x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The Chinese juggernaut rolls on – right over the top of some citizens

Spend time in any of China's big cities and it is easy to spot the winners and the losers from the country's dizzying economic ascent. Daniel Bardsley reflects on two and a half years' reporting from China

A street beggar eats food outside a Beijing restaurant while a couple dines inside. The disparities between the haves and the have-nots are evident in countless ways in China.
A street beggar eats food outside a Beijing restaurant while a couple dines inside. The disparities between the haves and the have-nots are evident in countless ways in China.

BEIJING // Spend time in any of China's big cities and it is easy to spot the winners and the losers from the country's dizzying economic ascent.

Last weekend in Beijing, I saw a member of the country's nouveau riche driving, or perhaps being chauffeured, through the centre of the capital in a US$300,000 (Dh1.1 million) metallic-brown Bentley Mulsanne.

Just a few minutes earlier, I had crossed a pedestrian overpass where a man without arms and with horrific burns covering his upper body, including his face, was begging.

The disparities between the haves and the have-nots are evident in countless other ways.

Young, educated Chinese in the capital spend their evenings chatting in Starbucks, at the same time as migrant workers hawk vegetables on the street outside before going home to dilapidated courtyard houses.

In the metropolises, there is the wealthy elite that has studied or lived abroad while, in smaller cities just a couple of hours by train from Beijing or Shanghai, residents are surprised simply to see anyone from overseas.

It can seem as though disparate sets of people, from varying backgrounds and different eras, have somehow ended up in the same place at the same time. And that's even before you consider the differences between the developed east and the less-wealthy west of China.

There are myriad other contradictions in a country that has lurched into the modern era with unprecedented speed.

China is often described as a collective society but as traditional family structures break down, the safety net for those in need remains inadequate. It continues to brand itself as "socialist", yet workers are often ruthlessly exploited.

The country's people can display a fierce nationalism, evident during recent anti-Japan protests, but such is their lack of confidence in their own country that many are eager to study abroad, emigrate, secure a foreign passport or transfer wealth overseas.

After two-and-a-half years as a correspondent in China for The National, I am leaving this month because of another of the growing pains linked to the country's breathless development - the terrible air quality. As I write this, the US embassy's air quality index for Beijing is classed as "hazardous".

The environmental damage - from poisoned rivers to polluted soil and air - and the destruction of traditional neighbourhoods to create an identikit set of dreary, anonymous cities, also suggest economic growth has been put ahead of quality of life.

People are becoming richer - and hundreds of millions are said to have been dragged out of poverty - but how much happier are they?

Comparisons can easily be drawn between present-day China and turbulent periods in the history of developed nations.

In his classic novel, The Jungle, Upton Sinclair depicts Chicago in the early 1900s as a place blighted by pollution, where the food is adulterated, migrants toil for long hours before returning home to poor conditions, and the local authorities are corrupt. The parallels with China are uncanny.

Yet, for all this, it is impossible to live in the country and find it anything other than fascinating.

A vast population, coupled with the fast-paced change that has transformed the country's east in the three decades since economic reforms began, creates an extraordinary sense of energy and purpose.

Almost every town or city has dozens of tower blocks under construction, underground transit systems that are in permanent states of expansion, and new shopping centres that are springing up to cater to the ever-growing ranks of spendthrift consumers.

The people themselves show a restlessness that matches that of the nation, with young graduates typically changing their jobs every few months and hordes of migrants arriving in the cities each year.

Countless tens of millions live in a permanent state of flux, part of a huge endeavour to transform their own fortunes while the country as a whole is remade.

Despite regular predictions to the contrary, there are few signs of imminent collapse.

Growth - essential if the Communist Party is to retain legitimacy - has slowed but it remains the envy of many other parts of the world.

The much-vaunted social stability seems unlikely to come under serious threat while the people continue to become wealthier.

Expectations among the public are bound to grow, but China's Communist Party, unlike its counterparts elsewhere, knows how to deliver what is required to retain the public's support, or at least their grudging acceptance. And it also holds the levers of a vast internal security apparatus.

So the Chinese juggernaut looks set to roll on - and perhaps in future those left behind, like the disabled man on the overpass, might get a share of the spoils.

dbardsley@thenational.ae