The High-Speed Rail Controversy: An American Perspective

Originally published at Libertines Pub.  (Note: This post is really intended for a HK audience, not a US audience like most of my posts.  So if you don’t dig this one, don’t worry.  I’m blogging for a HK blog now, and I’ll share those posts here, but that doesn’t mean this blog has changed its focus.)

Since I arrived in Hong Kong a half year ago, the biggest political story has been the proposed high speed rail link between Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Apparently the young people in HK are really upset about this. I don’t get it.

Recently, the SCMP documented the evolution of this movement from a community issue centered around villagers trying to keep their homes, to a mass political movement that has sparked political activism among many young people in HK. Chu Hoi-dick, one of the leaders of the movement, is quoted as saying, “When I first started, it was a community issue. My goal was to help villagers keep their homes. No one should be sacrificed because of a railway or because of any development.” Really? How is this a rational political position? No one should ever lose their home because of any development? How would any nation or municipality ever create any public infrastructure under this standard? It’s absolutely preposterous, yet somehow the SCMP doesn’t mention the absurdity of Chu’s statement. In a city as densely populated as HK, nothing could ever get built if you couldn’t ever demolish anyone’s home to build a public good.

Now I’m American, and as such I’m all for the rights of individuals. But even Americans know that sometimes people have to lose their homes because that land is needed for something that benefits society. OK, not all Americans know this. Many of the ones who don’t are currently involved in what is called the Tea Party movement. This is a bunch of conservatives who think that it’s immoral to raise taxes on individuals so that the government can provide a public good (in this case, what they object to is poor people receiving health care). Which brings me to my main point. This anti-rail campaign is essentially a conservative movement. The two basic arguments seem to be that individual property rights trump collective goods (the nobody should ever lose their house nonsense quoted above) and that it’s just too expensive (or that the costs outweigh the benefits). It’s ironic that young people in HK seem to have similar political opinions to a bunch of old, rural, uneducated and generally misinformed Americans.

Since the first argument is absurd on it’s face, let’s address the second one: it’s just too expensive. I have no doubt it’s very expensive, but taxes in HK are insanely low (it helps that the defense budget is zero). And I don’t think there’s much danger of a tax hike because of this project, so what are people so upset about? Public services and infrastructure work pretty well in this city, but that’s because people invested in them in the past, and continue to do so.

My president has proposed several high-speed rail networks linking major American cities. Unfortunately, the dysfunctional US political system won’t allow him to accomplish this goal, which would be of great benefit to the US economy. The auto and oil industries will surely succeed in limiting the scope of high-speed rail in the US. And the Tea-partiers will be right there by the corporations’ side, shooting themselves in the foot because they oppose government spending.

I’m no fan of Big Beijing, but I sincerely wish that my government was forward-thinking enough to cover my continent in high speed rail. Whatever the economists say about the cost/benefit, does Hong Kong really want to be the one major Eurasian city that isn’t part of the high speed rail network eventually connecting Shanghai to Paris?

I understand that a lot of the anger expressed in this anti-rail campaign is really frustration about the lack of real democratic influence in the political process. I feel your pain there. The US has had universal suffrage since 1776…ok, maybe 1865…no wait…1920. Ok, we realistically attained universal suffrage in 1964, except for the brief, computer-enhanced hiatus between 2000 and 2006. My point is this: the vote can be bought, influenced, suppressed or miscounted, but political speech is a fundamental human right. Use your right to protest wisely. Remember the boy who cried wolf.

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2 responses to “The High-Speed Rail Controversy: An American Perspective

  1. “I’m no fan of Big Beijing, but I sincerely wish that my government was forward-thinking enough to cover my continent in high speed rail.”

    I have to agree with you there.

  2. While the rest of the 1st world countries build high speed rails, we squander our funds on wars. Cut the defense budget in half and watch how fast that deficit goes down. Close over 700 of the 791 military bases and bring our troops home–and watch that debt and deficit go down. Stop building WMD’s and build infrastructure. Pay down the debt so my grandchildren won’t be stuck with it. It’s entirely achievable by cutting foreign aid and defense.

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