Monday, April 18, 2005

The City vs The Country: China Divide

The Empty Village - What about the 750 million Chinese who aren't getting rich? By Henry Blodget

After a few days in Shanghai, it is easy to think that China has already become the world's leading economic superpower. This illusion is not dispelled in Beijing. When I lug my bags from the train station to the Grand Hyatt, I walk right by the Lamborghini dealer.

Of course, as many observers have noted, China is two countries, urban and rural, and they are as different as Los Angeles and Appalachia. The Appalachian part would have remained theoretical for me, but one morning I was invited to ride shotgun in a dusty Jeep Cherokee with Tim Clissold, the author of Mr. China, for a drive to the north.

Statistics in China are easy to come by and hard to have faith in. But here goes: About 750 million Chinese are farmers, and about 85 million make less than $75 a year. The average rural per-capita income in Sichuan province in 2002 was $253, less than the fees required to attend a local middle school. Rural incomes have almost doubled since the mid-1990s, but taxes have jumped four to five times. (To register to get married, for example, you have to pay 14 taxes.)

Of course, poverty alone doesn't lead to social unrest, which many people cite as one of the biggest threats to the Chinese economic miracle (the others being overinvestment and a fistfight with Taiwan). To trigger the class riots that frequently occur in China these days, you also need a sense of unfairness. There is plenty of that, stemming from corruption, limited opportunities, and income inequality. Experts disagree about exactly how China's rural/urban income gap compares with that of other countries, but the dispute is confined to whether it is the most extreme in the world or merely extreme. In an extraordinary series in the New York Times, Joseph Kahn told the story of Zheng Qingming, a brilliant farmer boy who aced his high-school admission test but couldn't scratch together the $80 necessary to take the college entrance exam—and solved the problem by stepping in front of an express train. In China, Inc., Ted Fishman described a villager, who, after demanding that the spending of local authorities be publicly audited, was taken into custody and beaten to death.

Clissold and I drove until the city's superhighways narrowed to single-lane strips and brown mountains appeared. Then, after winding through a dusty town near the Ming Tombs, we parked near a cluster of stuccoed brick buildings and walked. . . . .

{see rest of this article over at Slate in the link above}


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