Why Dictatorships Build Stuff that Crumbles

Dart-Throwing Chimp

In a recent essay for Foreign Policy, James Traub gazes longingly at “the astonishing building and infrastructure projects that have propelled the growth of China’s cities—bullet trains, highways, ports, and giant manufacturing complexes.” He acknowledges that China’s urban development model is “brutal,” but he contends that “the new Chinese cities will be more effective than Western ones at generating wealth, as well as at the basic urban business of moving people rapidly, cleanly, and safely from here to there. And they will be new!”

We read this trope about authoritarian states as tough but effective modernizers a lot, but the real story is more complicated. The same day Traub’s essay appeared in Foreign Policy, the New York Times ran a story about a 330-foot section of bridge in the Chinese city of Harbin that collapsed just nine months after it was built, killing three and injuring five. As…

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