Friday, July 25, 2008

The Missing Center of the Middle Kingdom

Most people have never heard of Chongching. It is a city in central China. Today is has 10 million people. The population will double in the next decade. It is the fastest growing urban center in the world. (see article)

This pattern is being repeated across China. People are pouring out of the countryside to live in cities. Cities have better schools, better health care, and better jobs. If you want to start a business you'll probably do it in a city where you have access to enormous pools of both skilled and unskilled labor. Likewise, if you have little training and want a job, you'll go to a city where there are numerous factories and construction projects that will hire unskilled workers.

And if you dream of a better life you will go to a city. Cities concentrate people, which means that they concentrate talent and opportunities. Cities create more specialized (and thus higher skilled) jobs. In a small town, you can only be a general mechanic. In a city, you can specialize in restoring vintage automobiles. In mega city, you can sell your talents to the vintage automobile shop that pays the highest wages.

Cities also have the potential to be better for the environment. We simply can't have 7 billion people living on acreages in the country-side. In Chinese cities most people live in high rise apartments (many of which have amenities like swimming pools and health clubs). Apartments take up very little space and allow people to be close to work and shopping. Country living may look eco-friendly with it's green lawns and trees, but it is cities with their transit systems, central sewage treatment, and garbage collection, that are the green stars of the future.

Yet while the move to cities is a good thing in the long term the societal upheaval it is causing is enormous. Ambitious young Chinese who move to places like Chongching don't have it easy. Many of them have to work long hours for low wages in factories and other unskilled jobs. Most of them have little to offer other than their labor. It is not them who will be the highly paid specialists of the future. It is their children. The parents work so that their children can get the opportunities that they never had.

Those opportunities come at a terrible cost. A factory worker's apartment is no place to raise a small child, and unskilled laborers don't have the types of jobs that give them maternity leave. So the children are left in the countryside while the parents work. Many parents only see their kids one or two times a year. Grandpa and Grandpa raise the kids.

All through the Chinese countryside we saw the same thing. There are no young people; only children and the old. While we were caving a load of roofing tiles was dropped off and half a dozen people, all of them over 60, carried all the tiles up the hill baskets. To us it looked like some ghastly hell for retired people. I offered to help but could barely lift the load that was being carried by a a 70 year old lady half my size.

There is something tremendously sad about watching an old couple working in the fields all day with nobody to help them. And there is also something very sad about seeing all the children who will never really know the parents who are sacrificing so much. Many of the old people we see will be the last generation of their family to live in the countryside. Their children are gone already. The grandchildren will follow when the time comes for high school or university. And then the farm will be empty, and 3000 years of Chinese tradition will be but a fading memory.

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