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January 2006

In China, the economy is rising, skyscrapers are rising, and the population is rising (albeit slower than before).  The country is optimistic. Much of the rhetoric recently is about how rapidly the country’s economy is growing, pushing China with its newly moneyed 1.3 billion people to the forefront of world politics.

In Dalian, the thriving economy is evident in the exuberant consumerism.  Giant advertising billboards are everywhere, and my students often list shopping as one of their main hobbies. Malls rise six stories into the air and descend at least two stories underground.  The underpasses are retail outlets first and walkways second.  MP3 players are ubiquitous, and absolutely everyone has a cell phone (or perhaps three because why are the cell phone shops always packed?)

This economic growth manifests itself in Dalian on a larger level through the omnipresent and rapid construction of new buildings.  But in the early winter darkness, a different story unfolds along the Dalian skyline: many buildings stand empty or sparsely inhabited, as evidenced by the few windows that are illuminated at night.  Several prominent downtown skyscrapers even stand unfinished because the money dried up before completion.

Now, I know next to nothing about economics.  But if Dalian is anything to go by, China’s rapid economic growth just doesn’t seem sustainable to me.  As Zac and I have traversed the city, we have discovered that while parts of the city are growing, other parts are crumbling and neglected.  Perhaps nothing serves as a better symbol of this than Dalian’s innumerable gaudy fountains that are now defunct and waterless.  We have also come across a half-built and now-abandoned stadium, taking up prime real-estate in the downtown area.  And of course, there are the never-been-used, empty buildings everywhere.

I told my adult students once that I was worried about the economy in Dalian because there were so many empty buildings, giving sections of the city a ghost town aura.  “Don’t worry!” they assured me. “Most of the investment comes from outside so it is only foreigners losing money, not us.” The city, and arguably all of China, lures investment that is unsustainable.  They said that the city mayors will try to get a lot of investment and build many tall buildings in order to make their city look good.  If the mayor is successful, he can then get a promotion to a higher governmental position.  There seems to be a façade of success and wealth that often accompanies the “new money” mentality.  The idea is to look good above all else, but there is often little substance to back it up.

Another thing my students revealed is that throughout China, many factories are being moved from the cities into the countryside in order to improve the cities.  Apparently Dalian used to have many factories and was more polluted, but now all the factories have been relocated.  Indeed, parts of Dalian still harbor many of these abandoned, old factory buildings, which will undoubtedly soon be razed and replaced by more luxury apartments, mega-malls, and more empty skyscrapers.

The relocation of the factories is all well and good for the cities, but now the Chinese countryside, which is already impoverished and lacks the resources of the city, must bear the burden of the pollution from the factories.  The pollution brought to the country by these factories not only affects the health of the villagers, but it also decreases the crop yield which affects the farmers’ livelihoods, not to mention polluting the country’s food and water supply. 

Furthermore, the villagers are often inadequately compensated for their land which is seized in the name of development.  The New York Times reports that there are many riots against these governmental land grabs as “a part of a rising tide of discontent in China, with the number of mass protests like these skyrocketing to 74,000 incidents last year from about 10,000 a decade earlier, according to government figures.”

This rising tide of discontent is understandable.  While China’s economy grows, not all Chinese people reap the benefits.  The conditions of China’s rural populations have, by some accounts, worsened or remained the same instead of improved.  The market reforms that enabled economic growth also decreased universal healthcare.  Residence permits prevent rural migrants from coming to the cities where all the growth and development is occurring.  Education in the cities is far better than in the rural areas, leaving rural children unable to compete with their urban counterparts.  As China rises, the rifts between rich and poor, urban and rural, also rise at an alarming rate.

“Everyone was poor” before the country opened around 1980, according to my students.  But now, they are extremely sensitive about their image as a poor country.  Some of my adult students asked me if people in western countries think China is poor.  “No,” I said, “I think most people believe China is rich because we hear a lot of news about the great economy.”  One woman then told me she had a western teacher a few years ago that made some comment about how poor China was, and even as she was telling the story she became angry at the memory of such an insult.  But who is really being insulted?  To say “China is rich” is to deny the existence of the millions here who still struggle with poverty and abject living conditions.  China is indeed rising, but many of its citizens are being left behind.

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