The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Where have all the people gone'

Now that China has become a right-wing dictatorship indistinguishable from Pinochet’s Chile, it was a pleasure to chat in Beijing with a Chinese academic whose idiom at least sounds as if he might actually be a communist. Prof Huang Ping is deputy director at the Institute of Sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. We have worked together earlier on the social dimensions of globalization under the auspices of the International Labour Organization and so he brings me a copy of his institute’s latest publication, “China Reflected”, which concerns itself with that China which falls outside the in-your-face development which so sets Beijing apart from the Third World.

For Beijing is a stunner. This is my fourth visit in twenty years but really the first time I have been here as a tourist with nothing else on my mind but taking in the sights. As a left-behind Indian, I used to comfort myself on earlier visits with the thought that what was on display in official Beijing was a show-case China far removed from the larger reality of the country. But after criss-crossing the city several times these last few days, I have to concede that I fall in the trap of those Indians who let pride in themselves turn to prejudice against those who have done better. For Beijing already is where New Delhi might be at the end of the 22nd century — if then! Ten-lane highways through the city, fly-overs everywhere, palaces in steel and glass, high-rise apartment blocks, shopping malls, hotels and restaurants of every description, greenery all around, bright lights through the night, no encroachments, no broken pavements, no hawkers, not one ill-dressed person, not one hobo asleep on a park-bench, not one drunk lolling against a lamp-post, everything spic and span, not a spot of dirt, no litter at all — but where are the people'

After all, there are close to one and a half billion Chinese compared to a mere billion of us. And the guide-books say Beijing’s population is 14 million — comparable to Delhi or Chennai or Calcutta. Then, where are the people' I cannot get over the acres and acres of expressways, miles upon miles of the most elegant tree-lined boulevards, the most beautifully tended parks and lawns and gardens, even full buses — but the pavements and street-corners as deserted as in a small Swiss town. Yes, they did come out in respectable numbers at expatriate entertainment centres like Hou Hai and in Tiananmen Square on Sunday afternoon. But even London’s Trafalgar Square or the Place de la Concorde in Paris, let alone our Flora Fountain or Chandni Chowk or Chowringhee, is far, far fuller of people than almost anywhere a visitor to Beijing is likely to go. And, if there are crowds of Chinese to be seen in the Forbidden City and on the Great Wall, they are not Pekinois but out-of-town tourists gawking at the capital they have been taught about in provincial colleges and village schools.

It turns out the reason why people cannot be seen overflowing the pavements and sleeping on the sidewalks of Beijing, or find beggars jostling with the better-heeled, or unemployed hordes in search of golden opportunity, or even the usual hustlers and lay-abouts, is that they are simply not allowed in where they could obstruct the view. No Chinese can live in Beijing without a job. With residence permits come housing — minimal but adequate to be kept out of sight. Moreover, the tight work schedule tends to keep everyone bottled up in factories or offices and with little time to go gadding about after dark. In any case, loitering around is frowned upon. So if you have no business to be along the elegant boulevards of Beijing, you cannot just hang around there. The police will see to that.

I tried to get to where ordinary folk live. They took me to a few “hutongs” — quaint left-over shanty towns from the Qing dynasty (1644-1912!) The Chinese Man Friday at the embassy looked thoroughly alarmed at the idea of my wandering off on my own down darkened alleyways. The embassy driver said he did not know his way there and back to where the immigrant worker lived. Chinese taxi drivers speak no English and, apparently, no English-speaker has asked to see the seamier side of the paradise that is Beijing. So, where millions of our Dick Whittingtons descend on our cities every day, in China they are shut out. For any Chinese who does not have employment there, Beijing is the Forbidden City.

So, said Huang Ping, there are layers and layers of the Chinese reality. There is the undeniable reality of Beijing putting to the shade virtually any European capital and all but the very top US cities. That Beijing is not a facade. It is as much a reality as my eyes or my nose are the reality of my face. At the same time, there are other equally palpable realities: such as the reality of close to 200 million Chinese who belong nowhere, for they have sold their small stake in the Good Earth to fend for their families in the city but have either failed to find employment or, more likely, been sacked from their last job for no fault of their own. “We first render them landless, then jobless, then homeless, then hopeless,” is how Huang Ping puts it. There are, besides, some 800 million Chinese in rural China, better off somewhat than their Indian counterparts but not spectacularly so as is the central Beijing resident compared to his Mumbaiwallah Indian cousin.

China is not ignoring this seven-eighths of its population. Indeed, gigantic projects are underway such as the Western Highway tonguing its way into the remotest parts of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. Also, China has emerged as the single largest borrower of Asian Development Bank funds almost exclusively for rural and agricultural development. Moreover, China, like India, is wholly self–sufficient in food. But there are no subsidies for water, fertilizer or electricity; there is no minimum support price for agricultural produce; there is no assured government procurement; there is no equivalent of our public distribution system. So real agricultural incomes move up at snail’s pace or even drop, as rural China is squeezed to supply the surplus for urban China’s magical growth. It works because there is no parliament, no elected representatives, no constituency interests to placate, no mass media to ventilate grievances, no constitutional right to organize and demonstrate, no supreme court to uphold fundamental rights.

Amartya Sen said recently in Delhi that it was not democracy but bad policy that was keeping India behind China. His answer begs the question. China is ahead because no one dare oppose what is decided. Moreover, the party structure ensures that whatever is decided is immediately and faithfully implemented with unquestioned discipline all down the line to the humblest village. Right decisions which accord with the principles of good governance are thus quickly translated into action on the ground. By the same token, bad decisions which reflect bad governance have to play out the whole disaster till they can be rectified. It is precisely the polity and system of government which brought on the horrors of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution which are today responsible for China’s economic miracle. If they were to go wrong — and they could because, for instance, more than 50 per cent of their bank loans are non-performing assets — the whole heap of cards will come tumbling down. But if they continue to play their cards as they are now doing, we will never, never be able to catch up because our rumbustious democracy will never, never allow, as in China today, a handful to be so favoured at the expense of the overwhelming majority.

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