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Very fast trains, computers and web services

By Reg Little - posted Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Anyone who has travelled several times on China's Very Fast Trains at over 300 kilometres an hour is likely to begin to wonder why a country like Australia is not similarly equipped. Of course, it is easy to find someone who remarks that they would not be commercially viable in such a sparcely populated country.

This reflects the typical English speaker's misunderstanding of what is happening in China. Today, China's Very Fast Trains are little more than the equivalent of our suburban trains – a commonplace service used by people of every social standing. The fact that they continue to be seen in the English speaking world as a technological marvel, beyond the reach of the imagination of any sober and responsible commercial or government accountant, is simply an indication of a rapidly declining capacity for practical technological implementation in English speaking communities.

A report in the Sydney Morning Herald of 18 June 2013 might suggest that Chinese technological leadership is beginning to take over in many, if not most, critical areas of international competition. It was titled "China builds world's fastest supercomputer" and commenced with the sentence:


China has built the world's fastest supercomputer, almost twice as fast as the previous US record holder and underlining the country's rise as a science and technology powerhouse.

After all, a nation which has the capacity to undertake research and calculation at almost twice the speed of rivals would seem, as least to a layman, to be uniquely well placed to progress technological advances at a higher speed and with a more sophisticated level of innovation than its rivals. It is hard to see this not applying also to the area of military technology.

The Very Fast Train and the Very Fast Computer pose the rest of the world with some major issues. It is difficult, if not impossible, to see any other nation, or even any other coherent group of nations, being able to compete with China's capacity for quality and quantity education going into the future. In other words, China seems already to have established its capacity to lead in any chosen area of technological brainpower, trained both in China and at top universities around the world.

The challenge this represents to Western certainties is multiplied many times by a much neglected, but profoundly troubling, fact. This is that there is an almost total lack of adequately educated human resources in the West capable of identifying and interpreting progress in Asian communities where language is written in one form or another of Chinese characters. Not only do these languages take many years to master in any serious sense but they embody thought cultures and values that are almost incomprehensible for a mono-lingual English speaker. As a result, for example, any English speaker who develops some depth of competence in Chinese language and thought culture will likely become isolated, lacking credibility in their own English speaking community. Another trap is illustrated by a recent Australian Prime Minister who spoke credible social Chinese but had no feel or understanding for Chinese culture and politics.

As a consequence of these realities, some popular attitudes in Australia are little more than absurd. The deeply held position by most relevant authorities that the nation can build its economic future on its relations with China but must look to its traditional ally, the United States, for its defence and security needs is perhaps the most important and transparent. Yet it remains little challenged.

For almost a decade, web-based information has suggested that American communication satellites and aircraft carriers could prove vulnerable and ineffective if confronted with Chinese weaponry. Moreover, the Chinese seem capable of unveiling little anticipated but powerful weaponry at short notice. Further, the Chinese now have a well financed, visionary and successful space program, unmatched by anything in the West.


When the present financial situation of the United States and the European Union is added to military and technological evaluations, it is not easy to see how Australia's traditional allies can do much to assist in any likely future crisis situation in the Asian region. Of course, the long honoured strategic tradition of high profile Western boasts and low profile Eastern humility still misleads many. This is despite repeated economic reminders that the speed of Chinese and other Asian advance is invariably under-estimated.

Recent controversies about the Chinese company Huawei tendering for NBN contracts and about ubiquitous American NSA global surveillance might also encourage reflection on the need to update other long established certainties in the area of Australian national security. It has long served Australia well and been sound practice to work closely and discreetly with English speaking allies (US, UK, Canada and New Zealand) in collecting and sharing security and other intelligence. It now seems difficult to retain discretion in this activity which itself seems to call for a serious re-evaluation and cost benefit analysis.

An article in Asia Times Online on 31 October 2013 titled "China to reap harvest of NSA scandals" outlined the situation in this manner:

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About the Author

Reg Little was an Australian diplomat from 1963 to 1988. He gained high level qualifications in Japanese and Chinese and served as Deputy of four and Head of one overseas Australian diplomatic mission. He is the co-author of The Confucian Renaissance (1989) and The Tyranny of Fortune: Australia’s Asian Destiny (1997) and author of A Confucian Daoist Millennium? (2006). In 2009, he was elected the only non-ethnic Asian Vice Chairman of the Council of the Beijing based International Confucian Association. His other writings can be found on his website:

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