News & Current Affairs

July 19, 2009

Sink or swim in modern China

Sink or swim in modern China

Chris Hogg heads to the small Chinese village of Zhushanxia, 200km from Shanghai, to see how lives have been shaped by the economy under communist rule, the recession and the country’s economic recovery.

A farmer sells vegetables at a wholesale market on March 22, 2005 in Hefei of Anhui Province, China

China’s economic roller-coaster has divided communities and villages into those who have sunk financially, and those who managed to swim

Huang Jiao Ling lives at the end of a long dusty road.

Mobile phone numbers are daubed all over the walls of her home and those of her neighbours.

It is like a strange kind of mathematical graffiti, but the numbers are, in fact, advertisements for people offering goods and services.

In modern China, it seems everyone has something to sell.

Huang Jiao Ling, too, is an entrepreneur. She is in her 50s, but she looks younger.

In her front garden, where others might have planted vegetables, she has built a small workshop.

Inside, the walls are unfinished and the floor uneven, but there is just about enough room for a work-bench and a handful of basic machine tools.

Churning out widgets

On the floor are cardboard boxes filled with piles of tiny metal widgets.

They are simple to make – her husband sits at the bench turning them out rapidly by hand.

Fruit seller in China

Many Chinese run their own small businesses in order to get ahead

A few feet away, his bicycle-taxi is parked just inside the front door of the house.

The machine work is a lot less tiring than pedalling passengers around, but he still keeps the bike.

It is useful, he says, to supplement their income in leaner times.

The Huangs sell the boxes of widgets to the factory where Huang Jiao Ling has a full-time job.

For a while this year they had to shut the workshop as demand dropped, but now the machines are humming again.

They have two children, because if you live in the country and your first child is a girl, you are allowed to have another one.

The girls go to very good schools, the best Huang Jiao Ling can afford.

She spends more than half her income on school fees.

“We have to think of their future,” she tells me.

“It’s a Chinese tradition. Parents always think of their children, and when the parents get old, their children will look after them. It’s the same for every generation.”

Yu Feng Guo is Huang Jiao Ling’s brother-in-law.

She is doing well for herself in China’s new modern market economy, but he has been left behind.

He used to work in a state-owned brick factory.

Different lifestyles

When the economic reforms began 30 years ago he watched as some of his co-workers left their jobs to start up their own small businesses, many of them selling prawns or fish by the side of the road.

He decided to do what he thought was the right thing, what the communist party would expect of a loyal worker in a state-owned enterprise – he stayed.

Eventually, the brick factory went bust and he was out of a job.

Rice paddy field

Agriculture provides an income for many rural Chinese

Now, dressed in a shabby khaki jacket, he works as a security guard in an open-air food market.

Those early entrepreneurs who had left his factory to try their luck in the fledgling market economy are now much richer than him and to his family this seems unfair.

“Thirty years ago everyone in the village was poor,” his son tells me.

“Now the difference in lifestyle between the rich and the poor in our village is huge.”

There is an implicit bargain in modern Chinese society between the leaders and the led.

Beijing tells its people “we will give you opportunities” – to earn more, to enjoy a better standard of living than your parents did.

But you, in return, will behave yourself.

Back on track

In Zhushanxia village quite a few cars can be seen bumping along past the fields, something you would not have seen 30 years ago.

If you have got used to having more, whether it’s a car, or a bigger house, or a more expensive school for your child, you have more to lose when times get tough.

That is why it is so important for the government to get the economy back on track.

When it first faltered, when factories started laying off workers, there was a risk that they would start to feel the government was no longer keeping to its side of the deal, so why should they?

So in Beijing, of course, there will be relief that a recovery appears to be under way.

But the next challenge for the government will be to do more to try to ensure that everyone shares the benefits.

Huang Jiao Ling is happy her workshop is busy again, but still nervous about the future.

So she, like most other Chinese, is saving as much of her income as she can.

Her brother-in-law Yu Feng Guo, has no idea how he will be able to save enough to secure a state pension on his meagre wages from his unstable job.

He and others like him will be looking to their leaders for reassurance that they will be cared for as they approach old age.

But that will costly and complicated. Fixing the economy may prove to have been the easy part.

September 1, 2008

Uncertainty in India flood camp

Uncertainty in India flood camp

Courtesy BBC

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Purnea


Asha Devi

Asha Devi is among those who fled the floods – she paid $5 for a lift on a tractor

Outside the Bageecha relief camp in Purnea, Bihar, there is confusion.

A line of small trucks and vans carrying relief material have parked on the highway – scores of volunteers, dressed in white, are milling around.

They have just brought several tonnes of aid – but are not quite sure how to distribute it.

There is apparently no camp co-ordinator, no-one from the government.

It is symptomatic of what is happening across Bihar’s flood-affected areas.

God knows if my house is still standing
Janardhan Rishidev

“We have driven several hours to get here,” says Anil Chowdhury, whose cap identifies him as belonging to the Lions’ Club of Khagaria.

“We’ve made up bundles of supplies with rice, sugar, matches and candles.

“Since the government has unable to provide for these people, we’ve decided to step in.”

The lucky ones

Inside camp Bageecha there is more confusion.

Several hundred families have arrived here over the past five days.

The shelter they have been provided is modest – bamboo staves hammered into the ground with a plastic sheet roof to keep out the rain.

Water pump

Conditions in the camp are far from ideal

There is one hand pump for all of them to use to wash themselves.

On one corner, several men are stirring large cauldrons of lentils and rice. It may not seem much, but for many here it is their first cooked meal in days.

So despite the abysmal conditions, everyone here knows they are the lucky ones who got away.

“This is how high the water reached,” says Janardhan Rishidev, holding his hands waist high.

“When it started rising further, I knew it was time to leave. We packed a few things quickly, and placed the rest of our belongings on high shelves in our home.

“Then we fled. God knows if my house is still standing.”

Playing in dirt

Like most people here, Janardhan waded several hours through the flood waters, holding a small bundle of his valued possessions on his head.

Asha Devi and her husband Ram were slightly luckier. Along with their children they climbed on to the back of a tractor and drove out.

map

At a price – they paid the driver 200 rupees ($5) for the ride.

“We hadn’t eaten a proper meal in four days. My children were crying every day. At least here we’ve had some hot food.”

There appears to be a disproportionately high number of children at this camp – most of them unclothed, playing in the dirt.

There are no medical supplies here, or any doctors. But still everyone is grateful to have got out alive.

Sitaram is 85, and managed to come here only because his sons carried him on their back.

He squats outside his tent, smoking.

“Many people were left behind,” he says in a hoarse whisper, leaning forward.

“Old people whose children left them behind. I was lucky, my sons love me.”

Plenty of goodwill

But there is an air of restlessness as well.

Many of the villagers are concerned that eventually somebody will ask them to leave, or the supplies will run out.

“We need to go back,” says Asha Devi.

“We’ve lived off our land and that’s the only way we’ll survive. But how do we go back? When everything is under water, what will we do – swim?”

No-one has the answer to these questions, quite simply because there is no-one from the authorities here.

No government representative has been here to visit. Some international aid workers came by, but they have now left.

Outside camp Bageecha, it is complete gridlock.

Several aid trucks have blocked the road unsure of whether to pull the side or move on ahead.

There are no policemen, so a couple of volunteers decide to sort out the chaos.

“Where’s the government?” asks one volunteer angrily. “They should be here taking charge, instead they’ve left it to us.”

There is plenty of goodwill here and quite a bit of misplaced enthusiasm.

It is just not clear whether they are all aiding the relief effort or hindering it.

August 13, 2008

Phelps breaks Olympic gold record

Phelps breaks Olympic gold record

US swimmer Michael Phelps broke the record for Olympic gold medals won by taking his 10th and 11th in a double victory on Wednesday.

Phelps, 23, won his fourth gold of the Beijing Olympics and 10th of all time with victory in the 200m butterfly.

And he claimed yet another gold as part of the US 4x200m freestyle team.

Phelps has now surpassed the nine golds won by Paavo Nurmi, Carl Lewis, Mark Spitz and Larysa Latynina to cement his place in Olympic history.

606: DEBATE
Rafa fan

He is also bidding to beat Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in a single Olympic games and has moved to within three of that achievement.

The US star swims in the individual medley, 100m butterfly and finally the 4x100m medley relay later in the week.

“There is still something left in the tank,” he said. “I’ve got three races left, so there had better be something left in the tank.”

Phelps began proceedings in the Water Cube on Wednesday in typical fashion, beating Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh and Japan’s Takeshi Matsuda in a world record time of 1:52.03 to claim 200m butterfly gold.

He looked slightly underwhelmed following the victory, despite the magnitude of his achievement, and revealed that a pair of leaky goggles almost scuppered his chances of glory.

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Video – Phelps bags fifth gold in relay

But he battled on despite the fault to shave 0.06secs of his own 200m butterfly world record.

“My goggles kept filling up with water during the race,” he said.

“I wanted a world record, I wanted 1:51 or better, but in the circumstances it’s not too bad I guess.”

And along with US team-mates Ryan Lochte, Ricky Berens and Peter Vanderkaay, Phelps later claimed relay gold in the 4x200m freestlyle in another world record time of 6:58.56secs.

Russia took the silver and Australia the bronze, while Great Britain’s four came in sixth.

“I’m pumped about our relay,” said Phelps. “It’s the most fun thing to be in a team environment and be part of a relay.

“It’s cool when you get four Americans who all swim well together. Everyone has to play their part or it’s just not going to happen.

“We’ve been lucky that we’ve been able to do that.”

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