Commentary Magazine


When Metaphors Attack

Tom Friedman’s favorite model train set suffered a tragic disaster a week ago, when a carriage from China’s high-speed rail system leapt over the side of a bridge, killing 40 people and injuring almost 200. China fetishists like Friedman view the fast and flashy Chinese infrastructure boom as a literal model for the U.S. Our trains are slow and need new paint, you see, and that means China is better positioned to excel in some presumably train-obsessed future. Or something like that.

The thing is, Barack Obama has bought into this line. When he talks about nation building at home, he’s referring to the kind of countrywide well-being and prosperity that only a Friedmanesque rail-dominated utopia can deliver. But, as a well-known anchor on China’s CCTV noted, there’s a problem here:

The speed of China’s development at the moment is like a high-speed train—it’s the envy of the whole world—but while satisfying our need for speed, we might be forsaking many things. Can we drink a glass of milk without worrying? Can we live in a house that won’t collapse? Can we drive along a street in a big city without it caving in? Can we ride a train that arrives safely? And if there’s a big train accident, can we be sure that the engine won’t be buried? In short, can we have a basic sense of security necessary for people’s happiness?

When Friedman employs Chinese high-speed rail as a catch-all metaphor for what China is really about, he’s more accurate than he knows. The system is unsafe, costly, and thoroughly beset by corruption. According to the Wall Street Journal, last week’s accident sparked an explosion of public discontent. The medium of choice for these complaints? That would be an American technological innovation—the Internet. “The new technology has fundamentally changed the relationship between China’s government and the governed. …Internet users are aware that issues like food safety problems, land-use abuses and corruption are pervasive.”  Apparently, the Chinese people are angry the Railway Ministry swept away evidence of the accident within 24 hours of its occurrence. Doubtless, Friedman will find such efficient cleanup another example of China’s edge over the U.S.