The Sign of a Developed Country: Old, Crumbling Stuff

Anne-Marie Slaughter via Nicholas Kristof’s blog makes this novel observation about how to tell if a country is truly developed (new stuff and old stuff) versus superficially developed (just new shiny stuff):

…in China there is only one layer of infrastructure — a shiny new layer. In the U.S., by contrast, you see multiple layers — old streetlights next to newer ones, different kinds of asphalt dating from different periods of road-building, old cars and new cars on the road, old and new factories, old and new shopping centers, and old and new houses on the side of the road. The larger point, which was deeply counter-intuitive at least to me, is that the sign of a developed country is the presence of old things, whereas at least in China’s major cities (this does not hold for the countryside), old things have been destroyed to the point of invisibility, with the exception of the major national symbols like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, in favor of the newest architecture, technology, and fashions. The counter-intuitive part is that we think of developed countries as new and advanced, while the old model of developing countries had crumbling buildings and creaky infrastructure….

A country of only new things has no depth, no fall-backs, no layers of experience and expertise. It is fragile; if the new highway is flooded out or scored by earthquakes, there are no decent secondary roads to handle the traffic. If the power system for the new street lights fails, there is no older but more dependable technology to rely on.

4 comments on “The Sign of a Developed Country: Old, Crumbling Stuff
  • It is a interesting point of view. I am from Shanghai, a city with a colonial history under british management for over 80 years since 1850. Now You can see the old-fashioned buidings along the bund, with a view of new skyscrapers across the river. But trust me, sometimes the old one serves better.

  • What’s wrong if history begins with a renaissance? Freedom means different things in different places. In developing countries sometimes we have too much freedom that hampers progress.

    China is a smart nation in a hurry to catch up on a whole lot of stuff. It has to invest its humungous trade surplus before a deficit ridden rest-of-the-world-staring-at-stagflation turns against it. The specter of sanctions being imposed against it looks real unless it gets more transparent about its affairs and lets its currency appreciate against a basket of currencies and rot like all else. In that melee, heritage conservation can be the least of priorities.

    In the developing world, it is impossible to renovate or rebuild ruptured infrastructure if rehabilitation is set as a precondition. The numbers are too huge and their income is below the minimum liable to tax. While democracy is a nice to have, the tax revenues just don’t keep up. And rehabilitation is not an end, it sometimes becomes the means. The rehabilitated often don’t choose to live in the new shelter. Instead they sell it off to big builders and put up new slums elsewhere in the city (where the builder likes to build a new structure) to restart the revenue model! Want to build dams? Seek consensus from all the provinces thro which the river flows and bureaucracy will make sure the decision is stalled. Not to mention the environmentalists (to save a few monkeys) and the green brigade. The causes they hold out may be altruistic but they also leave the majority to gamble with erratic monsoons for drinking water and irrigating fields. Go muggy nights without power, years on end because power producers don’t get land at affordable prices. For all these downsides, the world can’t care less. But it more than stirs when a malnourished nation smartly nurses itself back to health, swallowing many a bitter pill. I had always envied the agility of the Chinese government that builds out huge infrastructure before one can say “rehabilitation”. If it calls for sacrificing some freedom, so be it. Par for the course. It’s a small cost for an intelligent risk. Here is a chapter on excesses in the book of democracy that’s not read by many. And it makes up for a damn good read!

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