Erasing distance and malaise“It was as if someone was whipping at the back. ... We were running too fast,” Deng Xiaoping, the father of China’s reform and opening up, had said after a two-hour travel on Japan’s bullet train Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto during his 1978 visit to Japan. The ride on the high-speed train may have been a shocking experience for Deng at a time when he was masterminding a reform plan for China which was just about to awaken from a long sleep. Deng is said to have asked why a relatively small country would need such a fast locomotive. He may have meant that a land as vast as China would doubtlessly have to have a bullet train.
Thirty years later, now China runs the world’s fastest trains on regular routes. The high-speed train between Beijing and Tianjin that opened prior to the Beijing Olympic Games boasts a top speed of 350 kilometers per hour, cutting travel time to 27 minutes from the previous one and half hours. China plans to open more routes next year, including a 1,300-kilometer high-speed railway between Beijing and Shanghai. If on schedule, it would take China just five years to complete; Korea spent 12 years to build its 398.4 kilometer high-speed railway. Speed was demonstrated in building the tracks as well. When China completes its high-speed railway project, bullet train tracks would cross the length of 20,000 kilometers in the country, outrunning the total 5,000 kilometers of railways in Japan, Germany and France, the leading countries of high-speed railway technology.
China’s ambitious high-speed railway project is likely to serve as a breakthrough for the country as it too fights off the global economic debacle. The so-called locomotive economic project to tackle economic distress by investing massive capital and human resources into infrastructure projects resembles the New Deal policy of the United States, launching mega-sized public works projects to prop up the ailing U.S. economy in the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The German romantic poet Christian Johann Heinrich Heine writing in 1843, exclaimed, “What changes must now occur, in our way of looking at things, in our notions! Even the elementary concepts of time and space have begun to vacillate. Space is killed by the railway, and we are left with time alone.”
The history of civilization is the process of annihilating distance and space. In the axis of progress, telecommunications that keep the world connected is at one hand, and transportation that broadens the living sphere is at the other. The desire to erase distance may be greater in a country as big as China. When China’s locomotive economic project is completed, we may also see the last of the Chinese traditional man man de (slowly, gradually) way of life.
*The writer is deputy political news editor of JoongAng Ilbo.
By Yeh Young-june [firstname.lastname@example.org]