China on track? The view from the bullet train

Rob Schmitz Sep 18, 2012

China on track? The view from the bullet train

Rob Schmitz Sep 18, 2012

Rob Schmitz has been out and about lately, trying to learn how the Chinese feel about the way their economy’s going.

It’s no small question, because the world’s second biggest economy gets a whole new set of political leaders this coming October.

So, Rob’s been riding the rails talking to people (trains are still the most common form of transportation over there). Yesterday, it was a long slow trip through China’s poorest province.

Today he’s moved up a gear or two… to the speedy bullet-train from Shanghai to Beijing.

Rob Schmitz: Ten years ago, trains in China were different. Noisy, overcrowded, smoky, filthy -— it wasn’t uncommon to be sharing your bench with live chickens in wicker baskets. You can still ride these trains. They’re in rural China, where half the country’s population lives. But this is how China’s other half rides: The first class cabin of a bullet train in Shanghai is as noisy as a library. Attendants hand out bottled water and snacks to businessmen settling-in for the journey. After speeding through the rice fields of Eastern China at 200 miles an hour, the train will coast into Beijing, covering the distance between New York City and Chicago in under five hours. Businessman An Yichun’s got a window seat. He owns a company that makes industrial-size sewing machines. He’s getting off the train at the route’s halfway point to see clients; he makes this trip twice a month.

An Yichun: This used to be a 10-hour bus ride. I’d leave in the morning and arrive in the evening; a whole day wasted on the road! Now it’s a three hour train ride and I have my day back. The new train has helped me make more money.

This is exactly what China’s government was hoping its new high-speed rail network would do. An says China’s recent infrastructure boom has improved living standards for millions of East coast Chinese like him. But just when it feels like he’s dishing out state propaganda, he begins a list of complaints for the incoming leadership.

An: We still have a long way to go. Look at our health care system; it’s way behind what you’d get in foreign countries. We have to pay so much for decent health care, and quality care is hard to find.

China’s economic planners are busy trying to figure out how to transition from an economic growth model based on building things to one based on people buying things, like the US model. An says that’s going to be tough. China’s health insurance program isn’t developed and most Chinese like him are saving money for medical emergencies instead of spending it.

An: If foreigners make $5, they’ll spend three. We Chinese may only spend one or two.

Behind An is architect and professor Ren Fei, sitting with his daughter. She just graduated from college and he’s taking her to see Beijing. Ren thinks before China’s new government heralds in an age of consumerism, it should probably turn to what he thinks is China’s largest problem.

Ren Fei:  We really need to help rural China. This is China’s biggest challenge. Cities like Shanghai are very modern, but the countryside lags far behind. Our potential as a country lies in bringing our own people out of poverty.

Ren says the gap between rural and urban China, between rich and poor, is the least understood aspect of China among foreigners.

Ren: They only see the part of China that’s reported in the news. If they do come to China, they visit the cities. But most of China isn’t urban. So I don’t think they understand China.

I ask Ren if his daughter has visited rural China. He blushes.

Ren: No, she hasn’t. But she should go and take a look at some point.

Ren’s daughter looks out the window at a village flashing by. She’s listening to music on her iPhone, oblivious to our conversation. On his laptop, businessman Zhou Yongli has a diversion of his own: Harry Potter. He kindly sets aside Hogwarts to discuss Communist Party politics. Zhou’s company makes machinery that cooks French fries for McDonald’s and KFC. Both chains are on a franchise-building spree in China, and Zhou’s busy. China’s middle class wants more fries. I ask him what he’s looking for in China’s new leadership. Zhou’s very careful about how he phrases his answer, so he uses an analogy about what he knows best: food.

Zhou Yongli: China’s economy is a pie, and if one entity — one party — gets a bigger part, than everyone else has less.

Zhou’s smile warns me to move on to another topic. Outside, the train has come to stop in Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius. A massive yellow billboard outside invites people to step off a train from China’s future to come and explore China’s past. Nobody in the car gets up. Ignoring his nervousness about discussing politics, I ask Zhou how China’s government can solve this pie problem of his. Zhou looks outside at the Confucius billboard and smiles. In an answer that seems to channel the communication style of the ancient sage, he tells me: “It’s very simple to solve, but for those who have the power to solve it, it’s very difficult.” The doors close. Next stop: Beijing. From the Shanghai-to-Beijing bullet train, I’m Rob Schmitz, for Marketplace.

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