Economy

From rich to poor in 3 hours

If you’re looking for a shocking contrast, drive to Hebei

Three hours from Beijing. But three centuries behind...

China is a country of contrasts. And one particular measure doing the rounds at the moment is how long it takes to drive from the 21st century skyscrapers of Beijing to some of the country’s poorest rural hovels.

The answer is about three hours.

This was the interesting discovery of Huang Hui, one of the nation’s 50 million bloggers.

As a former investment banker and CFO – she was born in China and educated at Wharton – Huang’s blog stands out from the crowd.

In a recent posting she spent a day in one of the nation’s poorest villages before ending up as a guest at a billionaire’s mansion. It’s a useful reminder that behind the data on dizzying growth rates, China remains a country of sharp disparities.

“I had never heard of Shangyi County before,” Huang writes, “and had never expected a county only three hour’s drive from Beijing would be so poverty-stricken.”

She was visiting the area with a friend to investigate an investment project.

But at her two star hotel (the best in town) a quilt across the window stopped the cold air getting in through the cracks. A sorry array of shops lined the main street.

A nearby village comprises a dozen homes made of stones and loess, with families living cheek by jowl with their pigs and dogs. Donkey carts pass by on the road, and middle aged women dig wells with spades. Water shortages are serious.

Shangyi County is in the northwest of Hebei province, with a population of around 200,000. Huang discovers the county hangs by a tenuous economic thread – dependent on Rmb50 million ($7.3 million) of subsidies from the central government to get by. “There are no industries, and farmland is being returned to forest and grassland,” Huang notes, “If you’re looking for a definition of dirt poor, this is it”.

On the way home to Beijing, she has a somewhat different experience, when she stops to visit a persimmon orchard.

The estate she enters is in the vicinity of Beijing’s sixth ring road, and contains a 4,000 square metre mansion with a swimming pool, auditorium and gym – plus a collection of very expensive art.

Surrounding the house is the owner’ s 20 hectare private forest of persimmon trees, plus a large pond with swans, and even a mini-golf course. It turns out to be the residence of a wealthy real estate developer.

“As I tasted the fresh, sweet persimmon we picked from the tree, I felt mixed emotions: in the morning I was in one of the poorest counties in China, which was deserted, and where local life seemed to offer no hope or vitality. And now, three hours later, 300 kilometres away, I was in one of China’s richest private houses enjoying beauty and pleasure. It almost felt as if I’d been in a time machine.”

Huang’s blog can be found at:

http://blog.sina.com.cn/hhuang2009 (it is only in Chinese).


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