For all of the thousands of you that subscribe to my commentaries both here and on Provincial Supertramp, you already know that I am a novice railroad historian and rail advocate. Yet, sadly, I had yet to find the occasion to incorporate my railfandom into my Public Diplomacy discussions, until now. In a near miraculous confluence of various seemingly unassociated subjects, I have managed to find a Mark Twain quotation that deals with the Chinese, the railroad, and can even be applied to the modern development of Chinese public diplomacy strategies. It is from a news commentary called "CHINESE RAILROAD OBSTRUCTIONS," from The San Francisco Daily Morning Call, on August 30, 1864.
"The Chinese in this State are becoming civilized to a fearful extent. One of them was arrested the other day, in the act of preparing for a grand railroad disaster on the Sacramento Valley Railroad. If these people continue to imbibe American ideas of progress, they will be turning their attention to highway robbery, and other enlightened pursuits. They are industrious."
This may seem like it does not have so much to do with public diplomacy, until you read about a recent project that has been dubbed by Western journalists as "Chinese railway diplomacy." This concept interested me because of two historic comparisons:
1. The role of the Chinese in helping to build the Transcontinental Railroad in the US, as unskilled, underpaid, and abused immigrant laborers, and
2. The striking difference between the way that the US has used the railroad to exert dominance over its region and the way that China is attempting to do so now.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the United States and the UK both took on railroad projects in Latin America as a way to control transit and commerce in the region, and these projects were viewed as imperialist and exploitative, and were often poorly run. Now, very few railroads exist south of the US, and the ones that do are generally inefficient and in a state of disrepair. Contrastingly, the high-speed rail projects that China is sponsoring in Thailand, Laos, and now Kazakhstan are seen almost as goodwill offerings to neighbors, and generally believed to be relatively inexpensive and technologically advanced projects with a high potential for success. This is a part of the Chinese public diplomacy philosophy striving for "a good-neighborly and friendly surrounding environment, and environment for equal and mutually beneficial cooperation, and an objective and friendly publicity environment," as President Hu Jintao explained in 2004.
Perhaps this is an example of meddlesome Westerm entrepreneurial endeavors that, through translation to a Chinese environment, have actually been improved and made more benevolent. Though I am certain the US will not be exporting any competitive rail technologies via Amtrak any time soon. Ahem.