Is China the future or the past?

The New York Times asks, Does New York Need to Dream Big Again? Some have pointed to Shenzen as a model for frenetic growth with livable outcomes. It seems to me that the United States doesn’t have much to learn from China’s impressive economic growth.

That would be like present-day WalMart re-adopting the aggressive growth strategy that saw it spread across the country (and beyond). There are only so many cities big enough to support a WalMart. In the same way, there is only so far a country can be modernized with today’s institutions and technology. Once you reach saturation (the United States being pretty much at the limit of WalMarts and modernity), you have to settle for more cautious, measured growth.

China is still racing headfirst toward “a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage.” Americans, for the most part, have all the chickens they can eat, and a car to drive to KFC.

The kinds of mega-projects that became possible with American prosperity in the 20th century and the government powers that followed a depression and two wars will not return to the United States. Today’s economic troubles will pass, but the days of double-digit growth have been over for decades. Similarly, the age when people trusted government passed with the youth rebellions of the sixties and Ronald Reagan’s anti-government administration.

Compare that to the situation in China, where the economy is strong and the government is powerful. On a grand scale, anything is possible.

Is this the difference between a Modern nation and a Postmodern nation? I may be abusing those therms. China pours concrete and erects steel while the United States tinkers with what it already has. China believes it can build a utopia with conviction and effort, while America is less sure of itself.

This isn’t necessarily a bad development for the United States. I doubt, however, that you can go back to operating with a modern philosophy (regardless of economic realities) once you’ve moved on – it’s a bit like religious faith that way.

And why should anyone want a return to the past anyway? It’s pretty well accepted that a lot of the things built in the last century were a mistake. Look at the (I think, partly undeserved) legacy of Robert Moses or the reconstruction of the Regent Park public housing complex in Toronto. Aiming for quality over quantity has its advantages.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s