Opinion / Chen Weihua

US' lack of focus on its infrastructure means it will continue to get D+

By Chen Weihua (China Daily) Updated: 2017-06-16 07:18

US' lack of focus on its infrastructure means it will continue to get D+

Engineer Du Hanlin explains skills for diesel locomotive maintenance and repair to trainees from Kenya in Baoji, Shaanxi province. The Kenyan engineers will operate trains on the Mombasa-Nairobi railway, which went into operation on Wednesday. [Photo/Xinhua]

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman marveled at China's progress in infrastructure in a June 7 opinion piece following his recent trip to the country. He described the wide use of mobile technology in daily life and the changing skylines he saw riding the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed train.

This was not the first time Friedman had lauded China's success and lamented the US' failure in infrastructure.

A day earlier, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein tweeted: "Arrived in China, as always impressed by condition of airport, roads, cell service, etc. US needs to invest in infrastructure to keep up!"

Over the years, many US business and government leaders have made such comparisons, most notably recently by US President Donald Trump when he told conservative journalists that "What China's done is incredible" and "We're like a Third World nation".

As a Washington-based journalist who goes back to China every year, I can attest to the great changes happening in China.

I shared the same feeling in Shanghai in May when I found that so many people, not just the young folks, pay for everything with their smartphones, and bike share services are literally everywhere.

The US used to be the envy of the world for its infrastructure. Yet it has deteriorated so much that the American Society of Civil Engineers graded the US infrastructure D+ in March, the same as the last scorecard in 2013.

China, meanwhile, has made a great leap forward. While infrastructure was the biggest bottleneck to its economic development only 30 years ago, China now boasts many of the world's largest and best ports and airports, longest bridges, largest subway systems, and by far the biggest bullet train system.

In the past decades, China has stayed focused on investing heavily in infrastructure, a major factor fueling its rapid economic growth. The country now hopes to apply the same success in other nations, such as by investing in infrastructure in Africa and Latin America and launching the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative.

I don't see that kind of focus in the US despite the fact that Democrats and Republicans both agree of the need to fix infrastructure at home. During the 2016 presidential race, Trump and his Democratic rivals Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders all talked about infrastructure as a priority.

However, just as the White House launched its infrastructure week on June 5, the cable news networks, and in fact most of the US news media, focused entirely on the hearing of former FBI director James Comey. In the following days, it was 24/7 coverage of testimony by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. On Wednesday as I was writing this column, it's been nonstop about a shooting outside Washington that injured Congressman Steven Scalise.

These events were important, but they didn't deserve the hyper-attention they received in the US, from the news media to Capitol Hill.

Comparatively, the news media has never devoted much air time and space to covering infrastructure and Congress has never held many hearings on infrastructure despite the fact that its crumbling status poses a serious threat to the nation.

"Every Week Should Be Infrastructure Week," cried out an article last month by Joseph Kane and Adie Tomer, two scholars at Brookings Institution.

But it seems impossible to make the importance of infrastructure stick. Unless the US switches its focus to roads, bridges and airports, it will be hard for its infrastructure to get a better grade than D+.

The author is deputy editor of China Daily USA. chenweihua@chinadailyusa.com

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