Wealth, Poverty and Corruption in Today's China

By Chesterton, Josephine; Docherty, Patrick | The World and I, June 2008 | Go to article overview
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Wealth, Poverty and Corruption in Today's China


Chesterton, Josephine, Docherty, Patrick, The World and I


To the north of Beijing, not far from the airport, lies one of the many gated communities that surround the Chinese capital. One drives for about 40 minutes from the city center, first along an impressive dual carriageway and then for a short distance over a rough local road. A sure sign that we are getting closer to the gated compound is that among the curb side shops selling local cigarettes and noodles for the equivalent of US60c a bowl are nestled florists selling exotic blooms, a bunch of which will set you back 300 RMB--close to a week's wages for many I have spoken to here.

At the gate a smartly uniformed guard salutes and then ceremoniously waves through all the residents he recognizes and, usually, anyone who looks foreign. Inside, one is in California, apparently minus the water shortages--the green rolling lawns surrounding every villa belie the fact that we are actually on the edge of the Gobi Desert. These houses are occupied by senior foreign diplomats, foreign representatives of major multinationals and overseas Chinese business people from around the world but the majority of the inhabitants are local Chinese people--mostly, but not all, returned after extensive study overseas.

This is where Ms. Shao lives with her husband and their only son. Neither Ms. Shao nor her husband have any overseas education. This has not stopped them amassing a fortune in the home furnishings business. Ms. Shao always wears very high heels and what look like party dresses with matching designer sunglasses and explains that she has to go overseas to get them to be sure they are not fake. But despite the glamor girl image she is actually very down to earth and works extremely long hours in the family shop and negotiating with wholesale buyers. She also has a habit of sitting down at the piano after dinner and playing pieces by anyone from Chopin to Beethoven or Debussy with great ease and considerable talent--Ms. Shao used to teach music for a living.

Ms. Shao is a fascinating example of a person caught between the old world and the new. She is trying to balance a renewed interest, shown by many in China in the traditional ways with the realities of the life of a modern executive. One day, at the time of the Chinese Spring Grave Sweeping festival when traditional Chinese families take offerings for the "ghosts" of their deceased relatives to their graves I come into the kitchen to find an array of dishes on the side, a whole steamed fish, stir friend vegetables and other delicacies. I ask the maid the purpose of her early morning cooking and she tells me that the mistress will be taking the items to the graves later in the day--this is sacrificial food. I warn my children not to touch it and we leave it somewhat reverently covered in white cloths. Towards mid afternoon Ms. Shao--who has apparently been stuck in a three hour traffic jam--storms into the house, throws the car keys on the table and makes for her room to change for a business meeting. When the maid asks about taking the sacrificial food to the graveyard she snaps: "Forget it. We have no time to go to the graves today. We will just eat that food for dinner." (I try to imagine the pastor's wife at home taking the same approach with the communion wafers)

The millionaire

The complex in which Mr. Wang lives outside Hangzhou in the center of the country is even more unexpected than the one in Beijing. Here are several dozen magnificent newly built American style houses--although of a size that would be the envy of most Americans. They are mostly in a dramatic but simple modern design with walls of exposed gray slate and the roads of the complex are all lined with elegant shrubs. Furthermore, the complex is right next to one of China's most famous beauty spots and placed around a magnificent 18 hole golf course. While the complex is very "21st Century" the hills beyond the tightly controlled perimeter fence are covered in tea plantations and look the way they must have done for centuries.

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