Huofeng town, Hubei province
Distance from Shanghai – 1,150 km
Distance from Lhasa – 1,833 km
What a glorious day to be walking in the Yangtze gorges! It was late November, but the sun was shining, the air was warm and the birds were singing as if it was May – global warming plus the reservoir effect. The main impact of the Three Gorges Dam is creating a smoother climate of milder winters and cooler summers.
My aim on this particular stretch of the walk was to talk to people about rising consumer prices, to take a straw poll on the topic foreign correspondents say is the big issue for Chinese people right now.
However, I have learned to be wary of what I read in the newspapers. My experiences and impressions in the gorges, for instance, are so different from the view being propagated by many foreign journalists on the state of the dam and the region. Their accounts talk of an impending ecological disaster. My take on the situation is that while there are inevitably problems arising from this massive shift in the life and structure of an entire region, overall it hasn’t had a negative impact on people’s lives.
I’ve chatted with hundreds of residents in the region and have yet to find one who believes the dam was a bad thing. That is not to say that everyone is hugely supportive, but it provides a context to the media reports focusing on outspoken critics.
My comments here are in no way comprehensive and don’t come even close to a “state of the gorges” report. But I would like to think they have some value nonetheless.
I spoke to a man named Fu who works for China Mobile. He was optimistic, and said life in the region is much better now than it was before the dam. There is more prosperity, higher living standards and more money in the system in general. Property values in the towns along the river are rising, and Fu was planning on buying an apartment in Maoping town, the county seat for the eastern portion of the gorges region.
“This area used to be really poor, but it is not any more,” he said.
A woman with a thick local accent in a village in Guandukou (which means “the place for officials to cross the river”) was also very positive as I sat with her and a group of her neighbors in the sunshine.
“The life of the people has improved, thanks to a number of changes in government policy,” she said. “The agricultural taxes were abolished, there is now free education for nine years and there is medical care at a reasonable price. The employment situation is improving gradually.”
No one contradicted her.
A man running a small general goods store in the next valley north of the Yangtze valley said business was not bad. “We are poor,” he said. But the well-stocked shop seemed to suggest otherwise. I asked him how things were now compared to a few years ago, and his face lit up. “Oh, much better. People have some money now.”
I asked him what sells best in his store, and he said food products. “People now have money to buy food, and we sell more and more.”
What that means is that until a few years ago, the local farmers survived almost entirely on food they grew themselves, with virtually no money to buy extras. Rice crackers, biscuits, soft drinks, processed sausages and candy are the top sellers, and tooth decay is one of the main negative impacts of the Three Gorges Dam.
Compared to Shanghai, of course, they are poor. But compared to their own recent past, they are doing well. As a result, the peasants are not revolting.
I sat for a while with a woman in her 30s and her three-year-old daughter. “Where is your husband?” I asked.
“I don’t have one,” she replied.
“Do you work?”
“How do you manage for money?”
“I get by,” she said.
We were sitting in the doorway of her house in a little quiet village in the mountains maybe 20 kilometers from the river valley. A motorcycle was parked nearby. Inside the open door, arranged in the traditional way, were a square table and stools facing the door with a colorful travel themed poster above. The woman, named Xiang, was well dressed with long leather boots. She hugged her daughter and said life was pretty good.
I talked at some length to a man named Tan Youcai, aged 64, who described himself as a retired civil servant. “I would invite you back to my home, but my wife died just a few days ago,” he said calmly.
I asked him about prices. “We are now in the second inflationary surge of the period of opening and liberalization,” he said. “The first one was in the 1980s, but of course there is no comparison between the two. This is very mild. Pork prices are up, but other commodities have not risen by much. The real difference is that people now have money to handle higher prices.”
Another shop keeper, asked about prices, also immediately referred to pork. I quizzed him about the basic consumer goods around him – soap, clothes, basic foodstuffs. “Not much change; some up a little, some down.”
I spoke to a teacher, also surnamed Tan, who invited me to look at the rows and rows of homemade noodles that were drying in the sun outside his house. I asked him about prices, and he said that pork was the main issue. “I would expect pork prices to drop in the second half of next year,” he added. “The government has invested a lot of money in large-scale pig farms.”
From these people and others I spoke to, I detected no significant concern about inflation. There was occasionally a sense that it was a factor whereas before it was not, but even then, no one was losing any sleep over it.
The overall sense of the Chinese countryside is peaceful. It is possibly the most peaceful that it has been in several hundred years. People have all the basics: there is food available, they wear simple but warm clothes and even the most basic mud-brick farmhouse now has satellite TV. They have the time and the peace of mind to sit around in the sun playing cards for hours.
There is money, both from local activities and from remittances sent by relatives working in the coastal cities. On this particular walk, I passed a couple of houses where the kid of the house was inside playing music at jet engine volumes while mother did the washing outside. The neighbors did not seem to mind, such is the Chinese capacity for ignoring noise. But what struck me was the Western middle-class feel to the scene – high power Hi-Fi, the latest pop music, a young teenager occupying the family stereo. Sounds like Albuquerque.