Jill Derby: How can we compete with China?
I recently returned from a trip to southeastern China, taking a bullet train well into China’s rural interior, followed by a lengthy bus ride to a Dong village — one of China’s many areas with ethnic minorities.
The infrastructure along the way at every turn was stunning. From the 300 km/hour ultra modern bullet train, to the freeways, the highways, the rural roads, the bridges, the train stations, all of it — amazing. The inevitable question that came to this American mind was “how are we going to compete with this”? The impressive skyscraper-filled city of Shenzhen through which we entered China had been a simple fishing village 30 years ago. We never saw a homeless person in China. Everywhere we went, everything we encountered conveyed the strongest impression of a nation on the rise.
Then back home to the U.S. where the Army Corps of Engineers assigns a grade of D- to America’s infrastructure, I ask: Could the state of our infrastructure be the canary in the coal mine?
A host of recent books by scholars, historians and thought leaders (such as Fareed Zakaria’s The Post American World; Gideon Rachman’s Easternization: Asia’s Rise and America’s Decline; Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century, to name but a few), raise an uncomfortable question one hesitates to ask out loud — could we, the United States, be on an opposite trajectory from the rising one of China. It may seem an unpatriotic question to raise, but, perhaps it’s the most profoundly patriotic question that can be asked. Where are we headed? What is our trajectory ? This is an inquiry worth serious public engagement and citizen discourse. We the people need to start talking about it.
Our recently passed federal budget with its major focus on national security, invites the question of just what is national security? Is it just about an investment in weapons to secure us from external threats, or are there enemies within that weaken the fabric of our nation. What about our hungry children and gun violence; what about our struggling schools, our racial divisions, our lack of affordable housing, our over-burdening student debt, the opioid crisis, and the growing concentration of wealth at the top. All these factors, and more contribute to the security of our citizens. Our commitment to the well being of our citizens, and our success in addressing these internal factors, will have a central bearing on our place in the world, the security of our people and our trajectory as a nation going forward. Yes, let’s fix the infrastructure, but heed the canary in the coal mine and it’s message for our future.
Jill Derby is the Nevada Board of Regents former chair.