Photo credit: China Railway Major Bridge Reconnaissance & Design Institute (www.brdi.com.cn)
On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States, a stunning accomplishment for the Washington outsider. Millions of ordinary American workers left behind in the modern economy placed their faith in Trump to revive the country and with that the narrative of America changed from one of exceptionalism to one of despair and decline.
Part of this new dark narrative centers on America’s crumbling infrastructure. In his inaugural speech, Trump said America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. His claim is backed by data. The report card by the American Society of Civil Engineers, which is released every four years, gives American infrastructure an overall grade of poor. The organization argues that infrastructure is critical for long-term economic growth and estimates that $3.6 trillion in investment is needed by 2020.
Trump wants to invest $1 trillion in infrastructure all across the nation to accelerate economic growth and increase productivity gains, but he has no clear plan on how to finance and carry out the proposed project.
When it comes to infrastructure, China wins hands down. “China spends more on economic infrastructure annually than North America and Western Europe combined,” according to a study by the McKinsey Global Institute. Kingston University Professor of Economics Steve Keen told People’s Daily Online that Trump could learn a lot from China about infrastructure. “America lacks the capacity to plan and carry out large-scale projects, because the expertise needed to expand infrastructure has been lost.”
China’s economic success is testament to the advantages of its system and to Chinese ingenuity, and infrastructure is one of the nation’s strengths. Because the Chinese government is more involved in the nation’s development, leaders can plan, finance, and carry out very ambitious projects in a relatively short period of time. We should keep in mind that while Trump wants to rebuild America’s crumbling roads and bridges, China is already building megacities with populations that will be larger than some countries’ populations, and is frequently setting records with amazing infrastructure. Most recently, China connected the world’s longest heavy-duty steel arch bridge over the Yangtze River.
The Hutong (Shanghai-Nantong) Yangtze River Bridge in E China
Over the years, Trump has expressed admiration for China’s economic success. Based on his comments, it seems he wants America to be more like China in terms of growth. In November 2012, Trump wrote a tweet saying China is growing because it can build the world’s tallest building in 90 days, adding that there is too much red tape in America. In July 2013, Trump wrote a tweet saying China is building 50 brand new airports while America continues to rot. In October 2014, Trump wrote a tweet saying China overtook America as the world’s largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity, and criticized the government for wasting money while China builds airports and skyscrapers. Like other areas of infrastructure, China has been building skyscrapers at a rapid pace, and its rising skyline is impressive.
Skyscrapers are more than just structures needed for the operation of a country. They also represent the concentration of power and wealth. Jason Barr, Professor of Economics at Rutgers University-Newark, told People’s Daily Online that “buildings get taller as a city’s fortunes rise and get shorter or are built less often as a city’s fortunes decline.” A study by the Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat reported that China completed 84 skyscrapers in 2016, totaling over 12 miles in height. In the same period, America completed seven skyscrapers, five of which are in a single city. China already has more completed buildings (150+ meters) than any other country in the world, and about 75 percent of the top 30 completed projects this year will be in China. According to Barr, this trend could continue for the next two or three decades. “Once China builds to house its rapid economic growth it will have a huge stock of buildings, so there will be less pressure to build as rapidly or as tall.”
China has something that America badly needs: infrastructure. However, protectionist trade policies toward China would do little to achieve the goal of reviving America, according to an analysis by Stratfor. The $1 billion-dollar Vista Tower, a condominium and hotel skyscraper under construction in Chicago, is being jointly developed by Chicago-based Magellan Development Group and China-based Wanda Group. The tower represents the largest real estate investment by a Chinese firm in Chicago and one of the largest in the U.S., according to the Chicago Tribune. The tower also represents the mutual benefits of the China-U.S. economic relationship. The two largest economies in the world will need to find a sweet spot in this highly interdependent relationship, and infrastructure could be a golden opportunity for both sides to leverage each other’s strengths for the benefit of both sides.
The Vista Tower (Photo: Wanda Group)