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Date Posted: 10:34 09/04/2004

The Well-Off Society

Some peasants are doing better than others, but are there enough?

Jiangsu's Toy Town: Huaxi Village

FLAKY URBANITES though we are, Running Dog has spent much of the last week in the neighbouring province of Jiangsu, where a number of local governments sought to convince us that life in China's countryside wasn't nearly as bad as it was often made out to be. And so, taking a coach through a number of prosperous villages in the south of the province, we soon became convinced of at least one thing: rapid economic development certainly benefits some people.

High speed roads cut through fields of luminous yellow rapeseed, with the occasional pylon or telegraph pole poking out. Cranes swung on their axis, and the flat rural landscape would suddenly present a huge complex of buildings, painted salmon-pink, or a power station billowing smoke in the middle distance. This, in the Chinese spring, under the pristine blue sky, was actually quite beautiful.

We are of course accompanied all the way by members of the various Foreign Affairs Bureaus whose territory we have entered. As soon as we are about to cross the border into another jurisdiction, one set falls away, and is replaced by another. We are, on each occasion, escorted along bumpy dirt roads lined with deep green trees, and driven into a number of 'model villages', where local residents are earning enough money to build hotels, relocate to swanky villas, and erect elaborate stone sculptures of farm animals. It would be easy to believe that the scenes are somehow fake, that we are being fooled in the same way that George Bernard Shaw and the Webbs were fooled during their visit to the Soviet Union. However, Running Dog prefers to believe that even in the gloom of the Chinese countryside, there are glimmers of light.

When the American journalist Edgar Snow visited Chairman Mao in the early 1960s, he saw nothing of the famines that prevailed at that point in the Chinese countryside. When Jean Paul Sartre took a trip to the Soviet Union in the 1950s he claimed that there was no evidence to show that the gulags existed. In the efforts to avoid being remembered as the new Edgar Snow, many are tempted always to read the worst into China's economic development, and to imagine that the vast mass of the population are being driven even further into the ground in order to allow the small minority of bureaucrats and entrepreneurs to get rich.

Economic growth, from Lagos to Lahore and from Bogota to Beijing, is always patchy. Some areas thrive and some areas don't. Some peasants in the south of Jiangsu drip with jewellery, are building high-rises where there used to be just squares of earth, are thanking the Heavens for Deng Xiaoping and 'the opening up and reform' period that he helped to initiate. Some, however, are leading desperate lives.

The economist JK Galbraith used to talk about the 'constituency of contentment', the minority of people a government needs to satisfy in order to retain power. In the UK in the 1980s, they were in the flourishing southeast, and the decay and devastation in the country's northern industrial heartlands meant nothing. Once that constituency was eroded by falling house prices and the phenomenon of 'negative equity', regime change was required. In China, the balance of pressure between the boomtowns and the slums is hard to calculate. There are certainly millions with an interest in maintaining the status quo, but the numbers might not be enough. Pure self-interest propels the government in its efforts to spread the wealth across the provinces. That's what the well-off society is all about.

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