Tuesday, August 3, 2010

China's New Super-Bus. Or, Why Isn't America Building the Future Anymore?

In her landmark science-fiction novel China Mountain Zhang, writer Maureen F. McHugh takes her young hero to China, where he rides a fantastic public bus that assembles and disassembles its separated cars depending on their individual destinations. When they're all together as one, they make up a large, multi-car, double-decker bus, but each car will go soaring off on its own route, or will join up with the rest of the bus as their routes merge.

From my sloppy description, that might be hard to imagine. I heartily recommend McHugh's very good book to you if you want to get her idea in better form. But the key point is that in the book, China has become the leading power in the world, the United States reduced to a near vassal-like status. All of the innovation and energy in the world comes from China.

I think it would be overstating things to say that that's becoming the situation today. But when I heard about proposals for a Chinese super-bus that would coast over other vehicles on the road, I thought, Isn't that the kind of so-crazy-it-might-work futuristic idea that America is supposed to create? Or Germany created before it went kablooey last century?

When I lived in Chicago a decade ago, the city buses were being fitted with technology that would let them prolong a green light if they were approaching an intersection. This was expected to speed up bus service, where buses were averaging something like a mere 13 mph in city traffic.

Now watch the video below for an illustration of the Chinese concept for speeding up urban transportation. The video is in Chinese, but even those of us who don't know Mandarin or Cantonese can still get the gist of the idea from the video. (If the embedded video doesn't work, you can watch it here.)

China Mountain Zhang aside, China's ascendancy to the pinnacle of world power is not likely in the near future, but it is rapidly ascending to the height of economic power. This year it became the number-one user of energy on the planet, outdoing even us profligate energy-wasters in America. Last year it overtook Germany as the world's third-largest economy, and this year it is claiming to have supplanted Japan as the world's second-largest economy, though many people are disputing that claim. (Not a big deal if it's wrong, because it'll be true soon enough.)

I'm not afraid of a wealthy and powerful China. I would prefer it be a democratic and free China, rather than the authoritarian and sometimes brutal China that it is. But it is no longer a Maoist China, thank god, and its rise – along with India's – will help counterbalance the threat of violent extremism in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Also, China is unlikely to supplant America as the world's most influential and powerful nation any time soon. Or possibly any time. China faces incredible internal pressures from economic dislocations, income disparities that surpass an American Republican's wildest dreams, and widespread corrupt officials, and it's surrounded by often pliant but also nervous neighboring nations. No country rises so far without tremendous disruptions. The United States tore itself in two with its civil war.  England went through horrific civil wars and persecutions. France invented modern state terror and marauded across Europe. Germany lost control of its crazies and thereby lost control of its civilization. Japan turned itself over to brutal imperialist leaders who left mass murder in their wake. And the list goes on. I hate to say it, because I'd much rather see eternal peace and freedom and prosperity, but China is just as likely to hit the wall of its internal contradictions at some point. We can only hope it comes out of it freer and more peaceful than it came out of the horrors of the Maoist period.

But until that happens, we've got the possibility of giant buses soaring along Chinese streets. America should be building those, or dreaming those dreams. Instead, we're busy entertaining our populist crazies, we're spending ourselves into long-term oblivion (and no, I don't mean the stimulus spending, that's a different, temporary, and necessary profligacy), and we're fighting wars we should be handling differently.

I want the buses.

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