Ask Mei

Why are Chinese talking about New York’s subway?

The line that took too long

The newly opened Second Avenue Subway in New York has attracted a lot of attention across China’s social media-sphere since its debut on the first day of the year. Numerous media outlets reported that the new subway is merely 3.2km long with three stations yet it cost $4.5 billion. The more amazing fact is that it took over 80 years to build (since the idea was first floated in the 1920s) and yet only half an hour into operation, its signal system malfunctioned and caused multiple delays.

Chinese netizens had a field day with reports highlighting the shortcomings of US infrastructure. Some joked that given the same budget and timeframe, the Chinese could build a subway from Beijing all the way to New York. One commented: “According to this pace [of construction], the full subway line will be completed when Elon Musk’s great-grandson becomes governor of Mars.”

However, the most dominant sentiment was local pride. The majority of the comments stated that in spite of China’s many downsides, it’s undeniable the country has made incredible advances in building infrastructure, which echoed my own point that China is transitioning from imitation to innovation in certain areas (see my column in WiC346).

A widely-read article by journalist Song Luzheng, which was reposted by the Communist Youth League, detailed his recent travel experiences in the US. It attracted over 1,000 comments and a similar number of reposts. He complained that the Amtrak train service between Washington DC and New York was not only slow (3.5 hours to cover 380km) but also hugely expensive, at $176 for a coach seat. In order to save some money, he opted to take a bus – but that took him close to six hours. In comparison, he said, the high-speed train between Beijing and Jinan, capital of Shandong province, covers 430km in just 1.5 hours and cost only $28.

Having taken China’s high-speed trains a few times myself, I would agree with him that once you are used to the high-speed trains, it’s rather hard to go back to the slower variant or long bus rides. One of Song’s readers called Miss Left commented: “I was shocked by your report. I didn’t know that the US doesn’t have high-speed trains. Can this be true? Given that the news was posted by the Communist Youth League, it’s probably true.”

Of course, while many were indulging in bouts of nationalistic pride, some also made more sobering comments. One netizen named Jigeta posted: “Don’t use our strengths to compare with other’s weak points. Otherwise we’ll stop making progress. Do we dare to compare our air quality with others?”

Mei grew up in northeast China, attending an elite university in Beijing and graduate school in the US. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China in the media and at two investment banks. If you’d like to ask Mei a question email her at [email protected]


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