Up to 40 million Chinese people still live in caves. That's more than the populations of Texas and Illinois, combined. In fairness, a fraction of these caves are apparently pretty nice, complete with electricity and well-compacted dirt floors. But that's grading on a curve because, well, they're still caves.
Meanwhile, 21 million Chinese live below what the Communist Party calls the "absolute poverty" line. That sounds pretty good if you have in mind our poverty line, which is just under $11,000 per year for an individual and roughly $22,000 for a family of four. The absolute poverty rate in China is $90 a year, or $7.50 per month. And 35 million live on less than $125 per year. Hundreds of millions of Chinese live on $1 or $2 a day.
Michael Levy, who recently wrote a book on his stint as a Peace Corps worker in rural China (yes, China still asks for Peace Corps help) put it well in an interview with NPR: "Imagine that there's a country exactly like the United States. Exactly the same size. It's got the same cities. It's got the same number of rich people and poor people. It's just like us. And now add 1 billion peasants. That's China."
And yet that's the country President Obama insists we need to emulate. "Everybody's watching what's going on in Beijing right now with the Olympics," then-candidate Obama told an audience in Virginia in 2008. "Think about the amount of money that China has spent on infrastructure. Their ports, their train systems, their airports are vastly superior to us now, which means if you are a corporation deciding where to do business you're starting to think, Beijing looks like a pretty good option."
Obama has returned to campaign mode and his fear-China refrain. To listen to Obama, China's beating us in some sort of infrastructure race. "Folks in Congress are also going to get a chance to decide ... whether our construction workers should sit around doing nothing while China builds the best railroads, the best schools, the best airports in the world."
Now maybe we could use more infrastructure spending, but China's got nothing to do with it. The reason China has invested massively in infrastructure is simply that it has relatively little of it. America has 5,194 airports with paved runways (the only kind I use, how about you?). That's more than 11 times China's 442. In fact, you can add up the paved airports of the next 10 countries combined, and America beats them with more than a thousand airports to spare. We have nearly twice the roadways China does and almost three times the railways.
Ah, but China is investing in high-speed rail! Which, we are told, will help us win the future. Except China has, in the words of the London Financial Times, "slammed the brakes" on its high-speed rail program for a slew of safety and economic reasons.
What people don't often mention is that we have the best freight system in the world (in Europe, they move people on rails and cargo on roads; we mostly do the opposite because we're so much more spread out). That's why Warren Buffett -- the president's favorite billionaire -- has invested massively in freight rail. Alas, switching to high-speed rail in the U.S. would seriously threaten the efficiency of our system.
Obviously, China's a formidable economic player, and a growing military and diplomatic power. But only a fool would trade our problems for theirs (even though Obama has reportedly told friends he envies the president of China for having an easier job). China's health and safety standards are abysmal compared with America's. China's air is crunchy, its rivers often flammable. Their housing bubble could make ours look like a minor correction. Demographically, China is still on target to get old before it gets rich.
Moreover, China's social fabric is in dire need of repair. Just consider the recent horrifying footage of a 2-year-old toddler who was struck by two vehicles and was left to die in agony in the middle of a busy street as passersby ignored her. The New York Times reported this summer that in some regions, it is common for officials to snatch newborn babies from parents -- and sell them. Indeed, China has a thriving market in children. And do you really think our problems with income inequality are worse than China's?
Oh, and let's not forget: It's still an autocratic police state.
Obama is hardly alone in his effort to mythologize China in order to justify expansion of government. Times columnist Tom Friedman -- who has written often of his envy for China's authoritarian system -- begins his new book comparing the unreliable escalators at his neighborhood subway station with a glitzy convention center in China, in order to suggest that China is winning the future. It's as instructive as comparing his mansion in Bethesda, Md., to a Chinese cave.