China and US: Angie Tang on China's Development

Email a Friend

Brian recently visited China on a trip for journalists sponsored by the Committee Of 100. He and his fellow travelers will be posting reflections on the blog over the next week. Here Angie Tang, executive director of the C-100, former director of the New York City Office of Immigrant Affairs, and former U.S. Labor Department Representative for the Northeast and Caribbean, responds to Brian's first post.


Brian wrote: In this country, we often think of China first as an authoritarian state that engages in human rights violations. It was chilling to stand in Tiananmen Square as a tourist. But that said, I came away with the impression that China's leadership sees its form of government as less like, say, Kim Jong Un's and more like Michael Bloomberg's: a non-ideological technocracy. They've had all this economic and educational success, peacefully turned away from Mao's brutal revolution, gotten so many people out of poverty, conducted public opinion polls to determine people's needs, and imposed term limits on their top officials. And yet, the argument some people made that China is better off without political freedom still revolts me. I wonder how others among us are thinking about China's unique mix of repression, pragmatism and advancement.

Angie Responds 

Brian, your point about “China’s mix of repression, pragmatism and advancement” aptly captures the contradictory forces at play in shaping China’s economic development and in some ways, I would add national identity.

Let’s take a look at China’s high-speed rail development and its impact on urbanization as a case in point.


China is currently undergoing a massive infrastructure expansion. China’s Ministry of Rails has allocated $730 billion from 2010 to 2020 to expand railways over 120,000 km with 16,000km for new high-speed railway.  In total, the Chinese state is estimated to spend $300 billion to build a 25,000km high-speed rail network by 2020. The Chinese government’s investment in constructing a national high-speed rail grid includes eight high-speed rail corridors, four from north to south and four east to west, including Beijing - Hong Kong; Beijing – Shanghai; Xuzhou-Lanzhou; and Shanghai-Changsha.  According to one study, “China’s goal is to reshape its landscape around train services in much the same way that the interstate highways reshaped America. The upcoming decade of network-building will coincide with intense urbanization and the formation of mega-city clusters, allowing a day’s travel to reach any major city. This will accelerate the formation of a unified Chinese market.” In this grid, mega-cities in the Pearl River Delta, Yangtze Delta and Bohai Delta are direct beneficiaries of urbanization. Equally important are the cross-currents of urbanization underpinning the growth of major inland cities such as Changsha, Wuhan, Zhengzhou, and Shijiazhuang.

The sheer magnitude of this undertaking epitomizes Chinese pragmatism and aspirations of national advancement. It also reflects the deeply-rooted concept of unifying the center and periphery -- preserving national strength and stability in the heartland and along the borders -- that pervades Chinese history.  On a human level, from the hand that laid the bricks of the first Chinese emperor’s Great Wall to the Chinese state’s planting rail lines for today’s high-speed rail grid, state-driven mega-projects come at a social cost. A few days ago 300 middle-class Beijing residents protested a new high speed rail line from Beijing to Shenyang. Although local police broke up the protests before they could spread, the quick clamp-down is symptomatic of state control, and heavy-handed measures, still employed to further the country’s grand-scale ambitions.

In hindsight, our day trip on the high-speed rail from Shanghai to Hangzhou had implications beyond an idyllic excursion. We were passengers in China’s journey of contending with its own internal contradictions.