Hamish McRae: The Chinese get things done – at a cost

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Lord Foster makes the point succinctly: China has managed to design and build a new airport terminal twice the size of Heathrow's Terminal Five in four years, less time than the Heathrow planning enquiry. He should know, for he has designed both terminals. China's new terminal opens this week and Heathrow's next month, but Beijing Capital airport differs in another respect. It has also, in the past four years, built a third runway, something that will clearly take somewhat longer here.

It is worth making the comparison, not to argue simplistically that we are falling behind in some sort of global economic race, still less that we should adopt the Chinese planning model. There are lots of reasons why we shouldn't, of which more in a moment. But it would be extremely arrogant of us not to note what China is doing, both to set in context our own economic debates and also to try to see what we can learn from Chinese experience. The very fact of employing a British architect for such a high-profile project shows China is prepared to learn from us. Why should we now try to learn from them?

The comparisons are pretty hair-raising. Quite aside from the expansion of Beijing airport, China is planning to build 97 new regional airports in the next decade, of which I understand 45 are to be completed in the next five years. The UK has not built a new airport since City airport was commissioned in 1987. We are agonising about replacing our present nuclear power stations and there is fierce opposition to a new coal-fired station. China completes a new power station every four days, most of which are coal-fired, and last year commissioned more new generating capacity than the whole of the UK's electricity output.

None of this means that we should abandon our efforts to cut carbon emissions or the switch to low-energy light bulbs. In a world where all resources are likely to become more expensive, most forms of energy conservation make sense on economic grounds, irrespective of what China does or does not do. It is just that we should not kid ourselves that what we do is particularly important in a global context. We influence China's infrastructure (and that of India and other emerging nations) by our delivered excellence: for example Norman Foster's airports, or the new eco-city near Shanghai being designed by Ove Arup. We do not have influence because of the views of our politicians and pressure groups.

So what can we in return learn? Let's take a couple of areas where, at first sight, at least China's experience does not seem to be much of a guide and a couple where it clearly is.

The first non-guide is that Chinese economic development has a brutality that we could not and should not stomach. There are myriad stories about people's property being seized by developers without proper compensation. I have no direct experience of that but when I was in Shanghai last September I caught a glimpse of something that has troubled me ever since.

We were riding out through the suburbs on the 200-mile-an-hour train. Before it really picked up speed, we passed a large area being cleared for new development. There was one grey house left, just beside the tracks. And out of it, in that split second as the train passed, I saw an elderly woman in evident distress being carried out by a group of worried younger people. I guess she was being evicted. We sped on to the garden city of Suzhou and had a lovely day but that image of pain has stayed with me. Tens of millions of people have been displaced in the race for development and many will have suffered terribly as a result.

But, of course, we have done much the same. We have pulled down perfectly sound houses and broken up established communities in the name of regeneration. Maybe the application of the policy is less brutal and the motives more admirable but we are still causing a lot of misery, largely because financial incentives for pulling down and rebuilding are greater than those for repairing what is already there. So while we may not have much to learn, we have no right to preach.

The other is the pricing of energy. China under-prices energy in a number of different ways. Most obviously, it under-prices motor fuel, with petrol around 30p a litre. Now that is quite a lot relative to income for the emerging Chinese middle class, but it has the effect of encouraging the Chinese to drive around in relatively large cars.

The time when you can best influence the efficiency of a vehicle fleet is before it grows. At the moment, car production is sizzling up, with the country on the way to becoming the world's largest car producer within 10 years. It will, however, be a relatively inefficient fleet. Worse, many cities have been tardy in building metro systems – Shanghai had just two lines – so there is a big burden on the vehicle fleet to keep places on the move. To generalise, China has followed the US model of city development rather than the European one. It is a mistake that is now recognised but a mistake none-the-less.

The more positive lessons are partly about speed. If the Chinese bureaucracy is brutal, ours is sclerotic. This is not the place to go in to the intricacies of our planning procedures but two things are worth pointing out. One is that planning, as at present organised, not only adds to the cost of housing but also creates distortions in development. The law of unintended consequences is particularly apparent. The other is that one of the great planning success stories, the Canary Wharf development in London, happened because of very light planning controls.

The second lesson is the need to balance individual and group rights. By holding up the Terminal Five development, the individual rights of some thousands of protesters were protected, even if their wishes were ultimately overruled. But the group rights of more than a hundred million travellers, who had a nastier experience in the airport as a result of the delays, were not respected.

I happen to think that individual rights are insufficiently respected in China, as most of us would. But it seems to me that our own balance is not right either. Individuals matter hugely, of course, but wider society matters, too. This is not just a planning issue; it goes to the heart of our legal system and aspects of government administration.

And while most people in Europe and America would scoff at the notion that we have much to learn from China on the subject of human rights, it is worth noting that on the benchmark of economic freedom, for many people just as important as political freedom, Hong Kong scores top of the league. That is part of China, too, and the mainland is slowly leaning more towards the Hong Kong economic model. If we have things to learn now, we may have more to learn in the future.