n the 1980s, I attended a dinner in Shanghai with directors of that city’s YMCA
. I sat next to a man in his eighties who had witnessed China’s second war with Japan, the Communist revolution, the Cultural Revolution (during which the Y was closed and he was forced to apologize daily for his association with it), and now this: China’s race to become a modern industrial state. In the late ’80s, bicycles still outnumbered automobiles on Shanghai’s streets, but the forces that would transform the city into a twenty-first-century urban paradigm were already at work. At the end of the evening, I told the man I hoped he would visit Canada someday and asked what he would want to see if he did. I expected Niagara Falls or Banff National Park, but instead he said, “Autoplex,” referring to the then state-of-the-art General Motors assembly plant in Oshawa, Ontario. I asked why, and I will never forget his answer, because it was my first clue that China would soon become a global economic superpower. “Once we’ve seen it,” he replied, “we can do it.”
It is doubtful this man had ever heard the term “best practice,” but he certainly understood its meaning: that in almost any field of human endeavour, someone has found a better way. This is true of everything from the development of software to the provision of health care, from highway construction to the manufacture of automobiles. Anyone could predict that China’s emerging middle class would want to trade its bikes for cars, and it was only natural that its born-again capitalists would want to build them. They could start from scratch, as the Soviets had, yielding the unremarkable Lada. Or they could try to replicate what was at that moment the most advanced automobile manufacturing complex in the world. Autoplex was not only the largest producer in North America; it had also pioneered the use of robotics, and replaced the traditional assembly line with automated guided vehicles — self-propelled platforms that transport cars in various stages of completion from one assembly point to the next. For my Shanghai dinner companion, the choice was obvious: “Once we’ve seen it, we can do it.”
It was not that simple, of course. But twenty-five years later, China has surpassed Japan and the United States as the world’s largest automobile maker, and it has done it by borrowing from the best. Make that by partnering
with the best, starting, at around the time of my visit to Shanghai, with a joint venture with Volkswagen. (I remember seeing locally made Passats navigating nervously through armies of Shanghai cyclists.) Today, China is the largest automobile market in the world, with sales in 2009 of 13.6 million vehicles. Many of them were produced by more than a dozen joint venture manufacturers, which include Toyota, Ford, and General Motors, although Volkswagen remains the most successful. Of the independent manufacturers — and there are dozens — the biggest is Geely, a former refrigerator maker, which is currently finalizing its acquisition of Volvo from Ford.
Emulate the best. You would think so winning an idea would have more proponents. And yet in this part of the world, and even in the private sector, where the rewards for superior performance are greatest, people are often content to muddle along. Sometimes out of ignorance: who knew that someone on the other side of the world had built a better mousetrap? Sometimes out of arrogance: what could anyone teach us about building mousetraps? Sometimes out of sheer indifference: who needs a better mousetrap? And, unfortunately, the worst offenders are often found in the public sector, which is why so much of North America’s public infrastructure compares unfavourably with that of other developed countries. In June of last year, The Walrus
published an essay on high-speed rail in which the writer, Monte Paulsen, pointed out that Canada, once a world leader in railway transportation, now lags behind countries like Finland, Portugal, and Turkey.
In this issue, Chris Turner takes us on a grand tour of Europe (“The New Grand Tour,”), not to admire the architectural and cultural legacies of its various civilizations, but to marvel instead at “a great chain of innovation stretching from Scandinavia to Spain” that is creating the world’s most sustainable industrial order. “If you accept the premise,” he writes, “that beating climate change and ending fossil fuel dependency together represent the defining challenge of the twenty-first century, then its first tumultuous decade gives every indication that the century as a whole will belong to Europe.” Turner, who lives in Calgary, says travelling in Europe today makes him feel underprivileged.
How did this happen? How did the culture that produced Autoplex fall so far behind in addressing the technological and industrial challenges of the day? Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that the issue is partly attitudinal — that North Americans, living beyond our means, drunk on pop culture, and deluded by craven media, are simply content to fall behind.
Harsh words. But ask yourself why Europeans no longer envy us, much less want to emigrate.