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China on track? The view from the slow train

Rob Schmitz Sep 19, 2012

China on track? The view from the slow train

Rob Schmitz Sep 19, 2012

The United States is not the only election game in town this fall, y’know. They’re getting a new set of faces at the top in China, too. The big difference, of course, is that nobody gets a vote over there. The Chinese can, though, talk about the state of the union — opinions that are often aired in the course of a long train ride, still the most common form of transportation in China. So this week our Shanghai correspondent Rob Schmitz will take two train rides. One, slow-moving, crowded and uncomfortable, in the rural interior. The other, a plush wi-fi-accessible bullet train on the busy East coast. Two trains, two stories about what the Chinese think of their country’s economic future. Here’s Rob from the slow train.

Train 5640 out of the Southwestern Chinese city of Guiyang has no air-conditioning. That’s what the fans fastened to the ceiling are for… but none of them work. So, on this stifling day, all the windows are open.

A rush of wind signals the entrance to a mountain tunnel — the world goes black and the echo of the engine makes it impossible to hear anyone. There’s a tunnel like this every few minutes. If you have something to say on this train, you say it fast.

Farmer Tian Jinghe tells me he’s ridden this train every month for three years. He sees a doctor in the big city for a thyroid problem. He has a tumor on his neck the size of a baseball and can barely afford the treatment. The 56 year-old’s already bogged down by his grandchildren — they were left behind by his two sons, who moved hundreds of miles to the coast several years ago in search of work.

“People in this part of China only give birth to babies, they don’t take care of them,” Tian says. “They leave that to grandparents.”

This part of China is Guizhou, China’s poorest province. Train 5640 is one of Guizhou’s slowest trains. It makes stops in places like High Plains Village, Fiber River and Six Chickens. Tian lives in a village named Tombstone. A big city like Beijing seems a world away, Tian tells me.

I ask him what the new leadership in Beijing should do for a village like Tombstone — apart from maybe changing its name.

“The government in Beijing usually makes good policies, but they become twisted by the time they get to the local government to carry out,” he says.

Tian says the central government put money aside to modernize agriculture for farmers in his region. He says Tombstone’s local officials used the money to remove entire mountains, flattening the land, making way for a new irrigation system. In the end, Tian says, the irrigation system didn’t work and Tombstone was left with piles of rubble where hills of terraced rice paddies once stood. Acres of farmland were destroyed.

He says it was a waste of hundreds of millions of dollars.

“They didn’t even hire local people to work on this worthless project,” Tian says. “They bused them in from a neighboring province. I think China’s biggest challenge is the abuse of power by local officials. Money corrupts people.”

That’s not how Long Chengbing and Li Ning see it. The two young men grew up together here but — like most young people from Guizhou — went out to find work in factory towns along China’s coast. Long says he spent years at a candy factory.

“We made long, thin candy — they looked like pencils, but curved at the ends,” Chengbing says. “They were red and white, sometimes green and white. They didn’t taste very good. We exported them to America.”

I teach Long an English word: candy cane. Long says whatever they were, making them taught him skills he never would’ve learned had he stayed on his parents’ farm.

“And I wouldn’t have learned those skills had it not been for the government developing China,” Long adds. “I learned how to manage people at that factory, and now that I’ve returned home, I can start a business here.”

Long’s advice for China’s new leadership? Don’t listen to the critics. Keep investing, keep building and keep people employed. Guizhou, he says, is still poor, but he can feel that it’s turning the corner.

A woman sits across the aisle from me. She listens quietly to my conversations with a grin, her arms crossed. She’s in her 30s — older than the idealistic young factory workers, younger than the cynical old farmer. I ask her what she thinks.

“China’s too big to manage,” the woman says. “You focus on developing one region and another region feels left out. That’s what happened in Guizhou. But it’s difficult for China’s leaders.”

I ask her what will be the biggest challenge for China’s new leadership.

“Control,” she says. “Here in Guizhou, local officials often mess things up. They use government money to make the country side look like the city. It’s all about image. In my town, there are sidewalks in places where it doesn’t make any sense, just because local officials think it looks good. I’m sure leaders at the top would shake their heads at such a waste of money.”

I ask the woman her name. Just say that I’m a lady from Guizhou, she tells me.

“Ok, lady from Guizhou,” I say, “what do you do for a living?”

Her grin turns to smile as a rush of wind begins to pick up through the car. Sensing another tunnel of noise and darkness approaching, she quickly leans forward and whispers: “I’m a government official.”

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