Awe-Inspiring China

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I don’t have any big point to make about this, but here’s a comment from Matt Yglesias after taking a train trip from Shanghai to Yiwu:

At any rate, along the train route evidence of an enormous boom in construction was obvious. The scale of some of the new housing developments I saw was unbelievable, almost awe-inspiring…..But it really all does make you wonder how much of the Chinese economy consists of construction these days. The scale of everything in a country of 1.3 billion is just so enormous that it’s difficult to eyeball anything.

Italics mine. But seriously: is this true? China has a population of 1.3 billion. The United States has a population of 300 million. So they’re about 4x our size. That’s not really such an awe-inspiring scale, is it? We’re about four times bigger than Germany, after all, and it’s not as if German visitors come to America and routinely marvel at the enormous size of our country — and when they do, it’s usually about our wide open spaces, not the fact that Los Angeles is overwhelming compared to Frankfurt. What’s more, a city is a city. Shanghai is big, but not wildly bigger than New York City. And considerably less dense.

Like I said, I don’t have any big point here except for one: China is big on a macro scale. It’s big on a statistical scale. It’s growing fast. But on a ground level scale? It’s just a place. It’s no bigger or denser or busier than lots of other places. So why is everyone always so awe-stricken about it?

(This is actually sort of a genuine question. I’ve never been there aside from a few days in Hong Kong a long time ago. Is there really something about China from a tourist perspective that makes it seem awe-inspiringly big? I mean, you can talk about how many cities with populations over 10 million it has, but that’s only impressive as a statistical measure.1 Once you’re actually in one of those cities, it’s just one city.)

1Actually, China only has two, so it’s not all that impressive even statistically. However, they’ve got more than two dozen cities with populations bigger than Chicago.)

UPDATE: The consensus in comments so far is, yes, you just have to experience it. The scale of the construction is just unlike anything you see in America or Europe. And two dozen Chicagos is impressive no matter how you slice it.

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