There was a great article in the Wall Street Journal the other day explaining the inability of a massive Chinese state-owned construction company to complete a simple highway project in Poland. Ironic jokes about incompetence aside, this highlights an important point about China that is often lost amid the hubris about breakneck development: Big or small, China cannot be depended upon to competently make anything of long-term quality.
The assumption that most consumer goods manufactured in China are inferior grade products made by migrant workers in a sweatshop is to a certain extent quite true. However, in addition, the awe inspiring high-speed rail lines, new skyscrapers, and mass transit projects built to impress upon the world that China is rising to become next world superpower suffer the same shoddy workmanship, and are smoke and mirrors on the largest scale.
In China, the appearance having good quality is more important than the reality having good quality. Why else is there an pandemic of knockoffs from purses to watches to shoes, but also Facebook and even an entire Apple store? China fails to grasp the concept that the value of, say, an Adidas shoe comes from more than just the logo; that an Adidas shoe is an Adidas shoe because it is a well-made, comfortable, reliable shoe.
Consider the high speed rail development China is undertaking. Over the past 5 years China has spent hundreds of billions of dollars to import state-of-the-art technology and build the world’s largest, fastest high-speed rail network that now serves more than a million riders per day. Impressive, right? It would seem that Chinese technical and management prowess will soon challenge Germany, Japan, and the like.
The July 2011 collision in Wenzhou that killed 40 and injured more than 200 illustrated that is not the case.
It’s not so much that fatal rail accidents such as these are unavoidable (they actually are: Japan has demonstrated that in “46 years of commercial train operations, the Tokaido Shinkansen has maintained a flawless record of no passenger fatalities or injuries due to train accidents such as derailment or collision”), it’s more that instead of honing up to its mistakes, the Chinese government tried to cover up the matter by attempting to destroy the evidence and strictly controlling domestic media coverage.
The Chinese may be building the tallest skyscrapers and the fastest trains, but it’s all for show. Four years ago Beijing wowed the world with the biggest, nicest Olympic venues ever; but now that the world’s interest has moved elsewhere the buildings are sitting unused and are literally falling apart. This phenomenon is happening across the country- new projects designed to impress, intimidate, and distract us from the fact that China is speeding toward a brick wall because of corruption, incompetence, and downright laziness. As much as the Communist Party’s propaganda machine will try to convince us that China is the economic juggernaut of the future, if you dig even an inch below the surface you’ll see that they’re full of crap.