The ambassador recently took what the Americans call a fast train — the Acela — from Washington to New York City. Our bullet train from Beijing to Tianjin would have made the trip in 90 minutes. His took three hours — and it was on time! Along the way the ambassador used his cellphone to call his embassy office, and in one hour he experienced 12 dropped calls — again, we are not making this up. We have a joke in the embassy: “When someone calls you from China today it sounds like they are next door. And when someone calls you from next door in America, it sounds like they are calling from China!” Those of us who worked in China’s embassy in Zambia often note that Africa’s cellphone service was better than America’s.This follows Friedman's column from a year ago wishing that we could have the same sort of one-party autocracy that China has for just a day so that that government could impose health care and climate reform as China has supposedly done. Of course, Friedman ignores the reality of Chinese pollution.
But the Americans are oblivious. They travel abroad so rarely that they don’t see how far they are falling behind. Which is why we at the embassy find it funny that Americans are now fighting over how “exceptional” they are. Once again, we are not making this up. On the front page of The Washington Post on Monday there was an article noting that Republicans Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee are denouncing Obama for denying “American exceptionalism.” The Americans have replaced working to be exceptional with talking about how exceptional they still are. They don’t seem to understand that you can’t declare yourself “exceptional,” only others can bestow that adjective upon you.
If Friedman thinks that China is some clean-air paradise, he should get out more. Or perhaps just read something besides Chinese PR announcements. Take, for example, this Australian news report from this summer.
In recent decades, China has seen unparalleled economic growth and this country’s environment has faced an unprecedented assault. Rivers which can only be described as toxic, are everywhere to be seen. If you chose a random city or town here and go looking for a waterway, you’ll be very lucky if it’s fit for any human use. We saw people growing vegetables next to a river which has turned black. They’re either oblivious the state of this water, are ignoring the dangers of using it or have no other choice.Or even Friedman's own New York Times from a few years ago.
Then there’s the air quality. China’s air pollution problem is enormous. The impact of coal fired power stations and heavy industry is felt right across the country - and when it comes to industrial pollution of all types, factory employees are at the front line.
Environmental degradation is now so severe, with such stark domestic and international repercussions, that pollution poses not only a major long-term burden on the Chinese public but also an acute political challenge to the ruling Communist Party. And it is not clear that China can rein in its own economic juggernaut.Despite the ridicule that Friedman's 2009 column received, he still just hasn't gotten over his admiration for the Chinese system. I guess he just prefers tanks putting down protests, slave-labor camps, forced organ donation, the crushing of religious dissent to any of our messy, inefficient democratic government.
Public health is reeling. Pollution has made cancer China’s leading cause of death, the Ministry of Health says. Ambient air pollution alone is blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Nearly 500 million people lack access to safe drinking water.
Chinese cities often seem wrapped in a toxic gray shroud. Only 1 percent of the country’s 560 million city dwellers breathe air considered safe by the European Union. Beijing is frantically searching for a magic formula, a meteorological deus ex machina, to clear its skies for the 2008 Olympics.
Environmental woes that might be considered catastrophic in some countries can seem commonplace in China: industrial cities where people rarely see the sun; children killed or sickened by lead poisoning or other types of local pollution; a coastline so swamped by algal red tides that large sections of the ocean no longer sustain marine life.
Perhaps in his spare times, he relaxes by reading some of Walter Duranty's old NYT columns praising Stalin's Russia.