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Date Posted: 23:27 11/10/2005

1.3 billion little problems

The total perspective vortex, Chinese style

DURING THE Cold War, a popular urban myth claimed that if the entire population of China was ordered (presumably by Chairman Mao) to simultaneously jump up and down, the earth would somehow be thrown off its axis. This was, and is, nonsense: any changes in mass brought about during the upward trajectory of a billion people would be cancelled out as soon as they hit the ground. Nevertheless, despite the junk science, the myth managed to give voice to most of the major fears held by the West about the Chinese hordes and their inscrutable ways. In those days, it was a vast population supposedly brainwashed to behave as one, a singularity of self-sacrifice and fanaticism centring on the iconography of Mao and the disciplinary mechanisms of the Communist Party. Naturally, it was all far more complicated than that, and even when the era of mass mobilization was at its most febrile, the variousness of humanity was still stubbornly evident. China, like anywhere else, was never entirely at one with itself.

Still, China does indeed have a lot of people. Bewildered by the sheer force of numbers, and by the thousands and thousands who live in each tightly-packed towerblock in a tightly-packed row of towerblocks in a cluster of cities and conurbations packed with more tightly-packed towerblocks, Running Dog thinks of Douglas Adams' Total Perspective Vortex, which, by showing its victim the immeasurable vastness of the cosmos marked with a sign saying 'You are here,' demonstrates that the one thing sentient life cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.

The Cold War ended sixteen years ago, but the Chinese masses are still looked upon with awe. Neighbouring Russia or Mongolia or Kazakstan still imagine that China might one day split at the seams and flood inexorably through their fragile borders, consuming everything in their wake. The Chinese ambassador to Moscow is routinely required to reassure local hacks that China has no covert plans to assimilate Siberia for the purposes of lebensraum.

Shanghai itself has more people than the Czech Republic, and the only reason why its streets are still generally navigable is because at any one moment, half of the city's population is actually in the People's Square metro station waiting for the bloody train. Meanwhile, the provinces of Henan and Sichuan each have populations in excess of Germany. You only need to look at a number of recent news stories to realize what sort of scale we are talking about. State news agency Xinhua reveals, for example, that 26 Chinese million people have been diagnosed with depression, which is more than the entire population of Australia. This week, it was also revealed that by 2030, a few generations of only children would be obliged to support 400 million retired relatives, the equivalent of more than two Brazils. Meanwhile, according to figures released by the Ministry of Civil Affairs in September, there are as many as 300 million Chinese people affected by natural disasters every year, more than the whole of the United States.

Many of China's natural disasters also show the sort of scale at which China operates. The sudden breach of a dam in Zhumadian in Henan Province almost exactly thirty years ago left 26,000 dead. A massive typhoon-induced storm had swept along the upper reaches of the Huai River in little more than a day and ruined 5.96 million homes.
Even worse was the Tangshan Earthquake in 1976. The official death toll was around a quarter of a million, with some people estimating the figure to be as much as three times higher than that.

And far worse than that were the devastating famines wrought by the Great Leap Forward, with casualties ranging from 20-60 million, and which the National Bureau of Statistics, in an analysis of China's population trends since the triumph of the Communist Party, described – somewhat euphemistically - as 'the period of negative population growth'.

All this, of course, has serious implications for China's efforts to build what the authorities were calling, only a year or so ago, the 'well-off society'. The fact that by now the government's ambitions are instead being embodied by the catchphrase, 'the harmonious society', reflects some of the colossal difficulties that arise from the need to improve the living standards of several hundred million rural people.

As the former mayor of Shanghai, Xu Kuangdi, said earlier this year, many of China's problems are small ones, but then you have to multiply those small problems by 1.3 billion to get a realistic impression of the challenges that lay ahead.

With the government committed to boosting urbanization rates to 60% of the total within 20 years, they have to find the city space for at least 300 million people, and although China's levels of pollution are already close to intolerable in certain industrial cities, they need to continue building power plants and factories and transport infrastructure in order to support the aspirations of the poor.

All this tends to be used as an excuse. Low water quality? That's because of the population. Resource depletion? Too many people. Poverty? Yep, you've guessed it. Running Dog has even heard otherwise rational people arguing that China's large population makes it necessary to maintain the death penalty. Capital punishment may be advocated on various grounds, but not surely as a cull.

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