News & Views from 465 California Street

Catching up to China

Clint Reilly

Over the past two decades, armed with second mortgages and credit cards, American consumers have mounted a long march of spending. Now they are tapped out, and President Obama has proposed an $825 billion stimulus package of tax cuts and infrastructure spending to jumpstart our ailing economy.

Even without the urgency caused by the current recession, our country desperately needs to rebuild its infrastructure.

Our fast-decaying network of airports, roads, transit systems, bridges, seaports, railway cargo hubs, broadband networks, schools and universities isn’t keeping pace with the rest of the world.

Our current electrical grid couldn’t recharge a national fleet of electric cars even if Detroit was able to manufacture them.

Every century, America wakes up to the fact that it must modernize itself. In 1808, President Thomas Jefferson ordered up a plan that mapped out the infrastructure needs for that era. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt created a 20th century master strategy for roads, bridges and waterways. 2009 is President Obama’s time.

Most Americans are still living the illusion that we are the most modern country in the world. But travel outside our borders and the myth soon evaporates.

Pudong, the huge area across the Huangpu River from downtown Shanghai, was an empty field when I first traveled to China in 1993. But the area evolved rapidly, growing less recognizable each time I returned.

When I brought my wife and daughters to Shanghai for another visit in 2006, the muddy expanse had become a gleaming new financial district.

Pudong now brims with apartment complexes, retail malls, hotels and office buildings, all linked to one of the world’s finest airports by a state-of-the-art transit system. Today, the Shanghai metro region is the fastest growing economic zone in the world.

For those who agonize that China will eventually overtake us as a nation, both Shanghai and Hong Kong have already bested our cities. Their space age airports make the Bay Area’s three major airports look like tinker toys by comparison. The same is true for seaports.

In the waters near the highway linking Hong Kong’s airport to the islands of Hong Kong and Kowloon, an extraordinary flotilla of container ships waits to dock. It is no surprise that the Port of Hong Kong is one of the three busiest in the world, ranked just behind Shanghai and Singapore.

Bay Area ports lack speedy access to appropriate rail lines and distribution facilities in the Central Valley, which increases the cost of shipping. Consequently, more freight is shifting away from California to other routes via Mexico, Canada or direct to the East Coast through the Panama Canal.

China is hardly the only country lapping us on 21st century infrastructure.

Flying into Copenhagen several years ago, I was greeted by a standing army of windmills off the Danish coast that dwarfs our famed Altamont Pass Wind Farm near the Livermore Valley.

Later during my trip, I met a student from Marin who was studying wind energy at the University of Copenhagen, which offers one of the world’s leading programs.

I rode the high speed train from Kyoto to Tokyo in 1994, and I’ve taken the Eurostar from Paris to London many times since it first opened more than a decade ago.

But in California, it was just last year that we passed our own high speed rail bond, and then only by a razor-thin margin. The project still faces a 20-year struggle before the ribbon is actually cut for service between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Noted New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently exhorted Americans to wake up: “Landing at Kennedy Airport from Hong Kong was like going from the Jetsons to the Flintstones…All I could think to myself was: If we’re so smart, why are other people living so much better than us? What has become of our infrastructure, which is so crucial to productivity?”

We know what happens when any great institution refuses to renew itself.

Think General Motors.

Comments (12)

  • Just a short note to let you know how much I enjoy your articles in the San Jose Mercury News. Just got done reading “Catching up to China”. Excellent. You are a very smart man. Thank you for helping make San Jose Mercury News such a great newspaper. Diane

    Posted by: Diane | January 27th, 2009 at 7:25 am

  • There is a huge influx of Chinese (1st language) in Contra
    Costa County at the high schools such as Northgate and community
    college such as DVC. It seems like our education infrastruture is
    paving the way for these students to learn. Their parents take math
    and science far more seriously than we do. Sometimes I wonder if I
    should move my high schooler and middle schooler to China so they can
    learn Mandarin which I think is becoming one of the global languages.
    I think we pay enough taxes to provide for ongoing improvements to
    our infrastructure – including education. It seems like the $ is
    simply mismanaged, and that we’re teaching to a lower standard. What
    happens to the kids in China who don’t make good grades? I hope my
    kids and theirs will live well in the US.

    Posted by: Rabbitt | January 27th, 2009 at 8:32 am

  • Excellent article. I spent three weeks in China in the spring of 2007 and was amazed at the new buildings, highways and subways under construction. I’m sure that between China and Dubai, they have a lock on most of the world’s construction cranes. We need this same type of investment in our infrastructure. Keep pounding away on this subject to wake up America and get us moving in the right direction again.


    Posted by: Bob | January 27th, 2009 at 9:12 am

  • Electric vehicles actually help stabilize the grid, since they’re steady loads (and a good target for smart charging) and make it run more efficiently (esp. with nighttime charging, which reduces the need for spinning standby and increases power plant utilization and nighttime operating efficiency).

    Posted by: Rei | January 27th, 2009 at 11:17 am

  • I want to see any plan at this time, but disagree that spending on roads and alternate cars to revive a car-centric culture is valuable for sustainable living in America. We actually need to retool societal behavior or change away from a wasteful suburban car culture will be forced upon us. But then, why not improve our current roads while we are at it.

    Also, while having some of the experiences you did, with the Shinkansen and modern Asian cities they come at a cost of creating what are essentially vast natural sacrifice areas. We can emulate this if we wish to continue our reduction of much needed wilderness and natural areas held in public but I am resistant to supporting more of such sacrafice until we dramatically contract all suburban and exurban development.

    But other than those issues, we need to invest to not only be more competitive, we must invest in import replacement.

    Posted by: Fossil | January 27th, 2009 at 12:08 pm

  • Hello Mr. Reilly,

    We have been to China too, in 2007. Perhaps you shoulld have visited more of China before touting how modern and wondeful it is. I note that you did not comment on their progress in combating pollution. Yes, downtown Shanghai is a showplace but it is too bad you did not go to the suburbs to see the real Shanghai. And Hong Kong is an overpopulated multistoried prison for the residents. Would you want to live in one of those 65 story appartnments that are stacked one on top the other. Maybe you would prefer to live at that ultramodern airport?

    By the way we were recently in Denmark in 2005 and I count only 15 wind trubines in my photyo of them. Maybe they have built a few more?

    If you want to bash the United States, please do it truthfully ther next tume.


    Thomas G.

    Posted by: Thomas | January 27th, 2009 at 2:49 pm

  • never traveled much, I need to know this stuff to shake off the illusion that America is modern……We need a phrase like: previously modern country.

    Posted by: Sal | January 27th, 2009 at 2:51 pm

  • Clint, I agree with your article. One of the many factors affecting the advancement in US is our ever increasingly stringent environmental laws and policies. For example, it took about 15-20 years in order to address the environmental issues on the Guadalupe River Flood Protection project in San Jose, CA. You mentioned the high speed train, I won’t be surprise it will take another 20 years before all the environmental issues are cleared up.


    Posted by: Dennis | January 27th, 2009 at 2:53 pm

  • I agree that we are lagging behind China but here are a few thoughts to consider. Would you trade our unlimited access to the Internet over China’s with their restrictive controls on content? Yes, China (and others) has surged ahead of us in building their infrastructure of roads, airports, rail lines, etc., but do they have the same environmental restrictions and approval processes that we do here in the U. S. or can they just build what and where they want without recourse from the people? What about labor and material costs in China vs. the U. S? Bay Area ports are losing business to other countries because we lack access to rail lines and other means of shipping. True, but I suspect labor costs are a significant part of the problem. I think if you look at the problems of a large number of U. S. industries that are in trouble you will find that labor is pricing us out of the picture and driving jobs offshore. Thomas Friedman’s comment that “if we are so smart, why are other people living so much better than us” is based on airport use? If Mr. Mr. Friedman, and you by your agreement with him, base your quality of life on modern airports I have a suggestion, take the train, bus or ship to your next destination and reflect on how much better it is to live in the United States.


    Posted by: Gilbert | January 27th, 2009 at 2:54 pm

  • Enjoyed your article in the San Jose Mercury News on Catching up to China.

    Unfortunately, only one in a million of the US citizens travel enough internationally to come to the same conclusion you did; quite correctly of course. The rest just reads whatever they find in the daily newspaper or magazines. So that’s the way the turkey crumbles

    Have a great day mate, and no worries, one day everyone will know the truth; it may just be a little late, that’s all.

    Posted by: Carl | January 27th, 2009 at 2:56 pm

  • Here’s my challenge to John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and the rest of the geniuses who want to oppose infrastructure spending as part of this stimulus package:

    Ride BART to San Francisco from Berkeley and back for a week during commute time. Then drive from Walnut Creek to San Francisco and back during commute hours. Then try waiting for the #21 MUNI bus for 20, 30 minutes on Hayes St. before it rolls right by you, packed to the gills. Then try breathing the increasingly sooty, polluted air in Oakland for a month. THEN try and oppose infrastructure spending.

    Somehow they think that tax cuts are like some kind of magical elixir that will cure everything. Tell me how tax cuts are going to build a high speed train to LA, or build the Bay Bridge any faster than it’s currently crawling along?

    Great column; we should hear more like it.

    Posted by: Sick of traffic | January 27th, 2009 at 3:31 pm

  • Mr. Reilly you hit the proverbial nail right on the head! I was in four cities, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, and Beijing in 2005. What impressed me the most was the condition of their freeways, especially in Shenzhen.
    They were free of potholes and were decorated with flowers both in the middle of the freeway and around their clover-leafs. Also there was no graffiti on the overpasses, unlike here in San Jose.
    The two major negatives was the air pollution and of course the overwhelming numbers of people….everywhere, especially in their cars which, IMHO, they don’t drive very well.
    I would recommend that US citizens visit China rather than rely on the inept media to get a real sense of China.
    We can and should learn from China, at least in their love of education.
    I deal with Chinese scholars a lot and I am always highly impressed
    with their devotion to learning.
    It’s hard to swallow the fact that in some ways (not all) we are not
    number one anymore. We need to get back on track ~

    Posted by: LosAltosBob | January 27th, 2009 at 5:06 pm

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