Yet another post that pissed me off....

Maybe I’m just tired of reading about it.  Hearing about it.   How fantastic China’s High Speed Railway is.   Which is without question true.  I’ve ridden it.  I like it, I love it.   And the Chinese love it, too.

I have come across NO ONE that does not like China’s HSR.  Below is a quick comparison I read on LinkedIn a few weeks ago.   It is the culmination of many instances I’ve come across that do nothing but properly extoll the quality, comfort and overall convenience of this latest Chinese display of infrastructure and technological achievement. 

And as you have guessed, it has angered many a laowai. 

“Why can’t we do this?”

“Why aren’t we doing this?”

In short, it has confirmed a secret fear held by many uninformed laowai that perhaps now, China has finally blown past The West. 

And you can’t really blame them for thinking that.  Not at all.  Not for one second, actually.   It is what normal people would think.  In particular when compared to America’s Amtrak. 

The well deserved accolades placed upon it are endless.  Especially by the Chinese themselves.  They are rightfully proud of their nation’s newest accomplishment.  Wouldn’t you be? 

But may I say I’m tired of hearing about it? 

I very much enjoy reading about the wonders of China’s infrastructural accomplishments, which happen so it seems by leaps and bounds.  It is stunning to watch in real time, during my lifetime, such unprecedented growth.  More than most, I know of what I speak. 

Yet as I’ve written in the past, ad nauseam I know,  how very much aware of the dark side of such accomplishments.   It emboldens.  When there is such Progress, Caution itself is but a spurned lover.  Modesty is chased away.  And today is no different.

But it is useless to bring these things up.  China Man sees the nationality of the person raising the issue (non-Chinese) and simply chooses not to listen.

In China Man’s eyes, I’m just another laowai fighting an inferiority complex.  (More on that later.) Once again, the oft used phrase “only in China” can be used.   The origins of this phrase are negative.  For example, when I saw a man walking a camel down the street in Shenzhen once, “only in China” came to mind. 

But today this phrase is increasingly being used in a positive sense. 

I give you the High Speed Railway.

“We’re going to build high speed railways!”, the Chinese officials proclaimed.  And they did it.

Much better than America has built Amtrak. (More on that later, too)

Now China wants to build E-vehicles on a mass scale.   No public discussion.  No debate.  As usual.  But if China wants it to happen, then dammit we know it will.   

And if the above really takes off, then it will be a good thing.  But only China with its economic scale and shall we say, “lack of process”, can make it a reality in the blink of an eye.

That is, only in China,( a centrally planned economy in case you haven’t heard) could this be done.

And that’s the problem I have with it. 

I’m trying to understand if what we are seeing today is Japan circa 1980’s or Japan circa 1930’s?

Take your pick.

And if you want to know China, there is more to it then understanding Chinese History, folks.  One must understand the same path other countries in similar situations have taken, and one must understand the end result.    Those countries have a perfect batting record.   They are all batting zero.   Every single country on a path similar to China’s today has never had a harmonious ending.
We can talk war and violence, a nation with no friends but a surefire vision for itself (Japan 1930’s).
Or we can talk economic collapse (Japan’s lost decade after the 80’s).

Yet the High Speed Railway is another symbol bolstering the ego of the everly more confident People that inhabit the Heavenly Kingdom.   (You know, the place where “all the girls are pretty” and there is no bad news…)

Except outside of China, we know the real story, right?  This High Speed Rail stuff ain’t cheap, and building out the network, while without question a great achievement for China(you see how I’m realllyyyy just going over the top and so out of my way here to stay positive?) is not, no matter how you want to slice it and wrap it in the Flag of the Four Gold Stars good for China.

You’ll notice I said “China” and not “Chinese People”.

And that is ironic.

Because scrolling the digital highway for data on this ever expanding Railway Colossus showed me again and again how “Peasant Wang”, whose field China’s bullet trains repeatedly pass over, though he will never be able to afford a ticket on the damn thing, just shrugs and says something like,  “it’s not good for me, but it’s good for China”.

Except it’s not good for China.   

First a few caveats here to make this argument above seem semi persuasive to those that give a damn.
Number one, you need to be able to add.  You must be able to solve a simple equation similar to say, oh one plus one equals two.

Next, you need to NOT be Chinese. 

This will help one greatly in a semi coherent fashion to at least pause for a moment before joining in with all the other 愤青 in China and uttering something kneejerk and half thought out like,

“You are anti-Chinese!”

“You want to keep China down!”

“You are a jealous laowai!”

“I pity you poor American so envious of the great progress of my country!”

As someone that first lived in China in 1990, I can lecture to most anyone, and will do so happily and with a straight face, how far China has really come since then.   The school I originally studied at in 1990, once surrounded far and oh so wide with fields and peasants in brim hats, is now nothing but an inconspicuous building surrounded by skyscrapers. Recently, I walked past my old school without even noticing it!  

My mistake?

I was looking for the damn fields!

On a fast day it would take me 30 minutes to get from the University by city bus to the China Hotel. And that would at times be after waiting 30-45 minutes for the bus to show up!    

I see a country today growing by too many leaps and way too many bounds.    I see the Youth of the Heavenly Kingdom walking around as if China has always been this way.   These miracles we see happening in China everyday are all too commonplace for China’s Youth.  It is nothing special.   Today’s Chinese Youth live a life without context.  A life without struggle or hardship.   Mind you, I came to China when it was already “open”.   Many laowai still remember when not a single city had a subway, or a McDonald’s.  I can’t imagine those laowai that came before I fared or thought of the place. 

Someday folks, China will run out of miracles.  Then what?

The above is simply my long winded way of providing perspective.

China likes to hide behind the phrase “we are a developing country” but only when it suits its needs. 
Is China hiding behind this context when it builds these super cool high speed trains that cost a fortune?  Of course not!

I smile when the Chinese use their sudden out of nowhere High Speed Rail Network as a symbol of China’s Wealth and Prestige.  Yeah, I get it.  I think that’s a fair thing to say.  I think the Pride the Chinese People have is well placed.  A reflection that the Chinese People can do anything they set their mind to.


The path of China’s success is much easier for it to trod upon than for a Western Nation.  The Chinese Nation has no concept of “eminent domain”.  That’s because in order for this to be widely understood there must be private property.  And as we all know in China there is no private property. 

That means the Chinese Nation can build wherever it wants, when it wants, without worrying about buying some peasants’ land.  Or anyone’s land.  Has the Chinese Government ever lost a suit in court to a Chinese Citizen? And that’s a good thing.  Otherwise the Chinese Debt would probably be double what it is now!

Ok, time for some numbers.   My Chinese Readers can close their eyes now.  Or just go back to 
Quora and read how great they are.

China has 12,500 miles of high speed railways.  More than the rest of the world combined.  Not bad.

One statistic that stood out to me rang dear to my heart. It only takes 19 minutes to travel from Kunshan to Shanghai.  Fuck.  It used to take me an hour to get there by car to visit factories.   I dreaded going “all the way out” to Kunshan.  Not anymore baby.

Like America’s Amtrak, CHSR is highly popular in the really congested cities.  Shanghai, Beijing, etc. 

Let me stop here for a moment and briefly bemoan Amtrak.  For my readers in Bulgaria or Latvia, I should explain what Amtrak is.  It is basically the American version of a “national railway”.   

Think Eurorail.  Except it was not designed to be “high speed”.   

Creating Amtrak in America in 1971, though there was good intent, conflicted with  America’s wide open spaces, where an unfettered Blue Sky still “rules the realm”.  It is a bit like trying to plant an Orange Grove in the Arctic.  Bad fit.

Amtrak gets a bit more than a billion dollar subsidy from the US Government annually.   Those of us blessed not to live in the American Northeast look upon riding Amtrak today as Americans did riding an airplane in the 50’s and 60’s.   Like a holiday.  We take pictures of us in front of the train.  

Laughable to the rest of the world, I think the average American gets giddy when they ride Amtrak. (We certainly feel no inferiority complex.  More disgust and anger.  We refuse, unlike the Chinese, to make Amtrak a referendum on the future of our country, tempting as it may be.)  The “Amtrak Experience” is truly that rare.  I think the average American that does not live in the dreaded Northeast will probably ride Amtrak only once or twice in their life.   And yes, we are talking about the National Railway folks.

I first rode Amtrak when I was 6 years old and travelled from Oklahoma City to Ohio.  The next time I rode it was 30 years later from South Carolina to Washington DC.   It was an overnight train and I loved it.  I then went from DC to NYC.   Then Boston.   It was fun.   It was a holiday. 

I have no idea what Amtrak’s debt today to the US Government is.  I can only extrapolate based off its billion dollar subsidy since it’s opening in 1971 that it must be around 50 billion USD or so, minus interest.   Amtrak had $2 billion in sales with a loss of $200 million only last year.   It actually had the best year in 2016 it has ever had!

Why the loss? Amtrak actually makes a profit in the densely populated American Northeast.  But part of the US Government’s demands for its annual subsidy is it must serve All of America.  Not just one tiny corner.  Even when everyone knows folks would rather drive, or fly.  You see, Amtrak ain’t cheap.  It is the approximate cost of an airline ticket.   (Which is what in all economic fairness the China High Speed Railway should often be as well)

Thus when folks take Amtrak they are doing so for the holiday “feel”.   We very well know we may never take it again.  

Amtrak had 30 million passengers in 2016.   Compare that with 1.4 billion riders annually on the Chinese High Speed Network.  That is forty times the ridership!! And unlike with CHSR, it has plenty of public critics.  After all, the US Government year after year chooses to throw away The American People’s money.  Yeah, we know it, and no we all don’t really care that much. 

Unlike with China’s High Speed Rail, I never hear anyone “ooh” and “aah” about Amtrak’s speed.  Rather, we in America never think of “speed” when taking a holiday on Amtrak.  Rather, for the “experience”.

Why is that?  China is so maddeningly crowded, that getting around quickly is a premium.  Perhaps more so than anywhere else in the world.  Definitely more so than in America.  Thus the appreciation one has for “speed” in China goes without saying.

I mentioned how high China’s ridership is, right?  Ok…now what you were waiting for….
While I extrapolated that Amtrak’s total debt minus interest is around $50 billion, China’s total debt is as I write this approaching 1 trillion dollars.   So 40x the ridership(it will grow) and only 20x the debt(that will grow, too)

Yet….can we agree that $1 trillion is still fucking one trillion dollars?    Such a number literally sucks the air out of the room.   And it sits like an anchor in the pit of China’s stomach, forever trying to digest.  The People Aloof and Proud of what “their” country has done.

And as usual regarding economics matters in China, there is no public discussion.  Open budget hearings are a “decadent democratic” thing. Still, the Chinese have no idea how much this cost them and quite frankly I don’t believe for an instant that any of them care either.  Such is the Chinese Condition today.   China is so wrapped up in the prestige of advancement and progress that the buzz amongst the people will not come down for a very long time.   It is almost as if China has inserted a new clause into its contract with the People. 

“We’ll keep blowing your mind with new bridges and skyscrapers and dams and fuck all, and you keep out of our way….ok?”

Alas, this is Chinese Culture today.  Prestige and Cosmetics folks.  A country with a “Cadillac mind and Ford income”.  In China it’s all in the packaging.   Historians will never be able to fully comprehend or “account” for all the debt that will cause China to collapse upon itself. 

Meanwhile there is a “small city” in Shandong.  It is called Linyi.    Relatively near Qingdao and across the peninsula from Dalian.    I have a business trip soon to perhaps all three of these cities.    Guess what?  I can’t for the life of me get a flight from either Qingdao or Dalian to Linyi.
Did I mention Linyi is a small city? 

Linyi has a population of 11 million people.   Yet too near to accommodate a flight from Dalian.   Why is that?  Because the airport is probably too small.  

Ever been to Fort Smith, Arkansas?  Or even Evansville, Indiana?  Those are small airports.  Trust me.  And yet I bet if I eventually have the honor of getting to Linyi Airport it will itself be only slightly larger.  I once flew into Chongqing on business.  I swear the airport seemed smaller than the airport in Fort Smith, Arkansas.  Twenty million people folks.   Of course that has changed.  

Chongqing I’ve heard has a nice airport now befitting its status.  Poor Linyi simply has to wait its turn. 

And if I’m lucky enough to make it to Qingdao what will I do?  Damn right I’ll hope I can find High Speed Rail.  As I’ve said before China needs infrastructure!  It does!   But when metro of 11 million can’t make the grade for a proper airport when in the past 15 years Beijing and Shenzhen have had how many makeovers?

As a foreigner I’m stunned and continually impressed with China’s nonstop building.  Do they do it to show off?  Of course.  Should I care?  2, 444 words later, not sure I should.  But if I’m Chinese, aren’t you guys wondering where all this money is coming from?  

I remember living in Japan in the 90’s.  I was walking to my apartment one day when I saw what looked like a perfectly pristine street just being torn up.  A few days later it was rebuilt but really only looked a little better.  Not much.  I recall watching Japanese TV when I saw an NHK reporter in America reporting in front of a rusty gate of a closed factory.   Boy that made me angry.   The Japanese in their heyday always thought Americans were lazy, and America itself in inexorable decline.  Thanks to China, guess what?  We’re better friends then ever!  But Japan’s several decade run of well earned hubris had already ended. It just took time to realize it.  And for the Japanese People themselves, a bit longer, still. And how did they know?  When their apartment values started dropping.  It’s been a few decades now since Japan fell off the face of the Earth.  Still haven’t found it.  

How is China gonna be any different?


  1. Linyi is about 45 mins by high speed rail , but not the super high speed . Lol . Linyi is about 3 1/2 hrs drive , on very nice hwy - I prefer to drive there from Qingdao.

    I haven't worked out why your coming to China? Are you a Laowai coming to take what you can , or be part of the growth and help changing Chinese lives .

    The rail has be critical in enabling cities such as Linyi to grow and prosper , as have the massive hwy network . Without it , farmers could only be farmers .

    The China I live with and know quite well , day to day , works very hard , is very entrepreneurial, also is very happy with Govt . And the Govt slowly cleaning up its internal corruption, does have plenty of cash from all the taxes, collects from the growing engine - its people! No shortage of cash for more , infrastructure investment as they need it !

    If it troubles you to come here, don't come !

  2. Linyi...high rail....much thx! This is good info to have. I will decide later on if it is worth the trouble or not. It may not be trouble at all. I shall wait and see what Qingdao offers. And Dalian.
    And Ningbo. And Harbin. China is still a buyer's market for me. As for who I am read the post again, or maybe even one of the other 250+ posts I have. Then ask questions. I will answer them.

    No one for sure criticizes "rail" or infrastructure as a need. But is it fair to allow context? A trillion bucks is still a trillion bucks. Look it square in the eye and try not to blink.

    Am I here "to take what I can?", you ask? Or to be "part of the growth"?

    I wonder if you ask this question to the Chinese? And what do they say?

    It used to be only American universities were full of Chinese. Now it is grade schools. Numbers do not lie. Let that be your answer.

    As for your last full paragraph, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but working hard, being entrepreneurial means nothing if one lives in a centralized economy.

    As for me going to China or not going to China that will be up to me and not you.

  3. I agree with your general points, but I still have to say that I like the HSR. So much easier to get around China than flying or anything else. Also, one of the few things that actually works and for the most part is user-friendly.

    Especially, when compared to Amtrak. Amtrak is a problem because even though they are subsidized the government doesn't want to invest in the necessary infrastructure to make it more successful. This is because of the powerful auto lobby, and misplaced priorities of the US government. Train lines aren't show pieces. However, people do use local trains, subways, and light-rail. There is no reason that Amtrak couldn't be successful connecting regional centers in other parts of the U.S. but upgrades in rail lines, stations (infrastructure and location) is needed. The auto lobby fights it, people are too cheap to pay more taxes for it, and big supporters of rail want flashy things like Maglev trains instead of bread-butter quality rail service. Its sad, and as you said means that outside of the Northeast, Amtrak is only holiday diversion.

  4. Sorry the delay getting back to you, been on the road checking out factories overseas. Good points all around. I have another post all set to send out, where yeah, again I mention that while I love riding the HSR, we all need to watch the debt. We love the damn thing, its a blast, but constructive criticism is simply seen as anti China, which is nonsense.

    Unfortunately for us Americans, there is a global metric the Europeans, the Japanese all use when comparing us and that is RAIL!!! We are still a densely populated country in only a few sections. I calculated once that 80% of America lives in the NE Corridor and the Left Coast. "flyover country" folks is empty.

    As Congress works, is anybody from Wyoming or Kansas really gonna vote for tax dollars to be spent on Amtrak? Wonder what their constituents would say about that? Congress needs to figure this out.

    Lastly, regarding rail solutions you are dead on. Many cities are independently figuring out light rail on their own. Could America even build a world class HSR? Probably not. Not unless it stepped off it's rusty pedestal and allowed Japanese or German experts to build it. With all the debate on Health Care etc, there will never be room in the Federal Budget for something like this. Everything will have to be local.


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