New York Times



A Divide China Must Conquer

January 9, 2005

To understand today's China, it is necessary to look beyond the unfathomable ebb and flow of 1.3 billion people. It is only by studying the few that it is possible to grasp what is happening to the overwhelming many - like Yu Jikui, a porter whose slight by a passer-by set off riots in Wanzhou; or the young Yang Shan, whose parents both work in distant cities; or the developer Zhang Yuchen, who built a castle fit for Marie Antoinette where 800 farmers once grew wheat.

The human story behind the data about how China is blossoming economically lies in the writings of an 18-year-old that explain why he would commit suicide after he could not afford to take a college entrance exam. Wang Lincheng counts the cancer deaths near a viscous black stream filled with industrial toxins. These individuals, whose lives were described in articles by The Times's Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley, provide telling clues about the gap between rich and poor, between the fortunate urbanites and the rural have-nots. This is the other, darker side of China's boom.

When Hu Jintao took over China's leadership two years ago, he promised a more socially minded version of economic growth, in which ordinary people, their land and the environmental future would no longer be trampled in a heedless rush for higher output and exports. But the disparities between booming cities and the impoverished countryside, and between thriving export platforms and a hulking, hopeless rust belt, are growing even more brutal. Mr. Hu seems more interested in silencing the messengers than in dealing with these problems.

Instead of beginning to institute a workable rule of law, a freer press and a better system for allowing the underdog to be heard, Mr. Hu has busied himself consolidating his own power and trying to restore order and discipline within an unreformed Communist Party. In keeping with his chilling comment that Western democracy is a "blind alley," Mr. Hu has already made it clear that the government is ready to crack down on journalists, scholars and protesters who cross his unmarked line.

Silencing these critics brings no relief for those millions who are enduring the real abuses in the countryside. Chinese farmers and factory workers routinely talk about corrupt local officials who siphon off relief money from Beijing or steal funds allocated to farmers who give up their land for other uses. Simmering anger and even street protests occurring in some rural areas become all the more understandable after local officials freely seize farmland or village property, then reinforce actions with police goons. What adds to this unfairness is a system that allows city dwellers to buy and sell apartments while farmers may not own their own fields.

A leadership that treats this unrest as a threat to its authority instead of a desperate cry for help threatens to negate much of the good that has come from China's economic upheaval - the opening to tourism, student exchanges and scientific cooperation; the ability for people to migrate; the creation of some independent farming; and a growing middle class whose cellphones can dial abroad. The test for Mr. Hu is not whether he can steer the new China into an ever-more-powerful position in the world marketplace. It is to deal wisely with the deepening chasm between rich and poor in his own country.