Letter from China: A countryside jaunt to the reality of China

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
Howard W. French
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 8, 2006
SHANGHAI After years and years of runaway growth in its eastern cities, suddenly China is furiously talking up the idea of building a “new socialist countryside.” Putting money where his mouth is, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China stood before the National People’s Congress this week and pledged a 14 percent increase in spending on the rural world.
The clear aim is to boost the standard of living of farmers, whose miseries have in many ways subsidized the Chinese economic takeoff. Not incidentally, the initiative is also meant to ease a spreading wave of rural protests that could conceivably threaten stability.
Mention of any “new socialist countryside” begs the question of what became of the old socialist China countryside, and any examination of this subject should provoke deep suspicions – not of Beijing’s ability to carry out sweeping national campaigns, but rather of the results that its authoritarian centralism tends to produce.
I was brought to the question of the Chinese countryside partly by the letter of a reader who objected to a recent comparison of Shanghai and Osaka that favored the booming Chinese city over a Japanese counterpart that seems stuck in the mud. The reader’s challenge was as blunt as it was pertinent: a sharp reminder of the limits of what can be explained in a 1,000-word column. “Next time, try comparing a village in northern Japan to a village in northern China,” he wrote.
As it happens, I spent much of last week driving through a stretch of northern China. I will dispense with the Japan comparisons, because the contrasts are too stark to be useful. I’m still groping for other points of reference, though, because even after visiting scores of countries, very little that I have seen elsewhere reminds me of the tragedy of the Chinese countryside.
During a jaunt of several days through Hebei Province, which borders Beijing, I never once saw the sun in the sky. What I mean by this is that the air appeared thick as gruel, due to the heavy burden of particulates that come from coal mines, steel mills and other smokestack industries.
It is what I saw on the ground that gave me the greatest occasion to worry, though. Everyone knows about the miraculous Chinese economy. We are routinely invited to ooh and ah over the growth of its gross domestic product, its industrial prowess and the proliferation of skyscrapers in the big cities. But the predominant reality is less often seen. To a great extent, the rural world, where 60 percent of the people in China live, consists of blighted land, a development nightmare, a modern-day dust bowl for which one has trouble imagining any near-term fix.
Hebei is, in many ways, a perfect microcosm. Here one sees the scars of campaigns decided in Beijing past and present, starting with the Great Leap Forward, in which Mao Zedong decided that surpassing Britain as a steel producer was a matter of national urgency, and the countryside was cleared of trees to fuel hugely wasteful backyard furnaces that mostly produced junk.
The countryside I toured was unremittingly ugly, littered with derelict factories built in crash programs whose slogans have long been forgotten and eventually abandoned, left to rust with no effort at cleanup or land reclamation.
The rolling, mogul hills conceal a vast network of antiquated coal mines, where Chinese laborers are sent ever deeper into the earth in a quest for fuel to keep an extraordinarily wasteful economic machine humming. In mines like these, men die in numbers that would be treated as a national scandal elsewhere, or as Indian commentators have remarked, would bring down an elected government.
If you drive into those hills you may tour villages where the standard of living appears not to have changed for a generation. I sat in one typical home interviewing Liu Xianhong, a 32-year- old mother with AIDS, whose only source of warmth in the dead of winter was a small electric heater. A thick piece of cloth swung in the open doorway, the only barrier between inside and out. Liu never completed elementary school. She could not afford to.
There is another face to the problems of the Chinese countryside: the provincial capitals. I zipped from the lost world of the coal miners to Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei, on a recently built first-world expressway, and it was like entering Oz.
Hebei is among the grimmest of the eastern China provinces, but you would never guess it from the Potemkin prestige projects sprinkled about. These begin with the expressway itself, which unfurls in the mandatory cloverleaf style that planners seem to think proclaims prosperity.
Then came the monumentally broad avenue leading to downtown, with its glitzy new government buildings and a cluster of new high-rises with pretentious names.
Too often, infrastructure like this passes for development in China, and the fancier the better, from the standpoint of local officials who line their pockets in corrupt land dealings and erect buildings as monuments to their own egos.
I did not linger in Shijiazhuang. I did not see any reason to. The real China of the interior has far more to do with the life of Liu, as do the remedies to the problems of China.
Her husband was fired from the mine when it was learned that she, not he, had AIDS. Her relatives were beaten by the police for complaining about their situation. She was warned not to talk to outsiders.
“They said I should rely on the government to help solve things,” Liu said, unschooled, but ably intuiting one of the biggest problems in China. “I’ve relied on the government before, and that’s how I got into trouble.”
To his credit, Prime Minister Wen has begun to address some important issues, promising free education to peasants and abolishing stiff taxes on farmers. Unaddressed still is finding a way to give Chinese peasants a voice, to grant them a genuine say in the reinvention of their world.
Until that happens, much of China will remain a wasteland, and the economic miracle we all think we know will continue to be, in large part, a mirage.
E-mail: pagetwo@iht.com

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