Capital Blues

Embattled Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray tells FP what he admires about Beijing.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

It’s been a bad month for Vincent Gray. The Washington, D.C. mayor is facing a major scandal — a local businessman illegally contributed $653,000 to his 2010 campaign — and though it’s not clear that Gray knew of the dealings, there’s speculation that he will soon resign; he might even be arrested. Yet in late June, as evidence against him grew, the mayor decided to take a long-planned seven-day trip to Beijing, Shanghai, and Suzhou to try to raise billions of dollars for city development projects.

In an interview in early July, the mayor seemed dazzled by both the scale and the apparent ease of running a Chinese city. In Beijing, buildings get permitted and constructed in months; in D.C. it seems to take that long just to fix the Metro escalators. "There’s just an assumption in this country that things should take a long time," the mayor said. Speaking with FP in his office, the mayor spoke, occasionally critically, but more often glowingly, about the ease in which Chinese politicians seem to operate, the U.S. 40-hour work week, and how Thomas Friedman can save America. Excerpts below.

Foreign Policy: What impressed you about Beijing? Besides the size. As a mayor of a city of much smaller size, what did you learn?

Vincent Gray: We had this plan to [put streetcars in D.C.] over 20 years. And the folks that we’ve been working with there, who may be potential investors in the project, that was one of the first questions they raised. Twenty years?! Why 20 years? You ought to be able to do that in two or three years.

FP: Did you find it embarrassing to ask the Chinese for money?

VG: I didn’t have a sense of that on either side. They’re financial investors. I don’t know that anybody — even some of the Americans that invest in American projects — probably have differences of opinion with their own government. So I don’t see that as a game stopper.

FP: What are some misunderstandings that you feel you’ve been able to clear up, in terms of your views on China?

VG: Well, I think it’s an autocratic system, much more autocratic than we are, but at the same time there’s a lot of innovation — innovation beyond what I fully understood. And it’s interesting to be able to see the innovation that has taken place.

FP: With China’s famed ability to get things done, how much of that is their spirit and how much of it is them riding roughshod over due process? 

VG: Well there’s no question that they can get things done in ways that we can’t get things done — or won’t get them done, let’s put it that way. Some of the labor practices are probably not ones that would ever be tolerated in this city.

On the other hand, setting that aside for a second, my sense is that they work 24/7. We don’t do that. It’s not the same people, but why is it that on a project we’re working on everybody is out there from 7:00 or 7:30 in the morning and then goes home at 4:00 or 4:30?

FP: Why do we use only a 40-hour work week?

VG: I don’t think there’s a good answer. It’s the same question I’ve asked about schools. Why do kids start school when they’re five? Why do kids get out of class at 3:00? Why are we still using an agrarian calendar to have kids get out of school in the middle of June and come back in August?… Who said eight hours a day is the right work day?

I’m not even talking about an individual. Let’s just assume that 8 hours is the right work day. Why can’t you have 16 hours — with two shifts of people? You can work at night — there’s no reason why that can’t be done… even if you have to use lighting or whatever, when you’re doing outdoor [jobs]. Think about it: The sun comes up at 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. and goes down at 8:30 or 9:00 at night. We don’t have the same sense of urgency that other people seem to have at this stage…. Have you read Tom Friedman’s book [That Used to Be Us]?   

FP: I haven’t, no.

VG: You ought to read it. Because he has some comparisons in that book on how things are done in China. And he understands how some of the labor practices are running roughshod over people. But setting that aside, there are still things that we can do within the framework of our values, our own beliefs that would get things done quickly, more efficiently, and more effectively.

FP: Did you look at something in China and think, if only I could do that?

VG: Yeah, well, you know … you deal sometimes with the bureaucracy [here].

FP: I recently moved from Beijing to D.C. It’s more pleasant here, but the Metro escalators are often broken.

VG: If you read Friedman’s book he talks about the broken escalators…. [In Beijing] they built a convention center equivalent to ours in nine months, and it took us nine months to get the escalators fixed in the Metro system.

FP: How does that make you feel?

VG: Oh, it’s embarrassing to me. We saw somebody’s website — they built a 30-story hotel in 15 days. That seemed a little suspect to me. But the idea that it takes nine months to fix escalators! And people have these eloquently developed excuses. "The parts aren’t available." It’s always somebody else’s fault.

FP: Did you ever ask the Chinese how many eggs you had to break to make this omelet?

VG: No. I didn’t.

FP: Not your place to ask?

VG: I think there will come a time and a place for that. That wasn’t the time and place. If you really want to build relationships you don’t go and do that. Because it’s already like you’re questioning these people’s motives, you’re questioning the way they do things, like you know better. Americans have an unfortunate reputation for thinking they know more than everybody else.

FP: If you would have said something about human rights, you think they would have walked away?

VG: I think they would have politely shut us down.

FP: As you know, China is sensitive about its human rights record. I don’t know if you saw the big flap about the Twitter feed about pollution statistics in Beijing that the U.S. government runs.  How would you feel if the Chinese government decided to tweet murder statistics in Petworth or Columbia Heights [two DC neighborhoods with relatively high crime statistics]? Would you appreciate that they were shining light on a problem?

VG: I’d like to think in a democracy that we would be tolerant of people having free speech and people sharing information, but I probably wouldn’t feel good about it. The human reaction would be like, "Well, what you got going on over there?"

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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