Audio Postcard: China's best economic indicator -- the people

Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal taking public transportation in China.

Tess Vigeland: About five years ago, Marketplace traveled to China for a series of stories looking at the rise of an economic powerhouse. Today, China is the number two economy in the world. And multinational corporations are rushing there to ride its growth.

Kai Ryssdal is back in the Middle Kingdom. And for that past two weeks he's been collecting stories and blogging online about how that economy is doing. He sent this postcard.


Kai Ryssdal: You can come here and talk to all the experts you want to try to figure out what's going on with the Chinese economy. And we have. But the way this country works -- the only way you're going to actually get a good sense of it -- is to get out and about. Really get out and about.

That explains how I came to be riding the Number 113 Chongqing city bus on a long, hot, sweaty hour-and-a-half ride home from work the other day with a guy named Li Yong Qin.

Li's 36 years old. He's married. He's got two little boys, for which he paid heavy fines by the way. One for being out of wedlock. The second for being, well, the second. His wife, Chang Jia Sheng, doesn't cut the kids much slack. Even a visit by a Chinese-speaking foreigner becomes a maternally-directed learning opportunity.

Ryssdal: Hello?

Kid: Hello.

Ryssdal: How are you?

Li owns his own place. He owns two apartments, actually -- one that he rents out. He's got his own business, construction contracting. So by pretty much every indicator, he's in the rising Chinese middle class. He makes about a thousand U.S. dollars a month, maybe a little more. He puts half of that, at least, in the bank though. Because -- and here's the not so good part -- he knows first-hand that it could all go bad like that.

His wife, Chang Jia Sheng, got hurt at work a month ago. A commercial mixer at the baking company she was trying to start up took a chunk out of her arm. Three days in the hospital and $4,500 in doctors bills later -- that is almost half the family's income for the year -- she's still laid up.

And therein, says long-time China watcher Paul French, lies the biggest problem with what's happening in this country right now -- economic boom or no economic boom.

Paul French: What needs to happen is the country needs to get a social safety net in place. It needs to have a health service and it needs to have a pension service. And it doesn't have to be a national health service. It can be an insurance-based system. There has to be some kind of system that lets people know that when they get sick, they can go to a hospital. That when they get old that there will be some money there for them to get some help.

Our China series goes on the air with the Li's and a whole bunch more in early July.

I'm back in L.A. on Monday. As I wrap up my two-week trip in China -- check out some of my postings in our series, "China: The five-year plan." I've got stuff on Chinese traffic, Shanghai's marriage market, and more.


Vigeland: That little boy Kai was talking to? He said -- surprise, surprise -- that when he grows up he wants to be a rich man.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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