August 21, 2008


Not all of China is cheering (Joshua Kurlantzick, 8/18/08, National Post)

[F]ocusing solely on pride ignores another China, one far different from the middle class people with the money to travel to Beijing. As China has liberalized its economy, vast agricultural regions of the country have fallen far behind the cities — so much so that this “communist” nation now has one of the worst income inequalities in Asia. Indeed, according to the World Bank, over 200 million Chinese earn less than US$1.25 per day, a near-African wage, and today China’s Gini coefficient, the standard measure of inequality, is far higher than that of India. For these rural Chinese, the Olympics are just one more event to watch from afar, before they turn back to their daily struggle.

Trips over numerous years to rural parts of Yunnan, a poor province in China’s southwest, showed me this China. In small villages, families I met lived in one-room stone dwellings, where they slept on mats and cooked on a simple stove. Outside, they raised a few pigs, or sowed small terraces of rice and vegetables.

Yunnan is hardly unique. Interior China’s GDP lags far behind eastern China’s, and as China opens to foreign imports small-plot Chinese farmers will find it even harder to make a living, since they’ll be competing with the massive Brazilian, American and Australian agribusinesses. Worse, the pollution caused by Chinese industry is destroying farmland and water sources — vast parts of the agricultural heartland will virtually run dry within 30 years. Meanwhile, rural people actually face higher tax levies, according to their income, than many richer city citizens, partly because local officials just want to make more money.

Not surprisingly, for many of these rural dwellers the Games might be an interesting distraction on TV, rather than a source of major pride. “It is something that only the people in cities around Beijing care about,” one young Chinese in a rural town told Rian Dundon, a photographer who studies youth culture in China’s interior. “People from Hunan [an interior province] and other far away places don’t really feel very excited about it, and I don’t feel a personal connection to it.” Indeed, Dundon found that young people in the interior were angry that whatever positive impact the Games had would be limited to the cities. “The Olympics can only affect a very small part China. The rest will be left behind,” another young rural Chinese told him.

It is telling that when recent polls have been done of Chinese satisfaction with their current life, the samples almost never include rural people.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 21, 2008 7:10 PM
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