Chinese just aren't as impressed anymore

I know a Chinese lady from Qingdao that lives in in Los Angeles.   Works in my industry.   Married to a European.   On the phone awhile back she simply mentioned to me,

“America isn’t what I thought it would be.”

Through no surprise of my own, I find that Chinese are increasingly just not that impressed with America.   Especially The Young.  They come here to study, graduate, than leave. 
I think this is a trend that will continue to grow, rather than decrease.

For some reason, today’s Chinese are a bit disappointed when they “show up”, here.  Our country(and quite possibly yours as well) just doesn’t “impress” as much. 

What gives?

One could say the Chinese “just don’t get it”, and I would agree.

Yet, I also understand their point of view.  Most of the young Chinese coming here today are fuerdai, that is they are from wealthy parents, and they view America more as a stop than a destination.  They are not like the Chinese that came here in the 80’s and 90’s, slaved away in faux Chinese restaurants and earned every penny they have.  

Most of the Chinese today coming to America are just not willing to work as hard. (see above)  While there is pressure on some, there is also not a lot of pressure on many of them to succeed.  It is not life or death.   Rather, they will just linger awhile, take it in, than go home to work in the family business.
But there is also another aspect to their dismay:  Many of them are simply not as impressed with this country.  America simply does not pass the eye test.

If you are looking for a gleaming, new skyscraper that stands 1000 feet tall or perhaps 100 stories, in every city, and by chance not finding one, then perhaps your first impression will be that America is surely a country in decline.  And as such this place isn’t for you. 

Let’s face it, to many young Chinese coming here today, America does not meet the standard.   There is still no people that I can think of that is as impressionistic  as the Chinese.   For decades now, they have thought of this country not in terms of “opportunity”, per say, but as the leading example of wealth and power.  America is the richest and most powerful country on earth. 

This means a crass, gleaming monument to that success that screams out this wealth, power and prestige must be visible on every corner.     Why? 

Because that’s how Chinese think.   And that’s how they would do things.

One’s “wealth and power” must be on display for all to see.   It must not be hidden, or kept locked away in a drawer.   

“Look how bad ass we are!”

In one incredibly short span in the 1930’s America built the Golden Gate Bridge(1937), the Empire State Building  (1931), and the Hoover Dam(1935).   Only one of which was a Federal Project.   That is, mostly built with federal money.    This collective feat was all the more impressive not just because it took place so long ago, but also because each engineering project took place in such chronological proximity to each other.

In the span of a few years, the world’s longest suspension bridge, tallest building and biggest dam were all constructed.

The Freedom Tower, aside, have we recently built anything else?

Aside from our lack of trophy architecture, when the Chinese come here they are also quickly struck with the fact that not only are there no subways, but that one needs to learn to drive.    From the Chinese point of view, the lack of infrastructure is appalling.   

Yet it turns out that America’s attitude towards wealth just isn’t the same as the Heavenly Kingdom’s.   
They expect American cities to all have large gleaming buildings that glimmer in the sun, reflecting the rays from a clear blue sky.    And perhaps they expect equally new subways to take them there. 

All I can say folks, is sorry…not gonna happen.

As I’ve mentioned recently in other posts, the Chinese people have zero say, knowledge, or participation in the local budget planning process within their own communities.   There are no such things as open town hall meetings, let alone open city council meetings.   Minutes are not publicly published.   The People expect decisions to be made for them, by the All Knowing Party.  

We all know the result:   massive infrastructure projects built on cheap loans.  (did you hear about the 50 lane highway?)   Overbuilding actually.   Empty cities.  Crazy city debt, riddled with corruption.  Some of the wealthiest people in China are not government officials, but construction managers.

My wife’s family has very good friends in Hangzhou, whom have bought a house on West Lake.   They’re not generals…nor is their last name “Ma”(the founder of Alibaba is from Hangzhou).  They are not government officials of any sort.  Rather, they are simply in the construction business.
Ever taken the Shenzhen subway?  Ever notice how some of the chairs on the platform are carved from granite? 

In short, China has a lot of people and needs a lot of things.   Basic things like airports, for instance.  And modernized train stations.   These are essentials.  But the real impetus for building is not entirely to benefit The People, but for the construction industry to mainly enrich itself.   

But the Chinese have now taken some of these gaudy projects as a birthright.  That is, having the tallest buildings, the strongest dams, the coolest bridges is only “proper and natural”.   Why?  Because China as a rich and growing country needs to “look the part”.   And anything “shorter” or “smaller” just won’t do. 

Nevermind the mind boggling corruption as each percentage of a dollar on each project goes straight into the pockets of some construction type, the building boom in China ties in nicely with the Chinese 
 People’s demand to “dress to the role”. 

So it’s funny when Chinese go overseas and don’t see the same thing.   It’s a reflection of the inability of the Chinese People to understand that no, we all don’t think like a Chinese, and don’t tie the Face of our Hometown to the size of our tallest building.   And a completely understandable failure on the part of the Chinese to understand how local government works.  

In the West, local government functions not to illustrate how rich and powerful it is, but for the efficiency of the people.  Newcomers don’t get that.

In the mind of a Chinese, a real government shows power through symbolism.  That is why the Chinese People in 1991 were so impressed with the ability of the US to use its technology in the first Gulf War.  To us, it was simply defeating a bully that threatened the entire Middle East oil supply, but to China it was an opportunity for America(or Britain, or France, or whoever) to show how badass we are.  

But real government isn’t about military parades, or the speed of your missiles.   Nor the size of your mayor’s house.  It’s about keeping local taxes as low as possible while still providing a  proper lifestyle to your city residents.  It’s not about having a few large city parks that dominate as much as about making sure each neighborhood may have its own community park. 

It’s about making sure the trash is picked up on time, and the city roads are fixed.    Putting pressure on the school board to hire more teachers or lower the classroom size.  All in the name of attracting more companies to your area. 

Very boring, very unsexy, and nothing to do with National Power. 

Where I lived in Shenzhen I literally had an 80 story building right across the street from my apartment. Think that would’ve been zoned in a residential area here?

Yeah, I might be a little embarrassed if I took a friend from China and “showed them around” my city.   
I’d hope the younger Chinese coming here would listen a bit more to the older generation that came with different expectations, and hopes.   But they really are two different classes of people within the same country.    The latter has a family, and kids, and predictability.   The former just want to get out of China a bit and experience life.   The latter can appreciate the nuance and advantages of living in the West, whether it be Australia, Europe or Canada.   The former is too busy living life to absorb anything.   Too busy comparing.  Not spending enough time pondering what separates us from them. 


  1. I get the point your raising about the Chinese, but America could use a bit of the Chinese desire to build infrastructure. America's infrastructure is appalling considering its place in the world. Bridges that fall down, the joke that is Amtrak, and airports that look like they were teleported over from the 3rd world are some good examples. I think Singapore gets its right. Spend money, but spend it wisely.

  2. Of course you are right. Those readers that do not live in America or have never been to America need to understand that right now is not a great time to be anything close to proud of our democracy. The USA is...has been...appallingly incompetent as to the maintenance of infrastructure here. But one must also understand that because there are so many roads...bridges...etc that building them is actually the easy part. They have to be maintained, and that means money for that, which isn't always forthcoming.

    The USA quite frankly needs to lose a war, and have it's infrastructure totally demolished. That is the only way to improve the above, tongue only slightly in cheek.

    But the above does not take away from my main point. Western countries simply cannot compete with the current glitz and trophy building taking place in China today. This in turn makes China more confident in how it compares itself to the West. Only two subway stops from my former aprt in China they are nearly completing what will be a building that will be the 4th largest building in the world. It is surrounded by two story buildings.

    Where will this confidence take us?

    1. To answer your question, probably the South China Sea.. These days the SCS is a much bigger flash point than Taiwan. The shipping lanes are too important.
      Small tangent. Do you mean the new Ping An building in Shenzhen? I always thought it was interesting in Shenzhen the way big buildings were somewhat randomly built around the city, though now more of it is focused around Coco Park/Futian area. Much different from the US CBD concept as you see in Pudong or Singapore.

    2. That's the one. I'd actually been told two were going to be built. One catacorner from Starbucks and another across from "bar street". That whole Coco Park area itself is only a decade old. I'd always thought as soon as enough money is put on the table that whole area would be razed. Anything less than a few stories tall is just an inefficient use of space.

  3. Yeah, well, when 陆家嘴 sinks in Shanghai from all the tons of skyscrapers and the water table upon which it is based continues to recede, let's see their face then! Every time a new crack appears in the roads and sidewalks, they just fill it with asphalt and say there is no problem. It will be both a tragic and shadenfreude moment.


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