Things happen quickly in China – or so they say. As the world's factory, China has developed a manufacturing eco-system that can produce many goods at unrivalled speeds. This is facilitated by the country's enormous population, which provides an agile and supply-rich labour market. And it combines with a political system that has the authority to drive through key initiatives. The result is a phenomenon known as “China Speed”.

This ability to do things fast has become a source of national pride for China, especially when compared with the perceived slowness of developed Western countries – the US in particular – and also other developing countries – such as India. China’s state media and their supporters love to trumpet the country's comparative quickness.

An oft-cited example of China Speed is the country's success in high-speed rail travel. In the space of just fifteen years, China's bullet train network has become the world’s longest at around 40,000 km. It has maglev trains that operate at over 400km/h and a prototype that runs at 600km/h. Meanwhile, high-speed rail projects in the West – such as Britain’s HS2 or the CHSR in California – have been beset by significant project delays and cancellations.

During the pandemic, Beijing’s ability to act fast has allowed it to maintain a consistently negligible number of COVID-19 cases. Much has been said of its ability to rapidly construct prefab hospitals and quarantine facilities, or lock down entire cities over just a handful of local infections. By contrast, its slow Western counterparts have consistently seen daily caseloads in the thousands.

China Speed has not just benefited China. The country’s ability to produce and ship goods quickly has been a cornerstone of the global economy both before and during the pandemic, despite talk of decoupling and moving production elsewhere. The Chinese supply chain is so impressively fast that, on the e-commerce platform, I can order many daily necessities to be delivered to my home in Beijing the very same day.

China Speed can be felt in the country's embrace of new technology, from robotics and electric vehicles to artificial intelligence. Facial recognition is now used for a large number of everyday applications, including payment, transportation and public security. Life in China's major cities is not just fast-paced but sometimes feels like living in a documentary set to fast forward.

But this is not the whole picture that one sees living in China. Indeed, another cliché about China is that it's a country of extremes and contradictions, and this truism also applies to the pace of activity here. While there is undoubtedly a fast China Speed, there is also a slow China Speed that must not be overlooked. And as with the fast setting, the slow tempo is likewise rooted in a unique combination of demographic, economic and political factors.

The slow China Speed is clearly visible in daily life. A routine visit to a public hospital or government office is typically a long, slow process. You have to line up at one window after another, usually located some distance apart. The only obvious explanation for this painfully drawn-out system is that it helps to control crowds and keep people employed.

Likewise, go to a Chinese bank and what might seem like a fairly simple transfer can end up taking hours and require multiple pieces of paper. To get reimbursed for out-of-pocket work expenses, one must first ask a merchant to provide a special kind of tax invoice known as a fapiao. These processes may reduce tax evasion and other undesired practices, but they end up costing many man-hours spent submitting and processing paperwork.

The transport sector provides another example of China Speed's slow side: while the country's high-speed trains go extremely fast, its air traffic system is known to be one of the world's least punctual. If you’ve ever flown domestically in China, it’s likely that you’ve been delayed, possibly by hours, without being given a clear reason or revised departure time. (Such delays are partly caused by the narrow flight paths allocated to civil aviation within China’s military-dominated airspace.) It’s also unlikely that you will soon be flying on a Chinese-produced commercial jet, such as the Comac C919, which is years behind schedule.

This dual nature of China Speed manifests itself across different parts of the country. In the manufacturing hub of Shenzhen, it may be possible to discuss a new product with some business partners today, have a prototype made tomorrow and get finished goods shipped by the weekend. In Beijing, however, the discussion stage alone would consist of numerous meetings and possibly dinners where formalities with key stakeholders are thrashed out over shots of baijiu. (Apologies to Dan Wang for pilfering this comparison.)

So which one is it, really? Is China fast or slow? I would argue that it is both fast and slow in different contexts, and that this speed is ultimately determined by a function of high-level priorities, available resources and market demand. These fast and slow China Speeds co-exist, and are in fact directly related. But often, the drive to do things at lightning speed involves cutting corners or over-exploiting resources in ways that mean tasks have to be redone, thus taking more time overall.

In this sense, we can see that China Speed does not equal China Efficiency. Rather, it is an illusion, an approach defined more by its emphasis on a somewhat superficial, sudden acceleration than its ability to achieve a genuine, sustained velocity. Again, this is visible in everyday Chinese life. Night-time construction happens in many cities in China so that projects can be completed more quickly, even if it disturbs nearby residents who will work or study less productively the next day as a result.

In recent decades, China’s construction boom has been phenomenal but largely rushed. The result is a post-1980s housing stock that has aged far too quickly and which apparently uses energy less efficiently than apartments built in the 1950s. Every winter, the centrally-controlled heating systems of northern China incur phenomenal energy wastage, while parts of southern China that sometimes see snow and ice get no heating whatsoever. China’s energy intensity – the amount of energy consumed per unit of GDP – has fallen massively over recent decades, but was still 27% above the global average as of 2020.

It is this sort of inefficiency that means the fast China Speed narrative is ultimately illusory. Working in local companies and with Chinese clients, I have found that speed is often prioritised over quality, as well as morale and working conditions. The much-hyped 9-9-6 culture of working overtime is real for many people in China, particularly those working in the new economy. But this approach, aimed at speed and higher productivity, in fact squeezes work out of employees in a way that does not make things happen faster, and results in vicious cycles of burnout.

This hastiness to produce and perform has been by design. Under Mao, campaigns to quickly catch up with the West led to devastating economic regression and loss of life. During the Reform period that lasted from Deng to Hu, China’s priority was to make things quickly, to develop quickly, to get rich quickly. Growth was desired at all costs, and the pace of economic growth was the key yardstick by which officials and companies in China were measured.

Of course, times have changed, and in recent years, China’s emphasis has shifted from speed to quality of growth. In Xi’s “New Era” of counter-reform, the economic priorities of the past have been demoted, replaced by elevated political and social priorities, encapsulated in the recent Common Prosperity slogan. Yet old habits die hard, and the cultural mindset of a rushed China Speed that many grew up with persists today across large parts of society and the economy. Food delivery drivers recklessly racing around Chinese cities are an enduring testament to that ethos.

Yes, the China Speed approach blazes on, despite being a poor fit for the more balanced, sustainable economy that Xi’s China wishes to develop. Take the much-trumpeted example of China’s high-speed railway construction. Recent research has shown that bullet train lines actually reinforce regional disparities, since they enable residents of poorer locales to travel more easily to rich cities, rather than facilitate a flow of resources in the opposite direction. This leads to wider rural-urban income gaps, and ultimately slower development in poorer areas, particularly across large swathes of western China.

In building construction, the dual nature of China Speed allows projects to be completed either extremely quickly, or to go nowhere at all. Walk around downtown Beijing today and you can see several empty plots or half-built towers, known as rotten tail buildings (烂尾楼, lanwei lou). These stalled or abandoned construction sites are often due to financial mismanagement, as in the case of distressed property giant Evergrande. The company was ordered to demolish 39 unfinished buildings on a flower-shaped archipelago situated near a poor fishing village in Hainan.

Another cause of these failed projects are political campaigns against key individuals in charge. As Desmond Shum notes in his recent memoir Red Roulette, the chairman of a Chinese company typically holds the authority to make decisions and access capital. If that person is ever brought under investigation, projects stall until there is an outcome or until the responsibility can be transferred to another person, a process which can sometimes take years.

This slow reality of China Speed is also increasingly visible in China’s supply chain, long a key driver of not just China’s domestic economic boom but also global growth. While China’s manufacturing eco-system remains basically unmatched by any other country, it no longer boasts the same ability to export manufactured goods quickly to other parts of the world. Shipping a container from China to the US now takes up to 70 days, compared to 40 days pre-pandemic, and the costs have also ballooned several times.

These problems are not absent in other countries, but in China they are amplified by the scale of its population and exacerbated by aspects of the country’s state-led political economy. Just as the strong hand of the state can cause things to happen quickly in China, in certain situations it also forces projects to grind to a halt or proceed at a snail’s pace. In fact, one of the main factors behind the ongoing global supply chain slowdown is China's zero COVID strategy and its unpredictable affect on key ports such as Ningbo. This is the slow side of China Speed that is, unsurprisingly, not so frequently mentioned by Beijing or its state media organs.

In a population of 1.4 billion, the Chinese people have long been accustomed to the need to wait and slowly grind out their successes. Economies tend to waste their largest resource, and so in China, it is human beings that end up getting used inefficiently. Though life might often seem fast-paced on the surface, delve deeper and you will see how it can be slow and time-consuming for ordinary workers.

Up until now, this model has worked. China’s state-led, labour-rich model has allowed Beijing to be fast when it chooses to. But in future, China may not have the luxury of choosing: the country’s population is falling while its economy is maturing and the global need for economic change is intensifying. As human labour and other resources become increasingly scarce, the pursuit of genuine productivity and efficiency becomes even more important.

Header image: a 'rotten tail' building in Beijing's Central Business District that has been unfinished for years. It is owned by Zhongnan Construction, currently facing liquidity problems and allegations of corruption against its chairman and other senior personnel.