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Downward historical-structural trajectories reveal themselves by a nation’s absence of will for anything but war, intervention, the disproportionate emphasis on and allocation for military spending, invariably at the expense of its people’s needs and the social good. Militarism is seen, much as Viagra for the 50+ male, as the source of vigor, the means of heading off aging, in this case of a nation as it wallows in its own psychopathological emphasis on strength, virility, or speaking practically in international terms, global domination. Keeping to old ways, the recapitulation of steps taken in the past, from shock-and-awe bombing campaigns to covert actions aimed at regime change, from fine tuning tactics like drone assassination to revising grand strategies like the shift in focus from Europe to the Pacific, signifies more than a repetition-compulsion, a massive reactive formation: it signifies an inability to adjust to realities, here, on the world scene, and consequently, an urge to plunge head down dead ahead in order to stop history in its tracks and confirm a permanent hegemonic status no longer to be. The more fearful, the more belligerent, and add to that, the more ambitious, which translates into the constant mobilization of increased force. Voila, Obama’s Pacific-first strategy aimed at ultimate confrontation with China.
China is America’s nightmare. How many military/intelligence bed sheets are soiled in wet dreams of American conquest of China? We’ll never know, given Obama’s contempt for government transparency. But we have evidence before us, battle carrier groups steaming to the Pacific (assuming steaming can be used with nuclear-powered), long-range bombers nuclear capable in place, a full schedule of jointly-held military exercises with regional “friends and allies,” even encouragement for rearming Japan. One can say, everything in preparatory stage—madness the US appears helpless to reverse, so gnawing are the symptoms of decline. And what of China? Has it adopted a mental-set of being imperiled? Is its national product diverted to war-planning and –production? Is its national identity bound up with conquest and the geopolitical fruits of aggression? Is it deeply immersed in a state of denial, so that not only is history become the enemy but also militarism (preferably disguised as liberal humanitarianism) the selection of choice for breaking out to a newer, less complicated splendor of wealth and power?
Ever since childhood, I have tended to judge a society, in part, by its creative demiurge, architecture (not Speer’s Nazi monumentality designed to cow the people into submission) and the projects articulated as an indicator of Community, an endeavor to achieve the societal well-being. (Painting and music would also count, of course, but my interest in aesthetic and cultural liberation—admittedly limited—took this form.) With the Sino-American comparison in mind, particularly the latter’s crumbling infrastructure, on which we can all agree, I will note current developments in China as a sign of confidence in the future. By architecture, we must include engineering as perhaps its inner voice—and by infrastructure, I must admit my admiration for what the New Deal was able to achieve, infrastructure the inner voice of the nation’s collective property and well-being. That private contractors rule the roost in the little done in America today, i.e., the privatization of the national estate, only confirms the decline in spirit and will to think of a separable PUBLIC realm dedicated to the people as by right theirs.
We turn, then, to China, and the excellent article by New York Times reporter David Barboza, “Projects to Make Great Wall Feel Small,” (Jan. 13), which details the wave of infrastructure-concentration today in modern China. This speaks not only to planning but also national priorities, and above all to looking forward to a world freed from single-power unilateral supervision of the global system. Every mile of track laid for high-speed trains is a nail in the coffin of US categorical domination of that system. The US knows it, China knows it, the exciting race is on: can development best militarism? Let’s look closer at what is happening.
Yes, there is the Shanghai Tower, now the world’s second highest building, but that’s not what I have in mind. China has identified key structural-economic needs, not infrastructure for its own sake. (I, like many, have consistently opposed development locally, as merely a boon to business interests, not to say contributing to environmental damage, increased traffic, overcrowding; but that is very different from infrastructure, public in character, dealing with water treatment, sewage, etc.–a useful distinction to keep in mind.) It is wrong to see China’s projects as all of one cloth, pure as new-driven snow. But the good outweigh the bad, those extraneous to meeting societal needs. A foundation is being laid for national greatness in the service of the people, as for example, “divert[ing] water from the south of the country, where it is abundant, to a parched section of the north, along a route that covers more than 1,500 miles.” The cost, $80B. We see public investment of near astronomical sums on such projects.
Barboza, writing from Dalian, begins: “The plan here seems far-fetched—a $36 billion tunnel that would run twice the length of the one under the English Channel….[as] the world’s longest underwater tunnel, creating a rail link between two northern port cities.” Infrastructure is designed to service production, in addition to servicing health, water, and other specifically communal needs. He writes further about how in Keynesian fashion (mine), as in New Deal spending to avert economic depression, China’s leaders “are moving even more aggressively [following three decades of boom conditions], doubling down on mega-infrastructure.” So we find the National Development and Reform Commission “approv[ing] plans to spend nearly $115 billion on 21 supersize infrastructure projects, including new airports and high-speed rail lines.” Heavy debt, particularly local government debt, is being incurred, but unlike Europe and IMF-World Bank austerity measures, China appears relatively unconcerned and confident its growth would offset this indebtedness. It is not running scared, even querulous. In response to a UC, San Diego China specialist, who contended, “People should be concerned [about the indebtedness] because very few of these big projects generate cash,” the usual critique of public ownership, Barboza observes: “And yet China’s leaders are so confident of the value and necessity of building on an epic scale that engineers are mapping out plans for decades to come.”
Try that out on US engineers’ anticipated planning. In addition to Shanghai Tower and “spectacularly rich metropolis of 25 million residents,” there is the underside one takes for granted or doesn’t notice: “Undergirding the city is a patchwork of supersize infrastructure—huge airports, subway lines, sewage systems and power plants.” On the private side, throw in “the world’s largest playground, Shanghai Disney Resort, which when it opens around 2016 will be surrounded by a 225-acre Magic Kingdom-style park….” Even there, however, “a city-owned company is helping finance the project.” It would be naive to think this is all the doing of socialism—obviously, there are public-private partnerships at work, just as there are, more important, public projects intended to facilitate and buttress private enterprise in China, as with rail lines connecting port facilities (a phenomenon Paul Baran noted , in Political Economy of Growth, in other contexts). The point, though, is that the preponderant share of public investment still lies exclusively on the public side, and that public investment per se in China shows a determination and will to accomplish great things. “[I]n Dalian,” Barboza points out, ”a city of six million in the northeast, the proposed underwater rail tunnel in Yantai is just one piece of a master plan that includes a 163-mile urban transit system..” For good measure, “work is also underway on what the city says will be the world’s largest offshore airport, a $4.3 billion development on an artificial island created with landfill, covering more than eight square miles.”
With China, hope, with America, anger, suspiciousness, despair. The un- and sub-conscious foundation for the Pacific-first strategy lies in humbling China, dismembering it, cutting it down to size (similar to US thinking and planning with respect to Russia, only now China taking precedence over Russia as America’s #1 adversary). Adversaries are supposed to quail, not confidently affirm the future. In both Putin and Li, Obama and the US have met their match. There may be oligarchs aplenty on the other side, but it is the fact of and underlying rationale for INFRASTRUCTURE that drives America and Obama up the wall; for it is the public factor that sticks in the capitalist craw, even when devoted to long-range private service, in that it represents a collective people providing for society’s needs. Some of what China is doing in this regard is downright stupid and short-sighted, as in Lanzhou, where local government “has backed plans to flatten the tops of 700 low-level mountains to make way for a new business district [something the US would applaud, even boast of], despite concerns about the damage to the local ecosystem.”
Stepping back, one senses that rails and bridges best characterize the spirit of China’s development, that and of course strides in mass education and public health. E.g., he writes, on railroads, “[i]n November, the government said its freight rail link between eastern China and Spain had opened, allowing factory goods to reach Spain in just over 20 days. It is now the world’s longest rail journey, far surpassing the route of the famed Trans-Siberian Railway.” There are added gains, applicable to the entire industrial system—a shrewd observation on Barboza’s part: “China sees hidden benefits in such projects, including the ability to gain new scientific and technical expertise.” He then likens bridge-building, because of this acquisition of knowledge and expertise, to “something akin to an Olympic event” in the minds of China’s builders: “In 2007, after China completed the longest sea-crossing bridge, in Hangzhou, the nation has regularly broken records. China now has the longest bridge of any kind, the highest bridge and, in 2011, a new successor to the longest sea-crossing bridge, 26.4 miles long, in the eastern city of Qingdao.”
One Oxford specialist on mega-projects is among the few outside observers with kind words: “For China, a lot of this is about building a national identity. Mega-projects are suited for that. It’s a lighthouse for all to see what the Chinese nation can do.” Perhaps engineering imperialism, an expertise that China’s “government wants its state-owned enterprises to export.” The results: “Boston is buying subway cars from China. Argentina, Pakistan and Russia have asked China to upgrade their infrastructure. Last month, Chinese construction teams began work on an ambitious $50 billion canal across Nicaragua that could some day rival the Panama Canal.” Better spreading infrastructure than drone assassinations and regime change. Development could become the surrogate for war and intervention, putting the US out of business altogether. Quoting a Carnegie Tech source, “They [the Chinese] have the idea that they’re going to be doing infrastructure for the rest of the world,” Barboza describes how “China is pushing the boundaries of infrastructure-building, with ever bolder proposals.” Seems bizarre to an American who can’t get the potholes fixed on local streets, but here it is: “The Dalian tunnel looks small compared with the latest idea to build an ‘international railway’ that would link China to the United States by burrowing under the Bering Strait and creating a tunnel between Russia and Alaska.”
And Obama couldn’t even get to Paris last Sunday for the Unity March.
My New York Times Comment on the article, same date, follows:
Superb engineering skills. While the US flounders in its war-intervention-deregulation obsession, China thinks of, and acts on, INFRASTRUCTURE, a contrast which will only embitter the US into more boasting, more demand for unilateral global supremacy, more torture, assassination, regime change.
China ascending, America declining–the latter with no brakes to be applied because its militarization of capitalism represents the death wish of a nation which can only measure itself in the megatonnage of destructive power.
Our cities decline, theirs rise resplendent. Our ignition defects kill people, their rail lines enable clean, efficient travel. And so the list of achievements continues, whilst in America, and especially the White House, the demonization of China has become a cottage industry. Move over US in Latin America. Ditto globally. And one may want to tar China with the brush of Red this or that, but in truth these technological achievements have nothing to do with ideology, and rather, high educational standards and the national will to improve the lot of their people.
Will we learn from China? Obviously not. Obama’s military “pivot”–his Pacific-first strategy, his shifting “assets” to the Pacific, and of course the Trans-Pacific Partnership, all have the purpose of confronting, containing, and isolating China. War is always easier than internal self-examination. Sorry, boys, it won’t work. I’ll take infrastructure any time.
Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at email@example.com.