The Widening GapA glimpse into the space between rich and poor.
I recently hosted six foreign friends during the Olympic Games, who spent half their time in Beijing and half their time traveling to smaller cities in the interior. They were benignly shocked by the appearance of Beijing: clean, sleek, modern, and above all, green. It’s not a surprise considering how much the Chinese government spent on cleaning up the city before the Olympics, both in terms of money (planting trees, new subway lines, etc.) and politics (deporting beggars, migrant workers, etc.). When we got off the plane near Xi’an, they remarked, “this is more of what I was expecting when I came to China.”
Xi’an is not a backwards city by any stretch of the imagination. The city boasted 8.07 million people in 2005, is a provincial capital, and a cultural and economic center for northwest China. Nevertheless, it provides a stark contrast to Beijing. The wide tree-lined avenues of Beijing are not present in Xi’an, and it is hard to imagine them coming into existence in the already crowded urban center. Cars are primarily much older models in a greater state of disrepair, and traffic is much less organized—cars loiter in the middle of intersections, abruptly swerve to the wrong side of the road to pass, and pedestrians and bicycles amble in the middle of roads. Xi’an’s industry is 97% manufacturing, which shows in the gray haze that perpetually overshadows the city. Poorly-washed migrant workers can be seen everywhere tramping through the street carrying their possessions in large plastic bags. Shops, streets, and people in general show a higher level of grime and disrepair. Buses lack air conditioning, sidewalks are cracked and broken, and the city is filled with the cacophony of a million people pushing and shoving.
Don’t get me wrong, Xi’an is a wonderful city with a rich history and culture. To go from ultra-civilized (on the surface) Beijing to Xi’an, however, was quite a shock. This, to me, is a prime indicator of the divide between the wealthy coastal cities who have frequent contact with the West and the interior cities, who may be industrial and economic powerhouses but lack culture. Those of you who were in Beijing for the Olympics and have been wowed by the scale of China’s advance must remember: while 20 million are ahead, the other 1.3 billion are still being left far, far behind.