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A Letter from China
January 9, 2001

Zhe Ge Shi Jie Hen Da Ma? ("Is the World Big Enough?")

Ninth in a series of letters about China by Ernest Pinson -- Ch'eng Ping Sun

China is getting ready for WTO and its outreach.

Here I am back in China for the year 2001 despite fears of some of my friends and family. My dear aunt born in 1900 told me I mustn't "go back there again because China is trying to take over the world by out-populating the rest." "They are going to cause real problems," says my Uncle Jake over the telephone from Chicago, "they're already the world's largest populated country, but they just keep on and on with more babies and are putting the world in great danger of starvation and poverty." "Yeah," says a friend, "and they want to dominate the whole Asian continent, and maybe the world." Such remarks can be heard from radical news media, reflecting, as well, many misconceptions floating in the air.

China, of course, does have a population problem (and a severe water and air pollution problem). With 1.4 billion people, she is, indeed, the most populated nation on Earth, but not for long. India is on track to surpass China in numbers by 2010, and is doing nothing to control its birth rate for religious reasons.

But let's give the Chinese credit: at least since 1980, China has been practicing a "one child, one family" birth policy, and it is working fine. It isn't totally enforced in the rural areas because of the need for children to work in the farms, but it is enforced in the cities and counties of metropolitan areas, even though the people don't like it. Countries like India, Russia, Pakistan have no such policy.

The enforcement system is simple -- have a child free; have a second child and you must pay the local government a certain fee. To have a third child, you must pay an additional fee. Despite what my aunt and uncle think, China is very much aware of the effects of over-population, of food scarcity, of poverty, of the drain on their economy, and their crammed labor force.

As the leading English language newspaper here, China Daily, (Nov. 1) puts it, "China's population rate has entered a desirable period of low birth rate, low mortality, and low growth rate" since the 1970's and it is due to peak out in 2005. The Dec. 20 edition reports that Zhang Weiqing, minister of the State Family Planning Commission said that "If there had been no family planning, there would be 300 million more people in China today, and rural China, where about one-fifth of the world's population lives, would have difficulty feeding and improving living conditions for its people.... Poverty in China would be a disaster for the whole world, as it might affect world peace and stability.... There are still some 10 million babies born every year, and gynecological services need to be further improved to meet the heavy demands from the public." So they have no illusion about "conquering the world" via out-populating the rest of us. If ever that was a dream, it has long since died since the concept of mass destruction weapons, atomic weapons, rockets, and "star wars" combat.

The Chinese government, while still clearly communistic, in my view is dreadfully aware of how centuries of dynastic rule, 50 years of civil war, the Japanese occupation, plus another 20 years of internal self-cleansing and destruction by the Red Guard have set them back as a developing nation. There are many horror stories -- some true, some exaggerated -- of the 1960ís and 1970ís that resulted in the mass destruction of priceless books and manuscripts, libraries, art works, statues, historic relics, orchestras, university and civic buildings, of murdered professors and other intelligentsia, and even parts of Chinaís Great Wall came tumbling down.

But again letís give them credit for their rapid growth and progress in the last two decades. If the China Daily is correct, over 90 % of the population was illiterate prior to 1949. Since then there has been a vast improvement of a 55 % decrease. Most of the illiteracy now is in southwestern China, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia.

On the other hand, China in many ways is a bustling nation right now with super highways, thousands of taxis, bicycles, and motorbikes along the city streets, and Buicks, Volkswagens, Opels, Citroens, Hondas, Mercedes are seen everywhere. There is a lot of construction and subways in major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and my city Nanjing is scheduled to have one by 2005. China makes excellent shoes, leather coats, silk scarves, dresses and shirts. In last yearís Olympic games, she was the third in the number of medals won behind USA and Russia. India, by contrast, has almost as many people but was way down the list near the bottom.

Chinaís drawbacks are severe, however--- there is a lack of drinking water (every drop must be boiled), a lack of central heating and air conditioning (my classroom has neither), a lack of good modern public toilets (Beijing plans to spend millions on this before 2004 so that the Olympic games might be held there), and a lack of garbage disposal and street cleaning machines (hand brooms, carts and manual labor is still the method of choice). Apartments tend to be crowded and made exclusively of poured concrete, and are without elevators. That means cold walls and floors for most and the furniture is basic by western standards. Few families own cars -- most are owned by companies, schools, politicians, the military or government agencies.

Still WTO is coming and if China makes as much progress in the next decade as in the last two, she will be in the top ten industrial nations of the world by then.

(Next week, another Chinese will speak.)


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