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Originally published Friday, July 2, 2010 at 2:48 PM

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Guest columnist

America vs. China looking more like a tortoise-and-hare race

China might be a totalitarian government, but its progress is impressive, writes guest columnist Wendy Liu. She marvels at the difference of China's infrastructure development compared with the too-often-neglected U.S. infrastructure, including Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Special to The Times

I STILL remember the oohs and aahs years ago in China when people admired a souvenir or present from America. Now I get an advance warning from my mother in Xi'an not to buy anything for my visit from Seattle. "America is falling behind," she added.

That may be a little exaggeration. The more popular refrain is that everything you buy in America is made in China, why carry the luggage? Why indeed. One almost had to resort to ripping the "Made in China" label from the presents one buys.

But if you think China only as the "world's factory," wait till you see what it is doing at home: building a new country.

Take for example a tiny part of it from my hometown Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi Province and starting point of the ancient Silk Road.

A few years ago, when my mother first moved into this new residential compound on the bank of Ba River in the east of the city, there were at most a few dozen buildings. They were built on a patch of wasteland by an entrepreneur-developer. This year, the compound boasts more than 650 buildings, complete with its own shopping street, schools, farmers market, public square, clock tower, theater stage, park, not to say its own shuttle bus service to downtown Xi'an.

That was just one residential community in the Chan-Ba Ecological District, a newly developed environment-friendly district named after Rivers Chan and Ba. Driving around, one could also see the new 355-room five-star Kempinski Hotel, the permanent venue of Euro-Asia Economic Forum, a tall white suspension bridge spanning the water, a new international cargo center under construction, and all the preparations going on for the 2011 World Horticultural Expo the district was hosting.

The compound and district are really typical of China today. So is the China Pavilion at the World Expo in Shanghai, standing head and shoulders above all other pavilions. Same with its high-speed rail, already the world's longest, soon to connect all its provincial capitals.

Then it was back in Seattle. Our long-standing Alaskan Way Viaduct was in the news again. Mayor Mike McGinn had just hired his own consultant to study the proposed tunnel. But other City Council members believed he was trying to stop the project.

As a voter, I am at a complete loss as to how a highway project could have been drawn out for so long. A decade after the earthquake damage, several election cycles and numerous state, city, county and port meetings later, not to say a projected cost of $2 billion growing to $4 billion, we are still just talking about replacing the viaduct.

Don't get me wrong. I love the free speech and direct elections we American citizens enjoy. But there seems to be some things missing from our system, things like decisiveness and efficiency.

China, of course, is an authoritarian country, with the Communist Party in power, even though communist in name only now. But the party and the people do share a sense of urgency about their nation-building. They are working hard against the clock for the time lost in the Mao era and for China's re-emergence as a world power it had once been.

America is lucky not to have had a Cultural Revolution, a catastrophe to China's economic as well as cultural development. But our infrastructure is decades old and crumbling.

The collapse of the Interstate 35 Bridge in Minneapolis, the failure of levees in New Orleans and the steam pipe explosion in New York City were disasters that happened. Those waiting to happen are deadly silent. For them, former U.S. Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta warned long ago, we need a constant beating of the drum.

Maybe an alarm clock, too. America may have a better system. But we seem to be either napping on it like the hare or driving while texting. China, the tortoise, however, is clearheaded, determined and racing ahead!

Wendy Liu, author of "Everything I Understand about America I Learned in Chinese Proverbs," is also recipient of 2010 Humanist Pioneer Award, American Humanist Association, for her work in cross-cultural understanding.

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