Development through a train window (Trans-Sib 3)

Some Chinese peasants are doing better.

The CW has it that Chinese peasants, still the majority of the population, have been left behind by the heady urban boom, on display here in central Changchun, an ordinary industrial city in Manchuria. Maybe so, but here’s a datum to the contrary: an unexciting snap, taken from the Chengde train, of a village in Hebei province, about 250 km NE of Beijing.


Most of the houses have obviously been newly rebuilt, with brick walls and higher roofs. (Feng Shui and the cost of land may explain why houses stay on the same plots.) This is entirely typical for the area. It’s dangerous to generalise about a huge country from anecdotal evidence; still, it is evidence that at least one substantial group of Chinese peasants are doing absolutely better than before, whether or not they are falling relatively behind the city-dwellers.

Villages in Manchuria didn’t seem to have so much new construction, though the houses tend to be bigger anyway. A speculative explanation lies in trade: Manchuria grows locally-consumed wheat, Hebei a lot of apples, which are showing up in our local supermarket in Spain. Export dependency has its downside; it’s not just the factory workers who will suffer when the exchange rate rises, as it must, to more realistic levels.

The broad-based development in China I saw contrasts even from the train window with Russia’s growth: visibly, the oligarchies that control the unequally distributed natural resources extract massive rents for lucky cities but leave others behind. On the China-Russia border, where Siberia’s timber is sucked south to feed a million Chinese building sites, compare the centre of the booming Chinese town of Manzhouli with its its derelict Russian counterpart of Zabaikalsk. (The shot is only a little unfair; there’s one street by the station of the usual seedy Soviet apartment blocks.) In western Siberia, spruce and beggar-free Omsk contrasts with brooding Tobolsk whose moment of glory was back in the seventeenth century. Kazan, capital of lucky Tatarstan, has money to blow on an ugly new mosque, and even a plush five-station metro – on which more in my next post.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web