The Myth of Chinese Efficiency

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Ed Jones / AFP / Getty Images

Pedestrians stand before heavy traffic at an intersection in Beijing. The US embassy which has its own pollution measuring system, and which rates anything over 150 as unhealthy, was showing an index of 403, or 'hazardous' on this particular day.

Many people in the U.S. and Europe believe China is a model of modern transport and political effectiveness. They should try to live here.

On the road to Beijing’s international airport the other day, I noticed dark clouds moving in on the horizon. My stress level immediately spiked. Flight delays have become almost the norm here in Beijing, even on the brightest of days; a little rain would certainly spell trouble. As the drops began to splat on the windshield, I had dispiriting visions of getting stuck in Beijing and missing my connecting flight in Hong Kong — and my next deadline for TIME with it. My fears were confirmed when I arrived at the gate, where the departure time came and went. Though the sun had peeked through the clouds, the damage had already been done.

Of course, the trials of air travel are not unique to China. Just ask anyone brave enough to depart from a major American airport these days. But no one would ever call the U.S. airport system a model of efficiency. For some reason, though, lots of people think China is.

(MORE: Is India’s Growth Story Over?)

One of the most persistent – and persistently bewildering – conversations I’m forced to endure with international businessmen (and especially Americans) is about their view on the marvels of Chinese efficiency. They paint China as a wonderland of quick transport, quick decision making, and quick-witted government officials. If only the U.S. operated like China, the argument goes, all of America’s problems could get solved.

My response to this is: Live here for a while. I can imagine pampered visitors thinking China is something it is not. If you fly into the nifty airports in Beijing or Shanghai, get whisked by a waiting driver to your snazzy hotel, have a few meetings, and then get escorted out again, China might appear to be a sparkling vision of modernity. But spend any time here, or try to really do anything, and the notion that China is an efficient place is rudely exposed as a myth.

The trouble with transport is the least of the problems. As I noted in a recent TIME magazine story, businessmen operating in China complain about the time-consuming and excessive bureaucratic hurdles they face – endless waiting for necessary permits and licenses, confusing and opaque regulation, and constantly shifting customs procedures. Even small companies have to designate staffers to do nothing but handle relations with the government. Many foreign businessmen, furthermore, think the bureaucrats are becoming more intrusive – in other words, less efficient. This is a function of China’s heralded “state capitalism,” in which the government still wields tremendous control over what happens in the economy and what private companies can and cannot do.

My own experiences with civil servants have only confirmed to me how inefficient the government is. Earlier this year, I had to move the visa that allows me to reside in China from an old to a new passport. This should have been a simple clerical procedure, since the visa was still valid for nearly a year. But instead, it ate up two full days of my time, running between offices to get necessary documents and simply figuring out what was required. The officials we spoke with disagreed on what forms and documents I needed. One contended (incorrectly, as it turned out) that I didn’t have to switch the visa at all.

(MORE: China’s Economic Slowdown: Why Stimulus Is a Bad Idea)

Yet those who wax poetic about Chinese efficiency believe it runs deeper than such mundane matters – to the supposed virtues of the political system itself. While Washington is gridlocked by partisan politics, China’s government, they contend, makes and implements decisions with clinical effectiveness. China’s government operates like a big company, the thinking goes, with a “CEO” at the top able to see the greater needs of the nation and act to meet them.

There is an element of truth here. While the U.S. can’t figure out how to refurbish its sagging infrastructure, China is able to construct new airports, bridges and roads at will. That’s what happens when you remove the vast majority of your population from the political process, and routinely beat up those who disagree with state policy. But even in this regard, China is not nearly as efficient at it appears. Sure, the government can dig up a bunch of farms and lay down a road whenever it wants. That’s because the idea that the government should spend lots of money on infrastructure is not a controversial one in China, as it is in the U.S. It’s the same with state industrial policy. While the case of government support for Solyndra in the U.S. has stirred vociferous debate about the state’s role in the economy, in China, on the other hand, Beijing is free to offer subsidies and protection for targeted industries because there is no ideological opposition to doing so. In other words, the Chinese government can act quickly when there is no disagreement.

In that way, the U.S. is much the same. America can spring to action with blazing speed when there is general acceptance of a certain policy. After 9/11, Washington was able to mobilize the resources and will to conduct a major military operation halfway around the world in Afghanistan in a matter of weeks. There was no significant opposition to going to war. Or look at how efficiently the U.S. stepped in during the depth of the last financial crisis to rescue the banking sector.

But Chinese policymaking is not nearly as smooth when there is no consensus on the direction of policy. Chinese officials know full well what the government needs to do to ensure that the country’s growth is more sustainable: Increase the role of consumer spending, strengthen its financial sector, and rein in state-owned enterprises. But the reforms that would achieve these outcomes are coming extremely slowly, if at all. There is no agreement among the senior leadership on these sensitive issues, and thus there is limited action. Factions within the government advocate different methods of dealing with China’s economic weaknesses. Some favor faster market liberalization; others want the government to keep a tighter grip on the economy. China has gridlock of its own. We just don’t see it, since the wrestling matches happen behind closed doors instead of on CNN.

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Nor is the entire political process in China any more efficient. We have been expecting a once-in-a-decade change of political leadership in China to take place late this year for quite some time, and we’ve known for a while who the top guy is going to be (Xi Jinping). But we only found out exactly when this change will take place (in November) last week. Nor are we well-versed in Xi Jinping’s views on the major issues facing China’s future – economic reform, relations with the U.S., civil liberties, the income gap, and so on. Xi doesn’t feel the need to share them. The electoral process in the U.S. might create uncertainty, but at least we know who’s running for office and what they might do if they win. In China, it’s a guessing game.

China will certainly become more efficient over time. We tend to forget that China is still very much a developing country and many of its problems — inadequate infrastructure, poor regulatory enforcement — are common in any emerging market. But before China becomes the paradise many in the U.S. think it is, the country will have to learn a bit from America. Without greater transparency and rule of law, China will never become truly efficient. Keep that in mind next time you’re flying to Beijing.

MORE: China’s Economic Slowdown: Why Stimulus Is a Bad Idea

92 comments
StanVictor
StanVictor

You say that chinese have a limited number of sounds(400 sounds),even

whit the the use of tones(1200 posible sounds) and that will cause

confusion if written in pinyin,because alot of chinese words whit

different meanings will be written identical.The solution could be the

use of combination of big and small letters.For example a word made

from 2 letters(like HE) could have 4 posible combinations decided by

convention:he,HE,hE.He.The word whit many sounds could have even more

posible combinations.Word HUANG could be written

as:huang,Huang,hUang,huAng,huaNg,huanG,HUang,HuAng,HuaNg,HuanG,hUAng,hU

aNg,hUanG,HUAng,huANG,HUANG,HUANg,HUaNG and so one in at least 36

combinations for a word whit 5 letters.The more sounds a word has,the

more posible combinations.But even simple 2 letter words can have 4

different meanings.Such conventions could be easily created for

problematic words

how a romanian will write english orthography? like this:
uen iu rid dis uierd sentens izali iu rili cnou dat dis is tru(when you

read this weird sentence easily you really know this is true:D

StanVictor
StanVictor

I doubt that HUANG is spelled whit the same tone in all 72 versions.It will be a massive confusion,even in spoken chinese.If you use the diacritics above letters for the 4 tones in chinese language ,this problem will also be solved.

Just to give some examples of diacritics for tonals:huang,huăng,huâng,huĂng,huÂng.(sorry i use diacritics from romanian language and not the 4 chinese diacritics for tonals ,but these are the only ones from my keyboard; i hope you get the point 
In the vietnamese alphabet, the 5 tones are also written whit diacritics.
So in practice,the big-small-big combinations will be used only for the words whit the identical tonal and letter structure and when the meaning of the word cant be extracted from the context it is written.

XinLiu
XinLiu

@StanVictor Pinyin is invented so that it helps you LEARN to read and write Chinese characters. You wouldn't write an essay using pinyin.

StanVictor
StanVictor

that combination of big and small letter is used only for the words whit identical tonal and letter spelling and when the context is not accessible.If the tonal are different then is no need for big and small letters.If huâng is identical whit another word huâng(to mean a different thing,just for the sake of argument)Than diferentiation will be huâng and huÂng,or hUâng,or huâNg.

twitfer
twitfer like.author.displayName 1 Like

Misleading title. I was looking an in depth look at how the Government works, not if its easy or not to do business or to use public transport. For that there are known indexes.

weltaufrussisch
weltaufrussisch

 Китай он и есть Китай. Об эффективности Китая говорят факты. Китай - одна из самых древних цивилизаций на Земле, которых не так уж и много .

Их может стать ещё меньше, в свете событий прошедших суток.

На сегодня в связи с боевыми действиями на границе Сирии и Турции, есть важная информация от россиянина.

Дней десять назад была выражена озабоченность (предупреждение) российского МИДа о недопустимости подготовки интервенции в Сирию.

Это предупреждение было по-видимому подкреплено вот этой информацией: "На период с 1 октября по 31 декабря 2012 года аэродром Тикси закрыт для приёма и выпуска воздушных судов, кроме вертолетов. В связи с приостановкой полетов в аэропорту Тикси выключены средства аэронавигации и системы захода на посадка. Аэродром находится в собственности Министерства обороны РФ. Решение о приостановлении полетов с 1 октября до 31 декабря 2012 года ведомство не объясняет."

Аэродром Тикси использует наша стратегическая авиация - носители ядерного оружия.

Возможно оружие уже там, потому и закрыт.

Надеюсь что НАТО одумается* и/или, самоё позднее как после 31 декабря 2012, перестанет существовать.

Нет никакой разумной необходимости для интервенции следует искать другой, разумный путь, именно для этого природа подарила нам разум. .

weltaufrussisch
weltaufrussisch

China it is China. The effectiveness of China are the facts. China - one of the most ancient civilizations on earth, which is not so much.There may be even less in the light of events of the past days.Today in the fighting on the border between Syria and Turkey, there is important information on the Russians.Ten days ago, concern was expressed (warning) of the Russian Foreign Ministry on the preparation of non-intervention in Syria.This

warning was apparently supported by this information here: "In the

period from October 1 to December 31, 2012 Tiksi airport closed for the

reception and registration of aircraft other than helicopters. Due to

the suspension of operations at the airport Tiksi off air navigation

facilities and systems approach landing.

airfield owned Russian Defense Ministry. decision to suspend flights

from October 1 to December 31, 2012 Office does not explain it. "Tixi airfield used by our strategic aircraft - carriers of nuclear weapons.Perhaps weapons are already there, and therefore closed.I hope that NATO will come to its senses *, and / or, at the latest, as after December 31, 2012, will cease to exist.There

is no reasonable justification for the intervention should seek other

reasonable way, for this nature gave us intelligence. .

PS below in Russian because of poor English.

Jannick Foreskin
Jannick Foreskin

Wondering if this article's author will emerge and try to justify the straw-man, ready-made and off the shelf article about China.

Kastus Lobandievsky
Kastus Lobandievsky

Who has created this myth?

Everything what I have read at The West's newspapers it's about disaster life in China.

Corruption, pollution, dictatorship, censoring, bad laws. Every year someone predicts economical collapse.

How do Chinese still live? In such bad, poor, hopeless country. With the worst ever goverment?

And now author is speaking about myth? Where is it? Wich american Newspaper created it?

How can american businessmen believe in it?

Max
Max

It's called Colonialism.  It is the same reason why Cambodia, Vietnam and lots of places in Eastern Europe, including Africa and Palestine are a mess.  They are not allowed to govern themselves for years and when the colonist finally are forced to leave take everything they can carry.  Just ask Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Gandhi. 

Jannick Foreskin
Jannick Foreskin like.author.displayName 1 Like

agreed, this whole article is a straw-man.     we get it, he missed his plane.  it sucks.    

 

Is China perfect?  Not at all.  Far from perfect.   Lets hear more about what makes it hard for actual Chinese people living instead of listening to a spoiled expat cry about how it took too long to get government papers or how it rained and his plane was delayted.

ruses
ruses

hell I accidentally hit on the American newspaper! I'm from Russia! I voted for Putin 3 times thanks to him I have a good salary and every 3 years buy Japanese or Chinese Russian car! every year I'm going with the family on vacation abroad! cry contributions for svyu daughter to school! the U.S. media lies and propaganda leave! Russia and China alone

ruses
ruses

hell I accidentally hit on the American newspaper! I'm from Russia! I voted for Putin 3 times thanks to him I have a good salary and every 3 years buy Japanese or Chinese Russian car! every year I'm going with the family on vacation abroad! cry contributions for svyu daughter to school! the U.S. media lies and propaganda leave! Russia and China alone

Jannick Foreskin
Jannick Foreskin

I see my earlier comment was deleted.    This is just another typical straw-man off-the-shelf article about how China's miracle isn't as great as everyone say it is.

It seems like sour grapes.   The author misses his plane, melts-down, and decides to write ANOTHER article about the ills of central planning.

Assuming the author speaks mandarin, we would have all been better served with an interesting article with ideas that orginate in China that actually contribute to the debate on China's development. 

sundardooba
sundardooba

An american complaining about another country's visa process. That's pretty rich. I'm an Indian who spent 11 years in the US. The only people worse than Indian government employees are the people working in US immigration services. The absolute dregs of the society. 

mhaggag
mhaggag

Been to China only once for 5 weeks, so I will not claim to be an expert on China and the Chinese people; but I couldn't help but notice the culture of deceit, distrust, corruption, greed, lying and cheating.

Jannick Foreskin
Jannick Foreskin

ya, it must have been bewildering.   everyone speaking a strange language....not being able to understand anyone....no one answering your questions...lots of confused faces when you asked them questions....i'm sure you learned a lot.

mhaggag
mhaggag

WOW, you read my mind... I was shocked when I realized those retards did not speak any English.

Jannick Foreskin
Jannick Foreskin

 Retards?   Aren't you a wonderful example of your culture.    

Anyway, I'm sure you are a wonderful person to know, full of trust, honesty,  etc.    

I bet people just love traveling with you.

lol

JeramieH3
JeramieH3

I've never been to China, but from my perspective, we're always seeing pictures of the armies of identical Chinese workers in factories working like human robots, we see their dirt-cheap prices and huge production volumes which would seem to indicate high production efficiency, etc.  Just on the surface, you'd think the whole country was factory robots.

CookieFactory
CookieFactory

 I didn't realize an article arguing against a straw man with little more than personal anecdotes even merited counter arguments.  This is what passes for articles on Time these days?  Wow. 

NeedsMoreBias
NeedsMoreBias

Sorry for the Author's two days of wasted time with the visa. I went to an international school in the states and had classmates who had to leave if they didn't conjure up $30,000 that the states didn't recognize because of a clerical error on their part. If he comes to Guangzhou, I'd be happy to show him governmental efficiency considering historical contexts. Otherwise, try to keep the snide remarks to a minimum- for journalism's sake.

InjunTrouble77
InjunTrouble77

China is efficient and quick compared to the rest of  the developing world including India, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam etc. It can compete with the developed world on the basis of labor cost and with the rest of the world on the basis on efficiency. That is enough to keep it going for many years.

Matthew
Matthew

"the next time you're flying to Beijing"?! Who do you think reads this magazine?

blessedgeek
blessedgeek

BTW, quick does not equal efficient or effective. We quickly deployed troops to Iraq! What for? For non-existent WMDs? Lost 4000 soldiers? Lost $3trillion we could have pumped into our schools and roads? You call that efficient? Holy cow, after how many years have you lived in China have you screwed up all your judgment?

blessedgeek
blessedgeek

The author has not lived in the US for a long time already. He is out of touch. None of us here have any grandiose idea about the efficiency of China. Except in the criminal court system - probably too efficient .

Mike Jin
Mike Jin

I think when one makes a comment about China's inefficiency, they must consider that China has one-fifth of the world's population and about four times America's. China does not yet have as advanced of a telecommunication and digital network as the US and relies much more on numerous municipal and provincial offices to serve the people. The people at those offices are often not as trained on up-to-date policies as they should be but that's barely the fault of the governments since even China does not have unlimited resources. The administration of the bureaucracy is still catching up with China's growth (addressing your VISA debacle). Thus, given the conditions (number of people and limited technology for local areas), I believe China's efficiency truly is not a myth. 

-A Public Policy Major from Duke University

Vincent Lovece
Vincent Lovece

The US still has more roads, airports, and railroads than China does, by far, especially airports. Check it if you don't believe me. 

Lordhalston
Lordhalston

"America can spring to action with blazing speed when there is general acceptance of a certain policy. After 9/11, Washington was able to mobilize the resources and will to conduct a major military operation halfway around the world in Afghanistan in a matter of weeks. There was no significant opposition to going to war. Or look at how efficiently the U.S. stepped in during the depth of the last financial crisis to rescue the banking sector."

-The US can only make bad decisions quickly - That is what I took from this point. Efficiency is not the correct term for what Americans envy about China...we envy their unabashed rational pursuit of their own self interests. When we won the Cold War we lost the long peace...finally selling another country the shovels with which to bury us. Washington simply operates as a fulfillment center for special interests, none of which include the people of the United States.

Antonio Esteban
Antonio Esteban

China as a model for efficiency?  I've never heard that before.   I heard it called a third world country, where there is such a wide gap between the rich and the poor.  Meaning there is no middle class.  I've heard that it such a corrupt country, and they copy or steal designs from other countries.  I've heard of the China where there are no real safety controls where everything  they make could be hazardous to your health.  I will not eat anything that comes from China, or give my pets any food that comes there either.  Their candy and toys all have some kind of hazardous material that always have to recalled.  Anyone remember the poisoned drywall sheets that made people sick in the US?  The pollution is one of the worst in the world, and their government always lies about that too.    I guess they are efficient in one thing...hiding the truth.

Steve Being
Steve Being

Overall, your article is very subjective and is lacking of factual comparisons. It would be nice if you can provide numbers to back up your claims. You need statistic numbers, not your own one time experience. For example, my own experience with civil servants in China tells me they are 100+ times better than they were 30 years ago. The same visa extension experience in my case took only 1 hour with the paid service from a local Deloitte employee. I think your problem maybe because you didn't understand their procedure and requirements and you wanted to do it yourself. In that regard, do you know how much time, money and effort it takes to renew a working visa here in US?

“America can spring to action with blazing speed when there is general acceptance of a certain policy.” The problem is, US can hardly agree on any good policy for the sake of the country for the last 10 years. It’s all about party and special interest, not about people’s well beings, the best example, US debt issue. Resolution anytime soon, I don’t think so. I suspect, this kind of issue, if happened in China, would be resolved much more quickly.

Gay_Chevara
Gay_Chevara

I think for a few years - up to about the time of the economic crisis (although not really related to that) - western people kind of regarded China as the new land of milk and honey.  But now too many cracks are in the dam and people are running for the hills.  Apart from well-known China expat-celebs that have written about this, I know at least three people in Shanghai that have decided enough is enough and have now decided to leave.

It's never been easy to live here, but things appear to be getting worse.  And if things get really nasty the govt can always spin it that it's the laowais to blame.  That could be when things get really ugly here.

karur
karur

The frequent comparison is between China and India and the average traveller is easily impressed with the progress in China. As a person who has been visiting China since 1995, I can vouch for the huge progress. But, it must be remembered that access to resources, land and labour is unlimited and by decree in China. This is not the case in all democracies like India. China will have to deal with its sudden success by learning to stay there. This will take a fairer way to deal with the people who feel left out

Joe Oh
Joe Oh

Japanese and Korean transportation system is the best. Airlines are great too.

rihannk
rihannk like.author.displayName 1 Like

I lived and work in China for four years now.  I have had a fantastic personal, cultural and business experience here.  I think your views are biased and outdated.  Where on earth is it a pleasure these days to travel to?  Have you noticed the sheer number of people that needs transport daily in China?  Nearly THREE times the amount of people in the US!  Every time I use a Chinese airport I am amazed at their dedication to safety of their passengers and their handling of the busiest air space in the world.  I cannot begin to describe my frustrations of the seemingly paranoid and pointless air travel in the US.  

Your references to "excessive bureaucratic hurdles" and your own experience relating to your visa smacks of an entitlement mentality.  How can people come to a country and expect a foreign (sovereign) country to change their own rules to suit them?  It is like saying America is bureaucratic and wrong in their (inhumanely) strict immigration policies.  Have you bothered to ask a Chinese woman on her views about almost not even being considered for an American visa?  

If you choose to move to China to live and work here, adapt to your environment and play by the rules.  If you don't like it go back to where it is more suited to your taste. 

byroncsy
byroncsy

Glad you have the positive attitude and look for good, not bad.  Best wishes for spreading peace and I am sure your smile.

rihannk
rihannk

I have lived in China (Suzhou) for 4 years and it has been a fantastic experience both from a business experience and from a personal and cultural one.    There are a lot of growing pains, I agree, but bear in mind the shear amount of people that live here and has to be moved and governed on a daily basis. Almost THREE times the population of the US!  The Utopia of effortless travel you seem to have experienced does not exist anymore, anywhere in the world. China is one of the few countries in the world where there are still some opportunities left.  Your reference to "bureaucratic hurdles" businessmen face.  Why bother to do business in China if you don't like their rules?  There is no entitlement to establishing your business in China!  If you want to do business in a different country and cannot play by their rules, go somewhere else.  It's like saying "America really is unfair with their harsh emigration policies and makes it difficult for every Tom, Dick and Harry to go and live there".  Your article reflects a very old and naive way of dishing up what China really is about.  I suggest you stop living here.

Rolf Hawkins
Rolf Hawkins

Who on earth thinks of China as a "model of modern transport and political effectiveness"??? The press is rife with highway, rail and sea disasters in China, as well as political corruption and staged trials.

byroncsy
byroncsy

Rolf, I agree with the first sentence.  It is the first time I heard about it.  But, then it is a wonderful use of rhetoric - stating a falsehood as true so you can refute it and look like a real lawyer, orator, ...  The truth is that China knows it must modernize transportation, especially trains - with Siemens' help, because it has so many people affording travel now.  More than a million on the trains at any given time.  Their modern trains "fly" quietly like an airplane.  Have you ridden Amtrak across the USA?

For perspectives,  multiply USA tragedies by 5 every day so the Chinese can be compared.  A Katrina event could have happened several times a year in the past few years with all the "tyfengs" hitting SE China, but somehow someone is preventing it.I lived there for 8 years and the only tragedy that repeated was in COAL mines.  I asked the Chinese for a sticker for the light switches," Thank you, Coal Miners."  Of course, in modern America we never have any problems in our mines, just ask WestVirginians.I spent many days on the trains and never saw any signs of "disasters", and I looked out the windows "all the time".  Of course there were two very tragic accidents by Qingdao and Shanghai.  Similar to several in the USA, was it in Baltimore? and ?  If you were lucky enough to travel where I did especially from Chengdu to Kunming, you would expect many accidents as you hang on the side of the mountain for many km.I hope you are finally able to go and enjoy the Chinese people and all the incredible history and landscapes.  Wear a smile and and open mind. 

Matthew Pieri
Matthew Pieri

I mean, there are some instances.  The Chinese were very efficient in ignoring the little girl that got run over and every one walked by.

panasian
panasian like.author.displayName 1 Like

How about two young girls beating up a woman very severely in a McDonald's in Maryland in 2011 while all the other customers just looked on without helping the victim? Some of them even told the two girls to flee before police came.

18235
18235

yeah, i remember that...with excuse/logic that in china you can get into more trouble by helping somebody, even a stranger, than you can by accidently killing sombody.

Matthew Pieri
Matthew Pieri

Ah yes, I remember the days in Chiang Mai Thailand where we couldn't breathe because air from China blew in that day.

When you still have 250 million people using Stone Age farming techniques, efficiency does not come to mind as a word to ascribe to China.

byroncsy
byroncsy

As a weatherman who worked in Japan, I highly doubt the wind blew smoke from China over the mountains to ChiangMai.  I strongly would argue you had a simple inversion layer and the smoke from all the fires in the ChiangMai area were capped just like in Los Angeles' smog.  A local Thai might have wanted to blame someone, so Chinese would be a great scapegoat.  Yes, Thailand is a beautiful country, except for the Chinese smoke. ha

 If you remember, remember the exact date and we can pull up the weather maps to see the wind patterns for the date.  You could do that yourself by sending a request to NOAA for the Asian map of that day.

Stone age farming?  Millions farm like the millions of Americans want to in their backyard so they can grow organic food !!!  Some chickens, a couple of goats, fresh veggies...