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Date Posted: 12:00 27/02/2004

GDP blues

The cake gets bigger, but the shares get more uneven

IN ITS bumper book of fun and figures known as the Economic and Social Development Statistical Report, China's National Bureau of Statistics tells us today that the national per capita GDP rate broke through the US$ 1000 mark for the first time over 2003. Industries were growing rapidly, people were getting wealthier, and most things - just in time for the two showpiece political conferences in Beijing next week - seemed on the up.

Only a few days ago, we were reading a different set of statistics from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Despite constant economic growth, the urban-rural wage gap in China had somehow become the highest in the world, and the growing per capita GDP rate meant nothing when most of it could be accounted for by the swelling coffers of the hideous urban nouveaux riches, flashing chunks of banknotes at awestruck migrant workers in Shanghai's swankiest restaurants. The Academy's report was stark, and examined not only the net incomes of the rural poor but also the less tangible factors like education and basic social welfare.

Starker still, and subject to a great deal of attention in the western media as well as in the blogging community was the situation described in the best-selling Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha (The Investigation into the Chinese Peasantry), a bold and unprecedented expose of rural corruption and deprivation. The evidence uncovered by the authors would be shocking even if it provided only the sharp facts of life in the Anhui countryside, where peasants earn about 400 RMB a year and have to pay a quarter of that to the corrupt local county government. Once you add in the violence, the intimidation, and the murder, it is obvious why so many in the rural community in Anhui have chosen to try their luck in Shanghai.

In their foreword, the authors of the Investigation describe the ignorance about the countryside that prevails in China's booming cities. In the city, people remember that China's reform period began in the countryside in the 1970s, and that farmers were the first to take advantage of the new economic freedoms launched by Deng Xiaoping in 1977. However, once reform spread to the cities, nothing was known of the villages apart from the clear fact that more and more of their inhabitants were abandoning the land for the bright lights of Shanghai, Shenzhen or Beijing. Then, all one would hear in a city like Shanghai was prejudice and fear.

The authors say that when they first arrived in Anhui, they noticed an entire peasant family selling vegetables just to earn the 5 RMB to get them through the Spring Festival Celebrations, a situation - they state - even worse than in the Liberation period of 1949.

It would be far easier to believe that Anhui is an isolated case. During a trip to the Three Gorges region, Running Dog visited what was regarded as a model village, relocated from the submerged banks of the Yangtze to an area barely a hundred metres away. Clay huts had been replaced by concrete bunkers installed with cess pits capable of bringing gas and indoor heating to the village for the first time. With posters on his wall displaying the pantheon of revolutionary heroes beginning with Lenin and ending with Deng Xiaoping, one resident was anxious to let our government minders know that everything was much rosier under the Chinese Communist Party. Meanwhile, several villages away, a number of local people displaced by the growing Yangtze tide had been arrested on several cynical pretexts.

The new leadership have been keen to present themselves as a bastion of reform in a sea of corruption and backwardness, with Premier Wen Jiabao in particular setting himself up as a Man of the People and intervening personally in a case of unpaid wages in the Three Gorges region last year. While the government makes its (probably sincere) demands for less bureaucracy and corruption in China's remote countryside, Running Dog can only think of Franz Kafka's short story, The Great Wall of China: 'So vast is our land that no fable can do justice to its vastness, the heavens can scarcely span it - and Peking is only a dot in it, and the imperial palace less than a dot.'

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