Daniel W. Drezner

Suffering from Friedman’s Disease in Beijing

[Note to readers: Because Dan was upgraded to business class on his trip to Beijing, he was exposed to a serious viral infection in the food called metaphoricus overloadus, known more commonly as Friedman’s Disease. Rest assured, it is far from fatal — it usually passes after 24 hours of no travel. As near as ...

[Note to readers: Because Dan was upgraded to business class on his trip to Beijing, he was exposed to a serious viral infection in the food called metaphoricus overloadus, known more commonly as Friedman’s Disease. Rest assured, it is far from fatal — it usually passes after 24 hours of no travel. As near as we can determine, all the facts in the blog post below are accurate. While suffering from Friedman’s Disease, however, side effects do include rapid-fire, over-the-top metaphors. Remember: You’ve been warned!! –ed.]

To truly understand the phenomenon that is China, you need to fly into Beijing’s airport and then try to get into the city. That’s it; that’s all you need. Just that adventure alone will tell you all you need to know about the contradictions of the Middle Kingdom.

First you enter a glittering, modern airport, with helpful signs in Mandarin and English. It’s sheer scale and modernity telegraphs the ways in which China has already entered modernity. The monorail from my terminal to baggage claim was a pointed reminder of how much the United States lags behind in infrastructure investment in recent years.

And yet, there’s the traffic. Summer in Beijing is a confusing miasma of traffic and smog and traffic. As my compatriot and I clambered into our taxi at Beijing’s immaculately clean and modern airport, we knew that the ride to the hotel could take anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes depending on the traffic. Just as we Americans don’t know when exactly China will catch up, the Chinese are not sure how long it will take to get there.

We might like to think that driving in a New York City taxi is as exciting as a carnival ride, but that’s nothing compared with a taxi ride on a Beijing superhighway. In New York, there’s always that sense that, in the end, the taxi driver won’t risk an actual collision. On the road to Beijing, however, I witnessed at least two last-minute swerves and road rage that would have made Los Angelenos blush. Using an accent that an old-style New York cabbie would have admired in its sheer swarthiness, my cabbie kept honking for at least two minutes after a car viciously cut him off.

It’s a fantastical engineering problem, getting so many cars and motorcycles and trucks and buses to merge and move in the same direction. And that’s when it hit me like a thunderbolt — China itself is like this superhighway. It’s massive in size, 10 lanes easy. It’s filled with an array of vehicles determined to get ahead. The problem is that when you combine all the vehicles together, the real possibility of a two-week-long traffic jam in which everyone wants to go somewhere but nobody gets anywhere is clearly a possibility. Predicting China’s future is like predicting the traffic:  You know there will be some stop-and-go, but you just don’t know how much of it there will be.

When we got to the hotel, I paid my cabbie and he signaled that I owed him four more yuan. I was suffering from ATM disease, so I took out a single U.S. dollar bill and a 100-yuan note, looked at him, and said, "You choose." He paused, and then took the yuan note and made the necessary change. Clearly, all of us participating in this hyperaccelerated, globalized economy are going to have to make the necessary change soon enough.

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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