Raising China

Xingbake (i.e., Startbucks)

Starbucks (i.e., Xingbake in China — heavenly/star; wish; subdue)

China is a country full of contradictions and a nation that I am trying to comprehend. I am doing this, in part, by spending close to eight months here and learning the language. This posting is about the disjuncture between the city and the countryside – therelentless expansion of cities and the government’s push to move those in the countryside into the city. Migration from rural areas to urban centres is happening at an exponential rate and scale compared, for instance, to that of the Industrial Revolution in Europe; millions of Chinese are currently pouring into the cities. Cities are growing dramatically and are not, unlike in past dynasties, being built to last, due to both rapidity and poor quality of construction.

Xingping, Countryside

Xingping, Countryside

Where rural life still exists it is clear that its pace is slower than that of the city (even though some villages are being developed by the government for tourism). One can see donkeys and pushcarts carrying goods as well as people hauling heavy loads of produce on their backs. In Guangxi Province farmers grow oranges, mandarins, pomelos, and kumquats, as well as bamboo, hot peppers, and every Chinese green imaginable. They also grow two crops of rice a year and osmanthus flowers for tea. They are still maintaining their agricultural traditions. In fact, millions of people are trying to hold onto their small acreage, that is typically worked by hand – not machine – despite the fact that farmers do not own their land (See: Farming in China Amid China’s Economic Transformation, Many Farmers Struggle by David Pierson, July 07, 2011, Los Angeles Times)

Razed and Raised

Razed and Raised

Meanwhile, cities are careening forward; after just three weeks away on travel in December, I could see that much had changed near my school in Kunming, where they are building part of the new subway line. Suddenly there is an entrance way and stairs leading down to the subway system where there had been ground to walk on before I went on my short sojourn. Roads have been re-routed and digging/excavation has already begun. Since I was last here in 2012, many areas have been razed and more still are in the process of being torn down, with new structures being built over the rubble. It seems the hope is that if they build it, they will come.

According to Ian Johnson’s June 15, 2013 article in the New York Times, “China’s Great Uprooting: Moving 250 Million Into Cities:”

The primary motivation for the urbanization push is to change China’s economic structure, with growth based on domestic demand for products instead of relying so much on export. In theory, new urbanites mean vast new opportunities for construction companies, public transportation, utilities and appliance makers, and a break from the cycle of farmers consuming only what they produce. “If half of China’s population starts consuming, growth is inevitable,” said Li Xiangyang, vice director of the Institute of World Economics and Politics, part of a government research institute. “Right now they are living in rural areas where they do not consume.”

Foreigners and Chinese alike tell me that the country is developing at an explosive rate. News articles on this topic abound and having visited Kunming twice in two years, I have seen for myself how true this is. In 2012 I spent a few days in the greater Lijiang area of Yunnan and stayed in Suhe, a UNESCO site just a few kilometres away from the old town of Lijiang. It was one of the first settlements of the Naxi people, was part of the silk road for tea trade, and dates back 1000 years (so I have read). A fellow Canadian who has set up a business there told me that in just a few years he has seen the town expand tremendously in the name of tourism – mostly funded by the government. It was clear to us that it is undergoing a dramatic changeand even if these “old towns” continue to be preserved, the surrounding area will eventually look like a large western suburban development, of sorts. During my second visit to Xingping, outside Yangshuo and Guilin in Guangxi province, I saw that this area too is being rapidly developed. I would not be surprised if in the next five years or so Yangshuo and Xingping will simply be extensions of each other.

The youth hostel, and hotel right next to it, where I stayed two years ago, have been obliterated and all that is left is rubble. The plan, apparently, is to build a large hotel on the spot. As of yet, according to those with whom I have spoken, plans and timelines have not been given. Here is a photo of what the area looked like then (photograph courtesy of www.china-discount-hotels.com):


Here are photos of what the area has looked like these past five months:

Razed and Raised

Razed and Raised

Razed and Raised

Razed and Raised

As Steve aptly noted in the last posting, Travels with Steve, Kunming is visibly undergoing gentrification. New buildings shoot up daily. People spend much of their free time shopping  – at smaller local shops and local Chinese chain stores geared toward young folk who can’t live without the next trendy, “disposable” clothing. Other stores court new money; one or two sales a day to sophisticated and discerning customers at Louis Vuitton or Givenchy or high-end Chinese clothing and accessory companies (such as Exception de Mixmind) can be all a business needs to pay its rent and salaries, and make a profit. These stores are extremely pricey and (to my eyes) seem to always be empty of paying shoppers. I’ve heard that the Chinese believe that sales devalue an exclusive brand. It appears that in this society that is eager to advance in the world and desires “things,” the few and far between high-status shoppers don’t worry about cost, even if luxury brands are two to three times the price of the same products in Europe.

In his June 29, 2011 BBC News article, “Inequality in China: Rural Poverty Persists as Urban Wealth Balloons,” Dr Damian Tobin (School of Oriental and African Studies) states:

The privatisation of state enterprises and the housing and social benefits that accompanied them, the re-zoning of rural land for industry, and a construction boom, created enormous possibilities for personal wealth.

The 2010 Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report noted that these forms of wealth, which accounted for much of the $9,600 in real assets per adult in China, were extremely important forms of wealth creation.

 But they also came at a cost.

Graph showing income in China

Looking only at the data for the whole country, however, conceals the growing disparity between urban and rural areas.

Even after three decades of rapid growth China remains a very rural economy.

Despite the continued growth in urbanisation, some 50.3% of China’s mainland population (or 674.15 million people) continue to live in rural areas.

In 2010, rural residents had an annual average per capita disposable income of 5,900 yuan ($898). That’s less than a third of the average per capita disposable income of urban residents, which stood at 19,100 yuan ($2,900).

I have read (somewhere…) that the Chinese government’s attempt at gentrification, aimed at transforming economically depressed areas, is sometimes doing the opposite and leaving many people unemployed and impoverished because it has not given the displaced population what was promised.  As the government funnels people from the countryside into the developing cities (the goal is to urbanize half of the population of 1.3 billion by 2020, and 70 percent by 2050  – source: http://www.pbs.org/pov/lasttrainhome/photo_gallery_background.php#.Utjx5vbOc7A), many urban communitiesare left stranded with little help or hope of recovery or improvement.

There is a significant gap between rich and poor in China. Based on a World Bank’s Inequality in Focus document, “The Challenge of High Inequality in China” by Terry Sicular, and the Chinese Gini co-efficient, income inequality “(ranging from zero, which represents perfect equality, to one, perfect inequality) rose from about 0.3 in the early 1980s to… a high of 0.49 in 2008… China is now among the least equal 25 percent of countries worldwide.”  Sicular goes on to show per capita household income data from 2002 to 2007 (source: the China Household Income Project [CHIP]). In 2002 the poorest 10% of the population earned 876RMB; in 2007 it grew to 1282 RMB. For the same time period the richest 10% earned 16,795RMB compared to 32,628RMB in 2007. For greater, more detailed, and interesting insight into China’s poverty/wealth discrepancy, do take the time to read this report.

Kunming Cityscape

Kunming Cityscape

In a more recent New York Times article Ian Johnson writes, ” ‘We’re talking hundreds of millions of people who are moving into these places, but the standard of living for these relocatees has actually dropped,’ said Lynette Ong, a University of Toronto political scientist who has studied the resettlement areas. ‘On top of that is the quality of the buildings — there was a lot of corruption, and they skimped on materials’ …For farmers who were asked to surrender their ancestral lands for an apartment, the deterioration adds to a sense of having been cheated.”

The difficult conditions for transplanted residents of “improved” urban centres are multifold. “Because these migrants work outside their registered area, the low wage rates conceal enormous personal sacrifices, which include long working hours, poor housing conditions, and, most significantly, a loss in welfare benefits associated with the household registration system known as Hukou.” (Tobin 2011)

Hukou, Hair Salon

Kunming Alley, Hair Salon

Girl Studying in her Mother's Shop

Kunming Alley, Girl Studying in her Mother’s Shop

Shoe Repair Shop

Kunming Alley, Shoe Repair Shop

The local baozi shop in the alleys behind my school closed down a few weeks ago. It was owned by two couples, each with a young child – two siblings with their respective spouses. We always spoke for a few minutes and I felt as if I was, in an honourary sort of way, a part of their community; they were always glad to see me. I do not know how long that shop had been in business or whether thethe owners were born in Kunming but I always wondered how they managed. Clearly it was difficult for them to eke out a living; they worked long hours, seven days a week. I wonder, too, how other similar shops stay afloat.


Kunming Inner City Block

In Kunming, as well as Beijing and other cities, there are three-to-five-storey apartment complexes that were built in the mid-twentieth century, housed inside large city blocks and arranged around communal (often treed) courtyards. These houses had (and still have) a variety of public and private areas for different activities. I have wandered some of these areas during my stay in Kunming.

Hukou with Chinese Card Game in the Background

Alleyway with Chinese Card Game in the Background

It is clear that many of the residents use this outside space as part of their homes, where they cook, wash, eat, and spend time  with neighbours. These areas appear to play an important role in people’s personal and social lives. These complexes and community courtyards are hidden treasures; little worlds unto themselves, often with schools and always with restaurants, hair salons, bakeries, fruit stores, etc. They reveal the way people really live, but slowly (not so slowly, really), in Kunming and elsewhere, these inner city blocks (as well as the remaining older alleyway housing) are being destroyed as the population grows and the city expands and modernizes.

Kunmimg Alley

Kunming Alley

As I wander the back streets and the city, I see that there are fewer and fewer of the 100+ year-old houses left in the alleys. They are all  being torn down. It is just a matter of time until the Kunming of ten or twenty years ago will no longer be recognizable; it is a city with its eyes fixed on the future. At the moment, Kunming is in the process of constructing a world trade centre. (more links: http://en.kunming.cn/index/content/2013-12/18/content_3462726.htm; http://en.kunming.cn/index/content/2013-09/09/content_3395448.htm; http://en.kunming.cn/index/content/2014-01/07/content_3476973.htm)

Does urban expansion and the increased availability of consumer goods truly offer a better quality of life to those living in the city? The transformation of China’s cities certainly cannot be driven solely by the government and developers. The Chinese aspire toward some sort of prosperity – and why shouldn’t they? It is clear that there is a growing upper class in China. The government is attempting to build better cities and there is, to a certain extent, a higher standard of living as high-rises (including many luxury complexes) continue to appear. But at what cost this endless development? As Maura Elizabeth Cunningham (May 20, 2013) ,in Dissent, writes in her article “The Costs of China’s Mega-Cities“,

China’s impressive, and speedy, drive toward urbanization has routinely relied on violence and exploitation to achieve results. Some of that violence is visible: urban residents often find their homes marked for demolition, sacrificed by the government to lucrative construction projects. In other instances, less visible structural violence and exploitation take their toll on migrant workers, who move to cities in search of higher wages and opportunities unavailable in their rural hometowns, but do not enjoy the full benefits of urban residence because they lack a local hukou, or household registration, in the cities where they live. (An urban hukou brings with it an assortment of social services, such as access to health care and education; without it, workers are forced to rely on often substandard clinics and schools that serve migrant communities.) People fight back—urbanites have routinely protested the destruction of their homes and neighborhoods, for example—but in the end, the government almost inevitably prevails, and the cities continue to grow.

Game of Majiang

Game of Majiang

Yet, the generation of people whose parents and grandparents lived through the Cultural Revolution are being better educated in a growing new China with connection to the rest of the world through technology, and the opportunities of travel. China is now a more open country and it continues to strive to be a first world nation as it embraces modern life and industry. Urban China is mostly confident in its modernity although one still sees, (I’m glad to say) an older way of life on city streets. The vibrant alleyways of Kunming (or Beijing for that matter)  function at a leisurely pace; people work hard but move unhurriedly, still transport their goods on foot or bicycle, and take time for a game of Chinese chess or majiang.

As a “waigouren” or “laowei” (i.e., a foreigner) and a Westerner, however, I worry about the pace at which China is changing. The seemingly never-ending development continues and includes not only expansion of existing cities but the creation of new ones in areas that are currently farmland. Having met a number of people in my two visits to this country, and spent some time in the countryside as well as the urban back-alley complexes, I find there is still a sense of traditional life that co-exists with the flurry of progress. The younger friends I have made here and my young teachers are interested in analyzing their society and having discussions with me about my impressions of the country. This makes me hopeful that young, educated, people will have long-term views and be able to help temper the overwhelming pace of change in the urban infrastructure, protect villages, and make a positive change, overall, as the Chinese nation grows. 

Kunming at Night

Kunming at Night

Kunming, Alley (Catching up on the Latest News)

Kunming, Alley (Catching up on the Local News)

China’s ongoing plan is to stimulate the economy and help relieve rural poverty by boosting domestic consumption and economic/social growth. Time will tell whether this strategy will succeed. In the meantime, the BBC documentary (filmed over six years), “The Fastest Changing Place on Earth” follows the remote Sichuan farming community of White Horse Village as its residents are wooed by the local government intermediary and sent into furor and disruption as a large metropolitan area literally encircles them over time. It is about conflict, compromise, and concession and above all, change.

6 thoughts on “Raising China

    1. sbandtg Post author

      as i did the research i was quite amazed by all the information i found. it was a difficult task cutting back and i could have taken various angles and made it longer. but it shall stay as a piece on this blog. watch the film, too. it says it all, actually.

  1. alan.scheer@utoronto.ca

    Hi Tamar, haven’t read your latest blog but plan to read it this week. Two books come to mind thatvi thought you might want to add to your CpL list for when you return. Evan Osnos is the current china correspondent for the nyer,he just had a new article last week and in may heis coming out with a new book on the new china. Might be up your alley. Also peter hessler who was the old corresp. Has several books on china. I justvput a hold on his latest one. You would havecread manynof his articles over thevyears. He’s the one who wrote about rat rstaurants.


    Alan Quoting Tamar Granovsky | Wanderings Afar and Near

    1. sbandtg Post author

      i have recall reading a few articles by hessler over the years and did not know there is a new correspondent. i’ll have to check out the books by each of them. thank you

  2. Martin

    Hi Tamar

    With great interest I read your very well written account on the changes in China that go on with such tremendous momentum. There are striking similarities to the industrial revolution in Europe long ago, just like you mentioned. Once this process has been set going, it appears to propel itself forward ever faster, for a time at least. Over time, I suppose, some sort of a saturation will take place, with the disappearance of the low wage masses that are now still driving the factories for the world. Eventually, just like in the west, rural areas will be less populated, and yet be more productive in growing food. Just look at those huge, industrial-style farms in the US and, increasingly, in Europe. The population will still need to be fed, and, even by growing richer as a nation, it would be very difficult to import too great a part of food.
    Such a transisions never went without disruption and hardships for a large part of the population, not anywhere. However, I think there never was such a large number of people involved in such a shift, and neither was such a transition pushed ahead so fast and in a determined way central political power.
    Another example of a place where a similar development was started over 30 years ago is Singapore, where I am now staying once again. As in China, this move was driven by a fairly authoritarian political regime, in a very farsighted way. Incidentally, the vast majority of the population is ethnic Chinese. The interesting difference is, of course, the size. Population density per area is much higher than in China, but the area is small and manageable. As a consequence of the small land area any thought of providing food by domestic production was ruled out from the start of the push for modernization, simply because there simply wasn’t going to be room for it. So, Singapore aimed at high tech industry and services, and took advantage of being a key port on the main trading routes. All in all Singapore has become a very livable city state, with high density housing that leaves room for extended green corridors and parks.
    It will be interesting to watch the way China moves on, and one can only wish that there won’t be any major distruptions which would have reverberations throughout the now globalized world, simply because of the sheer size of the population and area involved.

    1. sbandtg Post author

      your comment is an interesting one, martin. i had not thought of singapore – but you are correct about this and they did a marvellous job. one can only hope that the chinese government (and developers), with such a vast job still ahead of them, can think far ahead and of multiple consequences so that they, too, can move their country forward in a way that will serve their people and the world well.


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