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Is China's Growth Really That Jaw-Dropping?

Kevin Drum asks why China's visitors are invariably blown away by the changes taking place in the country: "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?"

Having been in China for a few days, I'd say the size of the place is less impressive than the sheer rate of change. I last visited Shanghai in the early '90s and for the most part it was a sleepy, slightly dreary city surrounded by lots of bland farmland, a place where everyone piddled around in bicycles. Now? It's a full-blown metropolis, decked out in blazing neon, and the downtown is, in many respects, indistinguishable from a place like Tokyo. All that farmland is now paved over by dense city. And that all happened in a tiny span of about 15 years.

Another example: Earlier today we visited the Xi'an High-Tech Development Zone in Shaanxi Province. Xi'an itself isn't all that staggering; it's a city about the size of Chicago. Fine. But the development zone—a sort of Silicon Valley-esque hub on the edge of the city—is impressive to consider. This is an area that didn't exist at all in the early '90s, and is now home to some 480,000 people, thick groves of high-rise residential buildings, sprawling office parks, the works. We're talking about a city the size of Milwaukee that sprung up out of nowhere in less than two decades. And it's still swelling: Walk down any street, spin around 360 degrees, and there are giant cranes in every direction, hauling up (literally) hundreds of new 30- and 40-story skyscrapers. It's almost like watching one of those fast-motion Discovery Channel videos of an oak tree climbing up out of the ground. Maybe the only real comparable change in the United States over the past decade has been the evolution of the Internet.

Some statistics. McKinsey recently did a report on how, in the next 20 years, some 350 million Chinese people are going to move from the rural areas to the cities. That's a migrant population bigger than the entire United States. Now, the happy news on the energy front is that this will create an enormous demand for brand-new infrastructure—some 50,000 new skyscrapers, 170 mass-transit systems—which creates an opportunity to construct the country in a sustainable fashion. Green buildings are a lot easier to do when a huge chunk of the nation's key structures haven't even been built yet. But that said, the pace of development is really something to witness.

(Flickr photo credit: Frank Schacht)