China has just unveiled two new bullet trains, capable of speeds of up to 400 km/h, which are being put into service between Shanghai and the city of Hangzhou.
These sleek, futuristic trains are extending China’s high-speed train network to more than 7,430 km.
In the space of just over a decade, China has built the world’s largest network for high-speed rail and its growth is not over yet. Now, it is talking of bidding on high-speed train projects in the U.S. Watch out, Bombardier.
At the same time, the Chinese have unveiled the world’s fastest supercomputer, replacing the United States in the top spot. The Tianhe-1A is reported to have a speed 1.4 times that of the fastest U.S. supercomputer at a national lab in Tennessee. It was developed at the National University of Defence Technology.
In the space of just a few years, China has moved from being a laggard in the field of computers to a serious player, capable of a growing role in the field of high-performance computing. It is also reported that China is working furiously to build computer chips that rival those of the world’s most advanced computer chip maker, Intel Corp.
Chinese financial markets are also building sophistication, with both scale and scope as major financial centres — in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Shenzhen. In 10 to 15 years, the giants of Wall Street and the City of London, firms like Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan, may find their services are no longer needed, at least for Asian deals.
To be sure, China still lags in many fields of science and technology and lacks the research depth found in the United States and other Western powers. So we should not panic. It will be some time before Chinese companies and universities have the depth of capabilities to match the top Canadian, U.S., Japanese and European performers.
But the gap is narrowing.
Contrast that with the current position of the most powerful nation still, the United States. It is consumed by rising debt, an increasingly dysfunctional political and education system, a nation more divided than ever over its future course and no ability or consensus to deal with more challenges from energy to climate change or the restoration of fiscal health.
While the Chinese rush to extend their high-speed rail network and to embrace green technology, the U.S. has yet to invest in its first high-speed rail connection or adopt a far-reaching strategy to radically reduce its dependence on imported oil or shift away from high-polluting coal-burning power plants.
China is gaining an edge on cleantech technology because the U.S. — and for that matter, Canada — lacks an energy strategy.
Instead, the U.S. approach is to demonize China as some kind of ominous threat to the West and work to create an anti-China coalition in Asia, blame China for its economic problems (how the Chinese are to blame for the appallingly poor performance of American schools, which is a key source of a decline in U.S. economic dynamism and social progress, is a mystery) and propose all kinds of protectionist actions against China.
The latest example of protectionist thinking is to threaten China for supporting its cleantech companies, claiming Chinese support is unfair even though the U.S. stimulus package has been loaded with subsides for U.S. cleantech companies.
We have to get use to the fact that China is an advancing civilization. We should welcome the fact that a part of the world, which had become one of the poorest, is now lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and is preparing to play a constructive role in the world — including adding to the sum of human knowledge through its growing investment in research, development and education.
China still has much to learn, including how to interact with the rest of the world in a constructive way. And it will make mistakes. But the rise of China need not be a zero-sum game.
A richer and more open China will present many opportunities for Canadians and Americans, and can be the source of many good jobs if we do it right. Our need is to ensure that we have the skills, capabilities and ideas to share in the rise of China, rather than seeing ourselves as victims.
David Crane is a syndicated Toronto Star columnist.