During May of 2011, Marilynn and I spent almost three weeks in China, re-visiting places we had toured on our prior trip in 2000 as well as visiting new places. On this trip, we visited ten cities and traveled over 4,000 miles in China. Our overall impression was of a country full of energy, extending from the endless pattern of skyscraper buildings rising in almost every city, dwarfing the crowds of well-dressed and young-looking employees hurrying to and from work; and the fast trains and fast vehicles speeding through the countryside on new roads and rails and bridges; and on to the busy farmers, both male and female, toiling in the small fields using ancient techniques and implements. Following are some of my observations on these visits to China, followed by a more detailed description of The Three Gorges Dam and its apparent impact on some 1.3 million residents of the reservoir area.
The Chinese people that we met appeared happy and intensely proud of their country and its progress, but at the same time sincerely pleased to welcome American visitors. As a people, they exhibit far more differences than similarities in appearance, despite recurring facial characteristics that seem distinctive to their oriental ancestry. Although skin colors vary from light to dark, relative to occupation (inside or outside labor), just as they do in the United States, we never encountered anyone with African coloring (either visitor or resident). We did observe a few women in traditional Muslim attire in the cities. Although the average Chinese person appears shorter and thinner than his/her American counterpart, I regularly encountered unusually tall and occasional overweight Chinese. Although billboards and magazines tend to use Caucasian models and western dress, I observed many beautiful Chinese women (and probably handsome men that did not notice.
Almost all of the Chinese people with whom we chanced to interact with were polite and friendly, despite our language difficulties (with the notable exception of standing in line where the Chinese appeared to adopt the habit of cutting-in as normal behavior). The taller men in our group frequently were asked to pose for pictures by young women and families, a compliment to the American population in general. In general, they appeared happy, both with each other, and with foreigners in their midst.
We never witnessed a crime in all of our travels in China (despite our guide’s warnings about purse-snatchers and pick-pockets). Marilynn and I strolled down a working-class street lined with open shops and upper apartments at sunset without any concerns. Several obviously lower-income people smiled and greeted us in Chinese. Although we encountered an occasional beggar, usually with a physical deformity, the majority of people appeared well-dressed and healthy.
New wealth was apparent in every city by the abundance of expensive and relatively new automobiles, as well as high fashion shops and well-dressed young people. Street cafes and bars were crowded with local young people in the evenings. We were especially impressed with the number of young people traveling on domestic airlines and attending major tourist attractions (and on both of our river cruises).
Increasing affluence is obvious. At the same time, the reported 55 percent of the population defined as farmers were toiling in the fields next to the expressways with non=mechanized methods — water buffalo pulling plows, men and women planting by hand, threshing grain by hand — difficult labor contrasted with the expensive cars and tour buses streaming by on the adjacent expressways (our guide claimed that the ancient methods are purposely encouraged to maintain employment). The two major contrasts between our 2000 trip and the current visit were (1) the decline in smoking (they even celebrated national no-smoking day during our visit), and (2) the substitution of motor-driven mopeds, scooters and motorcycles for bicycles.
China is an amazing country that is growing rapidly toward the world’s largest economy while maintaining a stable population of 1.4 billion people through its one-couple/one-child regulation (now modified upward for farmers to supplement their labor supply). In just 60 years since the victory of Mao Zedong, China has emerged from a predominantly agrarian society to a multi-dimensional urbane society of creative energy coordinated by the wealthiest government in the world.
The gross national product of China continues to flourish with an annual growth rate above 9 percent (compared to 2 or 3 percent in the United States). Housing price inflation varies by city, with a modest 2.3 percent in Shanghai up to 12 percent in smaller cities such as Yueyang. Investors are purchasing a larger share of new luxury apartments relying upon future price inflation for profit. However, the government is preparing controls to curb inflation to prevent an overheated economy. The tourism industry continues to thrive despite reduced American and European visitors. Domestic tourism is up over 10 percent from last year.
These increases are generating continuing opportunities for enthusiastic young people to improve earnings and adopt the characteristics of a rising middle class. Economic growth is obvious everywhere, from the high-rise construction of offices and apartments in Shanghai and Hong Kong to the new factories in the suburbs of Fuling, Xi’An and Guillin. It is obvious from the bumper-to-bumper traffic in Beijing and the crowded domestic airlines between major cities.
The vibrancy of busy people, in both business attire and work clothes, is apparent in every city that we visited and on every day of the week — proud, confident people of all ages, living a better-than-satisfactory lifestyle in a country which gives them pride.
Chinese Economy Stimulants
Rather than the separation of business and government that characterize most countries, the Chinese government actively participates in business through public corporations, joint ventures and investment banks. It owns all the land in China and provides long-term leases to users with ownership of the facilities on the land at the end of the lease. In addition to its 17 percent value-added tax on consumption goods, the major share of its revenue is generated from its direct participation in business and construction participation — no income tax and no property tax.
The Chinese government ensures economic growth opportunities by investing in the support activities necessary to business success, including most importantly:
- Modern infrastructure of transportation (express highways, high-speed trains, new air/rail terminals), communications (wi-fi, cell towers, broadband), and ocean/land freight facilities.
- Support services of education and health care to ensure to ensure increasingly sophisticated labor force
- Tourist attractions to bolster rapid growth in both international and domestic tourism industry and allied local sectors
- Fiscal support to ensure capital investment for long-term financing and facilities construction
- Subsidized housing and income supplements to raise standard of living of lower-income population and increase trained labor force
- Regulation of both corporate and public activities to reduce corruption and criminal practices.
The direct intervention of government in business and support services is in direct contrast to the American principle of “less government is best government.” However, the outstanding success of the China economy and improving lifestyle of its people is worthy of objective examination by those who assume leadership positions in this country. The necessary coordination between entrpreneurial enterprise and public support facilities and programs is beyond poltical principles. Practical lessons for improvement from diverse societies present opportunities for creative public policy directions.
The Three Gorges Dam
The origination of the Three Gorges Dam dates back to 1919 when the founder of modern China, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, proclaimed the future goal of exploiting the water resource of the mighty Yangtze River. In 1956, Chairman Mao Zedong described a blueprint of the Three Gorges project. The National People’s Congress approved the project in 1992 and construction began in November 1994. The project was well advanced when we toured the site in 2000 and viewed the first of 32 hydro-electric generators incorporated into the dam as well as the foundations for the double series of five water-powered lift-locks designed to transport ships of 10,000 ton capacity to the upper river. It took our cruise ship 160 minutes to complete the trip through the five locks in 2011 (the much faster hydraulic lift-lock can lift a ship in 25 minutes, but it will not be complete until 2015). There is no ship fee for passage through the locks. When the power generation reaches full capacity in 2012, it will supply 1.8 million kilowatts per year compared with 1.3 million for the Itaipu Dam on the Parana River in Brazil/Paraguay and 1.1 million for the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in the United States.
The site of the Three Gorges dam is surrounded by granite bedrock mountains which extend westward providing a natural basin for the reservoir to rise up to 175 meters above sea level (the dam top is 185 meters above sea level) — thus the name “three gorges” which extend through the mountains westward from Yichang. The dam is designed to lower the water level to 145 meters during the dry season without affecting power transmission. Although the reservoir level was reduced when we toured in 2011, the river current appeared much more modest than the fast pace during our 2000 boat cruise up the river from Yichang to ChongQuing. During our similar 2011 trip, the country was suffering from a drought which caused the water level to be lowered 15-20 meters from the top level, but the high water mark was evident throughout the reservoir and all new housing and other buildings were located well above it.
Resettlement was a major component of the Three Gorges project — the total land area inundated by the reservoir is 632 square kilometers. in 20 counties over land in Hubei Province and ChongQuing District, and including two cities, 11 counties and 116 towns; and, it inundated or influenced 1,599 business enterprises and 24,600 hectares of farmland and a total of 1.3 million residents. In addition to land and housing compensation, the project has allocated a portion of continuing hydro-electric revenues to local economic development.
Although our 2011 tour did not include any detailed inspections of re-settlement housing, views from our tour ship indicated both single-family and multi-family structures of 1-4 stories of simple design (all-white exteriors) that appeared to be excellent construction. Apparently they were located in proximity to the now-flooded sites of original residents (all land in China is owned by the government and leased to occupants, so re-settlement apparently included compensatory land as well as new housing). In addition to scattered housing along the water-edge, the government organized some complete new villages and substantial additions to existing villages and cities for non-farmer residents (primarily persons who worked on, or in support of, river boats, as well as fishermen). We toured the first of such villages in 2000 which contained excellent streets and landscape around well-constructed six-story walk-up apartments. As is the custom in China housing (and many other countries we have visited), the interiors of these dwellings contained no finish materials or fixtures (raw concrete walls), so they seemed crude to our American eyes. But an interpreted interview with a new resident indicated that he and his family were elated to move into one of these dwellings from their former mud brick and tin roof hovel by the riverside. The biggest disappointment for me was the lack of community gathering facilities. The new village did contain a small retiree center, but we did not see any facilites for younger residents in 2000 (no religious facilities, although there is apparent freedom of religion in China and we did see a few Buddhist, Catholic and Protestant Evangelical facilities in cities we visited, as well as historic Buddhist shrines — usually containing multi-level pagodas — maintained for tourist attractions).
The Three Gorges Dam and resettlement is the largest unified urban development project in history. Although closer inspection may reveal criticisms of many aspects of the program and results, my cursory review is one of admiration for an extraordinarily complex undertaking that appears to be a success story well worth visiting.
DFP, June 6, 2011