The human cost of change

Over the South China Sea to Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea. No other country has been wrenched into the modern world with such brutal swiftness, and it is now on the brink of social and economic meltdown. For two years running it came out worst in the Economist Intelligence Unit's liveability rankings of 130 cities, behind the likes of Lagos, Algiers and Karachi.68 Crime is extremely high, armed hold-ups perpetuated by raskols are common, and expatriates and middle-class locals live behind high walls and coils of razor wire. Yet grass-roots crime may simply reflect the corruption of authority: 'Raskols mimic political leaders' corrupt behaviour at the street level, enriching themselves through theft and operating with relative impunity. When criminals and corrupt politicians go unpunished, people lose respect for state laws and the authority of central government collapses.'69

Back North. While admiring the amazing growth and sparkle of the new China, let us not forget the grim cost of China's economic miracle, even though in comparison with other recently developing countries in the region, this immense logistical challenge has been managed with some sense of planning and order. There are only a few slums, a significant achievement given that this is the biggest mass migration in the history of the world, with rural people move into cities creating a second industrial revolution. A massive building boom, unparalleled anywhere, is taking place. In 2003 half of the concrete used in construction around the world was used in China's cities. In 1950, 72 million Chinese lived in cities; in 1997 the figure was 370 million and by 2020 it is predicted to be 800 million, perhaps 950 million by 2030. The extreme example is Shenzhen, constructed at breakneck speed by 'architects on acid'.70 In the 1970s it was a fishing village. Then the government established a special economic zone there and the growth was non-stop. Recent government estimates put the population at 10 million, well above the 7 million counted in the 2000 census. We hear little about the industrial and construction accidents of this expansion. Official estimates are that 11,000 are killed every year, but it is privately acknowledged to be more than 20,000 a year.71 China competes on price in the global market and safety measures add costs to the bottom line. This speed of development means safety standards do not catch up and compensation is so low there is little incentive for operators to ensure safety.

Furthermore, in spite of increased awareness of pollution, the environmental crisis appears in danger of getting out of control. China's spectacular economic growth over the past two decades has dramatically depleted the country's natural resources and produced skyrocketing rates of pollution. Environmental degradation has also contributed to significant public health problems, mass migration, economic loss and social unrest. 'The result is a patchwork of environmental protection in which a few wealthy regions with strong leaders and international ties improve their local conditions, while most of the country continues to deteriorate.' Elizabeth C. Economy documents in a gripping way the severely degraded environment where 'rivers run black, deserts advance from the north and smoky haze covers the country'.72

Imagine, after a hard day's work, being cocooned in small apartments in endlessly similar 25-storey blocks in ever-burgeoning cities. Think of the social life, leisure, shopping. And yet 'It is better living here than living in my home village in Anhui,' comments a Beijing resident.73

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