Olympic Games: Not all of China is cheering

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August 18, 2008, 3:30 PM
Joshua Kurlantzick

The Western press has been awash in coverage of all the negative aspects of China’s Games. There’s horrendous pollution in Beijing, which has forced entire teams to train off-shore in South Korea or Japan and wear masks for much of their stay. China’s continuing ethnic unrest exploded again last week in the western province of Xinjiang in an attack by a group of Uighurs, an ethnic minority, on a Chinese police post. And the heavy hand of the regime, which is still blocking many Internet sites during the Games, has cracked down on dissidents.

But nearly all of the media have been unanimous on one positive point: Average Chinese citizens are immensely proud of these Olympics. Thousands of Chinese, “many without event tickets, flock to Beijing to bask in national pride,” read the subhead to a recent Washington Post story. “Even the cynical succumb to a moment of real national pride,” read a New York Times headline. Indeed, many Chinese are proud of being able to stage such an important event.

But focusing solely on pride ignores another China, one far different from the middle class people with the money to travel to Beijing. As China has liberalized its economy, vast agricultural regions of the country have fallen far behind the cities — so much so that this “communist” nation now has one of the worst income inequalities in Asia. Indeed, according to the World Bank, over 200 million Chinese earn less than US$1.25 per day, a near-African wage, and today China’s Gini coefficient, the standard measure of inequality, is far higher than that of India. For these rural Chinese, the Olympics are just one more event to watch from afar, before they turn back to their daily struggle.

Trips over numerous years to rural parts of Yunnan, a poor province in China’s southwest, showed me this China. In small villages, families I met lived in one-room stone dwellings, where they slept on mats and cooked on a simple stove. Outside, they raised a few pigs, or sowed small terraces of rice and vegetables.

Yunnan is hardly unique. Interior China’s GDP lags far behind eastern China’s, and as China opens to foreign imports small-plot Chinese farmers will find it even harder to make a living, since they’ll be competing with the massive Brazilian, American and Australian agribusinesses. Worse, the pollution caused by Chinese industry is destroying farmland and water sources — vast parts of the agricultural heartland will virtually run dry within 30 years. Meanwhile, rural people actually face higher tax levies, according to their income, than many richer city citizens, partly because local officials just want to make more money.

Not surprisingly, for many of these rural dwellers the Games might be an interesting distraction on TV, rather than a source of major pride. “It is something that only the people in cities around Beijing care about,” one young Chinese in a rural town told Rian Dundon, a photographer who studies youth culture in China’s interior. “People from Hunan [an interior province] and other far away places don’t really feel very excited about it, and I don’t feel a personal connection to it.” Indeed, Dundon found that young people in the interior were angry that whatever positive impact the Games had would be limited to the cities. “The Olympics can only affect a very small part China. The rest will be left behind,” another young rural Chinese told him.

It is telling that when recent polls have been done of Chinese satisfaction with their current life, the samples almost never include rural people. Rural Chinese women have one of the highest suicide rates in the world, while other polls of rural areas show high rates of anger at the high taxes and fees levied on rural people, essentially so that local officials can gorge themselves. “We don’t see the point of these Games,” one peasants’ activist told me last year, just after the police had thrown her out of her temporary house for the umpteenth time to stop her from protesting more. “We thought it might be good, but it doesn’t help us.”

Over half the country’s massive population lives in rural areas. It is these Chinese, more than the better-known, middle-class urban dissidents, who truly scare the Beijing regime. After all, unlike in other high-population countries, the vast majority of Chinese still live outside urban areas. As freedom of movement opens up, China faces poverty-driven mass migration; already, some 150 million Chinese have migrated to cities over recent decades. Oftentimes they find little work and remain second-class citizens.

And when they stay at home, rural Chinese don’t stay quiet. Through media and their network of friends, even the most isolated rural-dwellers, I’ve found, now realize there is another China out there, that their urban peers enjoy luxuries like cars, large homes and designer clothes. More aggressive Chinese reporting, too, has begun exposing the vast corruption of local officials. Although China remains a somewhat closed society, ground-breaking newspapers and magazines, as well as muck-racking Internet sites (some rural people are able to obtain Internet information from relatives who spend time in cities) have exposed staggering numbers of corruption cases across the country, many in rural areas.

And as their lives become harder, and they see officials and urban-dwellers helping themselves, many rural residents fight back. China’s own security forces say that there are 50,000 annual demonstrations against the government in the country, and most experts believe that the vast majority now occur in rural areas. Some angry farmers travelled to Beijing, where they set up an entire “village” in an outlying suburb that they use as a base to launch protests near the Communist Party’s headquarters. “Eventually, this could explode somewhere into a much larger, more violent movement,” Li Datong, a prominent Chinese political writer, told me in Beijing.

What’s worse, the Olympics have actually made many rural peoples’ lives tougher. Like the protesters’ “village” in Beijing, most of the sites around the city where rural people came to try and plead their cases to higher officials have been shut down. Factories around the city, which often employ migrant workers from rural areas who are willing to do these dirty jobs for low pay — but better pay than on the farms — also have been closed, in an attempt to present a greener Potemkin facade for the Games.

Meanwhile, activists told me, police have travelled across Beijing rounding up many of the migrant workers from rural areas who are living in the city and sending them home, in order to beautify Beijing. While even the cynical may have succumbed to national pride, as the Times headline proclaimed, China’s forgotten poor have not.

The New Republic

Joshua Kurlantzick is a special correspondent for The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s China Program.