Why we can never do a 40-km trip in 8 minutes

To an untrained eye, modern China—or at least that part of modern China that modern China is willing to expose to the untrained eye—evokes shock and awe. Shock at the strides made by a Communist behemoth; awe at the speed and scale at which those strides have been made.

Whether similar strides have been made at a similar speed and on a similar scale in the part of China that it doesn’t showcase to the world is another matter. Whether this could have been achieved in a democracy is not clear. Whether somebody somewhere is silently paying a price for all this is not known.

But China’s image management skills is not to be scoffed at. It’s what Mao didn’t put in his little red book.

Editor, columnist, author and eternal wordsmith T.J.S. George, who co-founded Asiaweek magazine in Hong Kong, has been a longtime China watcher. He returned to his quarry last month after ten years and experienced first-hand why modern China can make even minds not easily given to hype, melt.

The first of a six-part series this week.


By T.J.S. GEORGE in Shanghai

The speed at which China is transforming itself is not just impressive; it is scary.

Can such massive cities come up in the twinkling of an eye? Can such elaborate infrastructure be put in place in a jiffy? What is the engine that drives this frenetic pace of progress? Is there a target such an engine cannot achieve if it wants to?

When I visited Shanghai less than 10 years ago, Pudong was a sprawling marshland which had just been drained to make the soil ready for construction activities. The first highrise hotel was coming up and a landmark TV tower was rising.

Today, Pudong is a marvel of modernity, a glittering financial and corporate centre with facilities and institutions bigger and better than the best in the world.

A fairyland kind of suspension bridge, for example, is the most spectacular link across the Huangpu river that used to separate Pudong from Shanghai. There are several other bridges, several ferry services and several state-of-the-art underwater tunnels that make that separation a thing of the past.

Consider the road system. Shanghai was a notoriously congested city—a tangled web like central Bombay. It was impossible to untangle it. But the authorities found a way: Put an elevated road system over the city’s “ground floor.”

Today an overhead network of crisscrossing flyovers make it possible to go from point A to point B without traffic lights. From the centre of Pudong I drove for 36 kilometers before the car was stopped —by a tollgate.

This determination to do what is necessary—and do it quickly and efficiently—is what is helping China catch up with lost time.

They do everything on the grand scale, planning for a hundred years ahead. The new Pudong international airport will be good enough for virtually a century. It is about 40 kilometres from the city and magnetic levitation train covers the distance in eight minutes.

Compare that with Bangalore’s agonising access problems over the new airport.

There is nothing that China has achieved which others cannot. The difference is that China has the national will to achieve it, and the leadership to turn that will into action. We may say that the authoritarian system facilitates quick execution of plans unlike in a democracy.

Is that an argument we want to push when authoritarianism is so palpably constructive as it is proving in China, and democracy so chaotic as it has become in India?

Perhaps the key lies elsewhere.

Aldous Huxley provided an insight as far back as in 1926. Talking about “the dense, rank, richly clotted life” of Shanghai, he wrote:

Each individual Chinaman has more vitality, you feel, than each individual Indian or European, and the social organism composed of these individuals is therefore more intensely alive than the social organism in India or the West.

In other words, whether it is communism or capitalism, the Chinese have a national character that tends to give them an edge over others.

Photograph: Jukkinen via Flickr

Tomorrow: Shanghai is more than just money

Also by T.J.S. George: What if the South had seceded

Also read: How China changed the face of Karnataka politics

Is democracy India’s biggest hurdle to development?

Our communists and their communists

Western incompetence versus Asian competence?

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17 Responses to “Why we can never do a 40-km trip in 8 minutes”

  1. SumneNeeve Says:

    No offence, but can communism, capitalism and socialism be compared. While the author goes overboard on a certain “chinese national character that gives edge over others”, he convineantly forgets to mention the way China buldozes everything that exists when they have to implement a project.

    No words or amount of papers can completely describe the amount of population displacement that has occurred due to the recent olympics and chinas famed highways. If the author believes such ideals are also part of Chinas National character, then I would rather think and appreciate the writers honesty. You see, Mr. TS George, infrastructure growth must be balanced with a debate on how affected populations are handled. If the former exists at the expense of the latter, then is it really something that Indians and Europeans should cater for?

  2. SumneNeeve Says:

    article says: Compare that with Bangalore’s agonising access problems over the new airport.

    Err, TJS George, you see India works on a democratic framework and democracy might not be the most efficient method, but its the closest we have that will enable someone to object a project because he feels he has been wronged. Democracy doesnt work because it is perfect, but democracy works because there is a perception of fairness, something which our brother up North lacks. Should we renounce democracy and accept Communism, Sir?

  3. WrongFact Says:

    At the heart of communist china is a capitalist soul. They have thrown their arms wide open and embraced globalization with a capital G.

    Countries which are not stuck in the past will move forward. India loves celebrating the past. We have the maximum number of holidays for celebrating our past (festivals are, after all a celebration of 1000s of years of events of historical/mythological/social issues).

    Our Indian communists too are caught in the past – refusing to shed their ideological blinkers for pragmatism. If today, China is far ahead of India in all aspects of development, it is because they have shed the moth eaten baggage of rigid doctrines.

    Countries which think less about the past, but more about the future, will progress faster than the others.

  4. Anonymous Guy Says:

    To continue with Aldous Huxley’s diary entry about China and ‘Chinamen’:

    “So much life, so carefully canalised, so rapidly and strongly flowing – the spectacle of it inspires something like terror. All this was going on when we were cannibalistic savages. It will still be going on, a little modified, perhaps by Western science, but not much-long after we in Europe have simply died of fatigue. A thousand years from now the seal cutters will still be engraving their seals, the ivory workers still sawing and polishing, the tailors will be singing the merits of their cut and cloth, even as they do to-day, the spectacled astrologers will still be conjuring silver out of the pockets of bumpkins and amorous courtesans, there will be a bird market, and eating houses perfumed with delicious cooking, and chemists shops with bottles full of dried lizards, tigers’ whiskers, rhinoceros horns and pickled salamanders, there will be patient jewellers and embroiderers of faultless taste, shops full of marvellous crockery, and furriers who can make elaborate patterns and pictures out of variously coloured fox-skins, and the great black ideographs will still be as perfectly written as they are to-day, or were a thousand years ago, will be thrown on to the red paper with the same apparent recklessness, the same real and assured skill, by a long fine hand as deeply learned in the hieratic gestures of its art as the hand of the man who is writing now. Yes, it will all be there, just as intensely and tenaciously alive as ever-all there a thousand years hence, five thousand, ten. You have only to stroll through old Shanghai to be certain of it. London and Paris offer no such certainty. And even India seems by comparison provisional and precarious. ”

    What BS! What Aldous Huxley foresaw turned out wrong. Things have changed more in China than anywhere else as per the authors own observations.


  5. Doddi Buddi Says:

    …and it is kind of ironic because they shoot journos like TJS George over there:)

  6. Aatmasakshi Says:

    It is truly astonishing that a writer of T.J.S. George’s vintage and credentials should be so taken in by the glitz and hi-jinks of Cghina.

    As churumuri’s introduction notes, much of what the outside world knows about the new China is built on very superficial gleanings from Beijing and Shanghai. These are but two cities in a vast nation that is almost the size of a continent.

    Certainly, countries need engines to propel the other rakes. But to so enthusiastically applaud what is happening in these two cities as an example to emulate is to complicitly endorse what is happening in the rest of the country, or the price the rest of the country is paying for this.

    As the Tibet crisis demonstrates (and as Tiananmen Square did earlier) human rights and media freedom are at a premium in China. Its own disproportional response to the Olympic flame being snuffed out by Tibetan protestors shows that the country is far from appreciating the “other”, be it language, culture, traditions, or people and their interests.

    The Sinchuan earthquake shows that the hinterland is a different world from Beijing and Shanghai. The Muslims of China have been mercilessly clamped down upon. The BBC has been booted out. The Internet is heavily censored. There is no proper judicial system. Its environmental standards and concerns are farcical if not non-existent. Etc.

    The speed and scale of change in China can overwhelm anybody. But between China’s quick, unilateral, authoritarian, cheap, cosmetic measures come hell or high water, and India’s slow, bureaucratic but democratic measures which take every side into consideration, I think I know which the world will appreciate in the long term.

  7. WrongFact Says:


    Before you take shots at your favourite punching bag China, you must realise that there are a lot of holes in your own argument.

    He says there is no proper judicial system in China. As if everything about judiciary is fantastic in India (never mind that the notoriously slow judiciary takes a lifetime to decide one single case, never mind that there is 1 million cases backlog, never mind that politicians accused of criminal and corrupt practices are rarely punished, never mind that there is judicial corruption, never mind that people and institutions with money, power and fame get away lightly in India)

  8. SumneNeeve Says:

    WrongFact: He says there is no proper judicial system in China. As if everything about judiciary is fantastic in India

    I dont understand arguements like these. When is saying “You are a poor person” automatically mean “So, are you a very rich person”?

    Should a statement always be qualified with whatever you have? If we adopt such a policy, can anything ever be improved? What a ridiculous thought.

  9. Another One Says:

    We(in Bangalore) have also displaced few thousands of people but I do not see similar development here. I am no big fan of Chinese or Maos but how long should we wait

    A few examples that I know where people are/will be displaced..

    1.Land to the IT BT Angadis’.
    3.New Airportu
    4.Namma Metro
    5.BDA layouts

    Or Am I being asking too much. This is what u get for this scale of displacement? I dream of a Bangalore at least a few years ahead in Infrastructure than the need of the hour.

  10. Poli Hudga Says:

    India is a failed democracy(Pseudo-Democratic) at best, its a democracy which doesn’t function effectively (where some people don’t even bother to vote). We rank in the bottom 10% of HDI rankings & come second in number of billionaires.

    China is a communist country, where people from lower strata are well off compared to India. This country censors & censures people, nevertheless cares for its people.

    Atleast by comparing with china, we are some how pushing our projects to finish faster. The real challenge for us is to make our democracy work for masses rather than some social elite.

  11. S K Kumar Says:

    A veteran journalist like T J S George should know that “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Appearance can be deceptive. He has not seen the sweat and toil of the workers, slave-driven by the powers that be in China, beneath the so-called skyscrapers. His article (travelogue?) reads like a vainglorious PR exercise by a communist.
    One doesn’t understand what George wants to convey. Does he want us (Indians) to work hard and build as many towers as possible? Does he think that a concrete jungle is a symbol of development?
    He seems to regret that Indians lack work culture. What work culture or professionalism did he infuse into his subordinates when he occupied posts of importance? When he visited Shanghai ten years ago, he was the editorial adviser of The New Indian Express (TNIE) in India. Where is the paper now? Shanghai “developed” by leaps and bounds, but what has he done for the paper?
    When he was the editor of the Times of Deccan, he cared two hoots about the pay and perks of his subordinates. And when he became the editorial adviser, albeit an ornamental post, the same stand he adopted. His concern was only his bylines. Nothing else. Yet George, in his two books, praises Pothan Joseph to the skies for working for the cause of journalists. And what has Pothan Joseph’s biographer done for his staffers when they were harassed and humiliated by the management? Feign ignorance.
    He can churn out pontifcating articles on reams and reams, day in and day out. George knows which side of the bread is buttered. It is time George realised that only a man with a pious heart can become a good human being.

  12. rar Says:

    The real challenge for us is to make our democracy work for masses rather than some social elite.

    exactly, and without playing the blame game, all parties should be willing to realize that whats happening right now is only creating more billionaires…we see more tv’s and two wheelers in the lower classes(you gotta throw them a bone), but malnutrition rates are not decreasing that fast. the environment, our principal common asset as citizens, is being degraded to the benefit of very few.
    the upper class, having abandoned vernacular education, scratch their heads when contemplating the inefficiencies of mass public education. it doesn’t occur to the lower class man that he should feel insulted at how vulgarly the system is rigged against him.
    there is virtually no higher education in kannada. you can’t study the history of karnataka with any rigor if you only know kannada. nor can you read the works of enlightenment philosophers, or appreciate japanese cinema, or surmise what jane jacobs might think of the development of bangalore’s traffic.
    we’ve invested pitifully little in our language in the last 60 yrs, and 90% of our state is trapped in the ever shrinking world that the language encompasses. there needs to be 10,000s of crores invested into the intellectual and cultural infrastructure of the kannada language over the next generation, and a mission to have a kannada medium university of global stature by 2060, or some other stipulated time. two languages, one for the upper class, and one for the masses, will not work. its a sham meritocracy of english elocution contests, and devalues thousands of years of cultural evolution in favor of dimwitted pidgin spouting illiteracy.
    how is any state going to be able to mobilize public opinion on issues from urban development to civil rights or fiscal policy when the cultural infrastructure thats supports and informs all of those debates hasn’t been “renovated” since a late feudal polity was the norm in this region?

  13. Anonymous Guy Says:

    Well written rar.

    As the author hints maybe this state of affairs is due to the national character of our people? If it is so – even god cant help us.

  14. WrongFact Says:


    When underprivileged people are given the short shrift whether in a democracy or a communist country, the only difference is development.

    China manages to press the fast forward button, inspite of various ills plaguing the country.

    Why can’t India do the same?

    As brilliantly pointed out by Poli Huduga and Another one.

  15. churumurifan Says:

    doorada betta nunnage anno haage, illi araamagi AC office li koothkondu Indian democracy is a total failure, China yeno sikkapatte fast forward agide annodakke munche satyada arivu madikondu mathadidare channa.
    India is progressing and slowly but surely the poor people of India also will be able to afford a days meal and a place to live.

  16. Anonymous Guy Says:


    Neevenu gudasilanalli koothkondu comment maadthaiddhira? What is happening in China – I cant tell you – have to believe someone like the author who has visited and observed life in China – avarenu nimthara office/maneli koothkondu barithailla. But surely you have read/seen thousands (millions?) of people who dont have a job or roof on their head in Indian cities and people who struggle for one square meal a day. Maybe progressing slowly and surely enough for you – but not for them.

  17. Insider Says:

    Great article by T.J.S. GEORGE.
    It has been a long time we have seen his article ‘point of view’
    in the The New Indian Express

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