China progress

The New York Times on China – Often Wrong, Seldom in Doubt


The impetus for writing the last blog post was reading this in a New York Times article on China:  “Most people in China can only dream of being able to afford an expensive phone. But millions of Chinese are developing a taste for luxury goods, and Apple products have joined Louis Vuitton bags as totems of wealth.”

The comment was vintage NYT reportage: managing to be both condescending and ill-informed. The reality is otherwise: personal wealth in China is widespread and growing quickly. While not yet at levels seen in Taiwan or Hong Kong, more people in China can afford “an expensive phone” than in the US. The New York Times, however, prefers more often to characterize China today much as it has for the last 30 years – as a largely poor country, with a few selfish and wealthy autocrats lording over a teeming mass of mistreated peasants subsisting on starvation wages.

Back when I was a reporter, I once heard someone describe another journalist as,  “Often wrong, but never in doubt”. The same, writ large, can be said of The New York Times Its primary activity is one of substantiation, not investigation. It seeks out, or partly imagines, stories that will support its rather simple, binary world view: Democrats good, conservatives bad; UN good, US military action bad; tolerance for its favored groups and causes, good; tolerance for the groups and causes it loathes, bad.

I don’t get my business news from The New York Times, a habit I first cultivated over 20 years ago when I went to work at Forbes. The times I do read business stories in the NYT they seem to be written by reporters with a disdain and distrust for business. I’ve met a few NYT business reporters over the years. If I had to sum up their basic belief system, it would be “property is theft”.

As far as China goes, the NYT’s reporting mainly has two dominant flavors: “we don’t like it”, or “we don’t understand it”. Human rights, pollution, Tibet and defective manufactured products figure prominently. China’s remarkable positive transformation, and the huge increases in personal, political and economic freedom, all get short shrift inside the pages of the NYT.

Of course, there are many and better sources of information about China. The Wall Street Journal, for example, is consistently good. The NYT’s circulation is shrinking year-by-year, as is its influence. But, for a certain group of Americans, particularly on the left and in the more elite precincts of academia and the media, the NYT remains the primary source of information about the world.  So, its reporting about China has outsized consequences,  helping to shape (or deform) elite opinion in the US.

It will come as news to many of the NYT’s readers that China is on the whole a stable and contented nation. This is, arguably, the most important story of my lifetime, China’s return, after at least a 500-yeaar hiatus, to a place of central importance in the world, as a confident and prosperous nation. The New York Times too often seems the last to know.


Life in the Fast Lane – Driving China’s Expressway Network

Bamboo painting


“Do Not Drive Tiredly”  That’s the message, in English, on large highway signs spanning the roadway in Jiangxi. I was charmed by the idiosyncratic English, and even more by the fact that almost all highway signs in China, including mundane ones announcing upcoming exits or defining the hard shoulder, are all bilingual, Chinese and English.

Based on my recent highway travels through part of Jiangxi Province, I was probably the only one who could get much value from the English. That’s because almost all the other traffic on the highway consisted of very large and heavily-loaded long-distance Chinese trucks. Passenger cars are few and far between. 

Highways are a recent phenomenon in China, of course. I’ve never seen anything quite like them, in my +30 years of driving around the US and lot of the rest of the developed world. The Chinese highways are mainly well-built and usually in pristine condition. Besides the English-language signs, another source of frequent delight are the life-size plastic policemen, pointing plastic radar guns at oncoming traffic. They’re planted in the highway’s central meridian as not-so-subtle reminders to avoid speeding– or as the sign calls it, again in English, “Overspeeding”.

It’s those large trucks, though, that really define for me the current experience of highway driving in China. Despite their huge size – the trailers often have 20-wheels, and seem to stretch the length of seven or eight passenger cars – the trucks are often buckling under the weight of their loads. Most of the time, the cargo hold is open at the top, and covered with a very large tarpaulin, in various colors, intricately tried to the bottom of the flatbed. The trucks have a tendency to wobble and weave as they move along the road – the result of either unbalanced loads or, more likely, less-skilled drivers.

Long-distance trucking may be among the fastest-growing new professions in China. It’s a safe bet few of today’s drivers have been behind the wheel for more than two or three years. Many have their own particular style of driving. Heavy, slow-moving trucks often canter along, 30mph below the speed limit,  in the left-hand passing lane. Their side-view mirrors – the only way the drivers can see traffic behind or alongside them – are often tilted at angles that seem to defeat the purpose.  

Few of the trucks have any kind of marking on them. The concept of a truck as a moving billboard is still an alien one in China. Not so the ordinary highway billboard, which is very common, as are advertisements posted on overpasses. 

China produces so much, including a huge percentage of the world’s manufactured goods, that it’s hard to imagine how all this stuff moved around before the expressway network was built. The traffic on many expressways, including the ones I was on in Jiangxi, must be over 90% trucks. That’s only going to increase, as more production in China is moved to cheaper, inland areas.

The expressways are already quite crowded. Often, they are only two lanes wide in each direction – which may have seemed more-than-adequate 10 years ago when first designed, but now seem to belong in the Pleistocene Age. Within ten years, these roads will almost certainly all need to be widened. That can cost almost as much, per kilometer, as building new expressways. 

China’s toll fees are among the highest ones I’ve seen. In Jiangxi, it’s 0.4 Renminbi ( or around five US cents) per kilometer for passenger cars, and more for trucks. So, financing all this construction won’t necessarily put a big dent in state revenues.  

Even with all the slow-moving truck traffic, the expressway network in China is a godsend. It makes distances much less foreboding than they used to be in China. It’s possible to average over 100 kilometers-an-hour. On the older, ordinary road network, you’d be lucky to average half that speed. Where the trucks thin out, you can “overspeed” at around 160kph, and rustle the plastic policemen in your backdraft.