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Date Posted: 21:50 11/01/2005

The poverty of debate

The growing income gap preoccupies foreign and domestic media.

WHILE CERTAIN wide-eyed foreign hacks continue to rave wildly about the glorious achievements of Shanghai-style capitalism, most domestic and foreign observers seem to have reached something of a consensus this week. In all the surveys of Chinese economic trends to appear both in China and in the overseas media, it is the growing rural-urban gap that has been given the most attention. A recent Gallup poll, an op-ed in the New York Times and a number of articles by local experts have been drawing attention to the despair and squalour and desperation of the Chinese countryside, as well as the glaring contrasts with the scintillating metropolises of the eastern coast. They know, we know, and the Chinese government knows. The question is: what can be done about it?

The Gallup poll, according to a report published on Monday by the Associated Press, consists of interviews with almost 4,000 people, and found that while incomes in urban areas have grown by about 75% since 1997, there were growing disparities with the countryside, and these were leading to 'tensions'.

That much we know, but the New York Times - which has excelled itself in a recent series of articles on China's countryside - goes further, taking particular issue with Hu Jintao's preoccupation with consolidating power. 'The test for Hu is not whether he can steer the new China into an ever-more powerful position in the world marketplace,' says the editorial. 'It is to deal wisely with the deepening chasm between rich and poor in his own country.'

Even the anodyne English-language rag, China Daily gets into the act with a report on the growing income divide in the capital city, Beijing. The opinion piece says that, 'While China continues to amaze the outside world with its stories of rapid growth, the country's Gini Co-efficient a standard measure of income inequality has been gaining altitude at a speed similarly shocking.' It says that growing inequalities 'should not be tolerated'.

China is committed to building what it calls the 'Comprehensive Well-Off Society', which requires the quadrupling of 2000 GDP levels by 2020. There has been a growing sense of urgency in government circles in recent years, but the pattern has generally been the same. The 'Develop the West' Campaign, launched in 2000 with the aim of shifting the oil, gas and mineral resources from the interior to the dynamic eastern coast, began with the usual pieties about 'mutual benefits' and 'double win situations', but quickly degenerated into yet another way for powerful economic interests to further enrich themselves at the expense of the rural poor. The authorities will be eager to learn from their mistakes in a similar campaign launched in 2003 to 'rejuvenate' the decaying, subsiding northeastern rustbelts.

With protests and acts of spontaneous violence said to be on the rise throughout China, the challenges cannot be underestimated. The government, as always, is trying to maintain control over a maelstrom of centrifugal forces. Traditionally, a government will seek to appease its power base, and use its monopoly of force to keep the rest of society in line. Time will tell if such an approach is enough.

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