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Date Posted: 14:34 04/01/2004

China has too many people shock

..and they all seem to visit supermarkets at the same time as Running Dog

WHENEVER YOU ask a question about anything that goes on in China – its crushing poverty, the constant threat of rebellion, the damage inflicted upon the environment, the profligate use of capital punishment, or the issue of human rights – the answer you get is invariably the same. 'What can you do? China has too many people.'

'Implement birth control. Promote economic development.'
From Stefan Landsberger's Chinese Propaganda Poster Pages.

There is no answer to that. There are, unquestionably, too many people, and the sheer volume becomes far more obvious during national holidays, when almost the whole nation prepares to travel from one place to another. On Sunday, as this year's Spring Festival approached, more than 270,000 people were said to have left Beijing by train, and similar figures were registered in Shanghai and Guangzhou. That's the equivalent of the entire population of Manchester traveling to Paris, Oslo or Prague in the space of one short day.

Sometimes, it seems as if the whole country teeters on the brink of catastrophe. Disastrous human pile-ups frequently take place at the Hindu shrines of India, but in China - appropriately, given the current realities - they are more likely to happen in shopping centres. At the weekend, Shanghai Eye was stuck in one of the city's most well-known malls, trapped in the middle of a seething mass of shoppers, everyone of us bunched up together at the bottom of an escalator and – for at least several seconds – completely unable to move. Behind us, there were legions more, pushing and prodding from behind, and had the crowd not suddenly eased and dispersed, a stampede seemed inevitable. You actually hear stories now and again, usually in discos or supermarkets or schools in some of the hastily-developed new cities of Guangdong Province, when crowds become dangerous weapons, and the fragile balance is suddenly overturned, causing dozens to be trampled to death.

The figures in China are well-known, but no less awe-inspiring. There are, according to estimates, approaching 1.3 billion people spread over an area of 9.6 million sq km. There is just 1.3 million sq km of cultivable land, producing a per capita level far lower than the world average. There are about 20 million people in the city of Shanghai alone, all of whom seem either to drive a car or hope to do so soon. You see Westerners edging through the throng, narked and exasperated, wondering why so many people are pushing into them or touching them. The same Westerners travel on public transport and wonder why the complete stranger sitting next to them suddenly decides to rest his or her head on their shoulders. I need personal space, you hear them say, unaware that in Shanghai, there simply is none.

At the end of the Second World War, there were 541 million people in China. The population density has risen from 57 people per square kilometre in 1949 to 132 in 2000.

Mao Zedong sought to encourage people to reproduce, believing that China's strength could be derived principally from the force of numbers. What followed was an inexorable rise, with the exception of the 1960-2 period, when nationwide famine led to the death of perhaps 30 million people. Even during the turbulent Cultural Revolution period, it continued to increase rapidly.

It became clear that the nation could not support such huge numbers. The embryonic 'One Child Policy' first emerged in 1973 under the slogan, 'Later, Longer, Fewer'. Without the policy, formally introduced in 1979, it is estimated that the population would have already reached about 1.6 billion. The fertility rate had, however, already started to decline after a peak of 6.45 in 1968. By the time the policy was being enforced in 1979, the rate had fallen to 2.75.

What all this means, of course, is that everything in China is on a much bigger scale. When the government says it wants to boost the urbanization rate from 35% to 60% in 20 years, they are talking about providing urban space for more than 300 million people. When you hear figures saying that 10% of the population are still living in poverty, that amounts to 130 million. And considering that China is already responsible for 18% of global carbon dioxide emissions even though the per capita rate is a fraction of the United States, the idea of creating the 'well-off society' and quadrupling GDP within 20 years seems terrifying.

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