The infrastructure that matters
On megacities, bullet trains, and the infrastructure of human rights that remains missing when authoritarians go building
North Korea has a 105-story, 1,082-foot tall tower in Pyongyang that stands incomplete. The People's Republic of China touts its 23,500-mile network of bullet trains. Saudi Arabia is promoting its fresh new plans for a futuristic urban utopia designed to house 9 million people without any cars.
■ What these things have in common is that they are all monumental-scale public works projects, conceived with the intention of being offered as showcases for the governments that directed the resources into building them. What they also have in common is that, despite their futuristic aesthetics, the projects do nothing to overcome the fundamental backwardness of the governments driving them.
■ Super-fast magnetically-levitated trains zooming at well over 300 miles per hour look like a vision of tomorrow. But no shiny technology can reverse the backwardness of putting a million people into ethno-religious detention camps.
■ A megacity running on 100% renewable energy is a decidedly futuristic vision. But there aren't enough solar panels in the world to put adequate light on a government of absolute monarchy that scores 7 points out of a possible 100 on the Freedom House index, with the public holding no meaningful political rights and almost no civil liberties, either.
■ It is easy to put a shiny vision on paper (or screen), and with enough power, the state can capture enough resources to build some pretty fanciful landmarks. But human beings are, by right of birth, entitled to freedom of conscience, to freedom of expression, to just treatment under an impartial rule of law, and to government by consent rather than capitulation. No products of material construction can substitute for these fundamental human rights.
■ The world audience can easily get caught up in the imagery that authoritarians and totalitarians like to project, and indeed that is often one of the reasons they are built. We need to be smarter than the illusionists -- too smart to fall for the gloss, and wise enough to know that it is the infrastructure of human goods that really matters.