strained network.

Perhaps the most ridiculous part of Lane's piece is the story he cherry-picked  of a 17-year old migrant girl he meets on a bus returning from Tianjin back to Beijing. Learning that she has never heard of the high-speed train and that she wouldn't be able to afford a ticket, Lane concludes from this one example that high-speed rail is out of reach financially for the majority of Chinese people.

Reading that a 17-year old girl is not able to afford a high-speed train ticket in China is not surprising. What is surprising is that Lane ignores the growing reality of a Chinese middle-class that will gladly pay for the convenience and efficiency of high-speed rail. I would even be willing to bet that after a few years in the workforce, the 17-year old migrant girl would be able to afford a ticket if she so chooses to use the high-speed line as a means of transport in the future.

In the end, Lane says that China should envy the U.S. for not investing in high-speed rail. This is a laughable conclusion. Lane misses the bigger picture (more likely due to his ideological short-sightedness rather than his short visit to China) about the country's ambitions.

China's leaders don't care if high-speed rail will ever be 'profitable'. Were the aqueducts that supported cities in the Roman Empire turning a quick profit? How about the U.S Interstate Highway System? Gas and automobile taxes barely covers it these days as more highways turn into toll roads in America.

Great infrastructure projects throughout history are not built for quick profit but rather to strengthen economies and enhance the quality of life for people. In the long-run, China's high-speed rail system will do just this as it unites the country's urban areas, making mobility more convenient for its people.

(The author is an American Architect based in Chengdu, Sichuan province.)

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