The rapid growth in the Chinese economy is especially evident in their fast growing cities but doesn’t show up nearly as much in their rural areas. A group of west central Wisconsin farmers traveled to China in early September and saw firsthand how China is changing.
China has a land mass about the same size as the United States but a population that dwarfs this county’s. While we have about 330 million people, China has about 1.4 billion. And that’s with their one child per family Central government edict. The only group that is allowed to have more are the farmers or rural people and only if their first child is a girl so they can try for a boy to carry on the farm. If you violate that policy there is a $25,000 fine plus other ramifications from the government. Their problem is what to do with all their people to keep them occupied.
Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai are among the biggest cities in the world, and growing. In fact, if you combined the populations of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, that would still be smaller than the population of Shanghai, which is now between 23 and 24 million and expected to reach about 27 million in the next few years under the controlled growth program of the Chinese government. Beijing, the capitol city, has a population of 20 million people with city limits that spread 120 miles north to south and 100 miles from east to west.
The challenge for the Central government in China is what to do with all those people since about 200,000 a year leave the farming regions to move to the cities because the cities are becoming more modern while living in the rural areas is very challenging. Traffic is one of the major hurdles they must overcome as Beijing citizens own five million cars, eight million bikes and at least that many scooters. Last year alone, four million cars were sold in China, the only country in the world that sees consistent increases in car sales every year. Local Chinese guides told our traveling group traffic is getting out of hand as cars, scooters, bikes, trucks, busses and pedestrians all try to move through the city of Beijing which has been called the world’s largest parking lot because of the slow movement of the traffic. Traffic laws are in place but largely ignored by those operating vehicles. When asked if there were traffic laws in China, a local guide said “yes, but to most Chinese drivers they are more suggestions than laws.”
Chinese vehicles are also not all the small, compact vehicles we have been led to believe they drive. Chinese drivers are using lots of four door sedan type vehicles with a good number of SUVs and other larger vehicles made by Ford, General Motors, Mercedes Benz, Audi and many other name plates familiar in the United States.
To get a car in China, prospective owners must put up about $30,000 and put their name in a lottery. If and when they are selected they can buy a car and then be a car owner for life, or until they would be considered unworthy by the government. That means they receive their license plate for life which determines in cities like Beijing, when they can drive. To keep pollution to a somewhat tolerable level, they have a formula that tells you when you can and cannot drive. The government has set up a system that will pick a number and say anyone with a license number ending in that number must leave their car parked on that day. During the 2008 Olympics, the rule was even morestrict. Every other day was an odd or even day so about half of their cars were parked to ease both pollution and traffic jams each day during the competition.
City life in China is hectic as just about everyone lives in a high rise building that has been built since the end of the Cultural Revolution that ended about 1980. Old areas of the cities, known as the Houtang, have in many places been removed and replaced by the new apartment buildings, known as Condos which are very expensive and very barren. In Shanghai, people wanting to buy a condo pay about $5,000 per square meter. That only includes the living space for the most part. The buyer is responsible for putting in any plumbing, electricity or other extras they may want. Since no one owns land in China, except for the government, the owners are actually just leasing the space for 70 years and pay a one time property tax to the government.
The challenge for the cities is to keep ahead of the migrating Chinese who think the city life is going to be better than where they came from in the farming areas. That is why they call the construction crane their national bird and why there is at least temporary work for the new city slickers even though they face tough decisions once a construction project wraps up. Next time we’ll look at life in rural China and why they’re not staying down on the farm in the world’s most populous country.