Year of the Leaping Tiger | world | Hindustan Times
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Year of the Leaping Tiger

China may be topping global lists, but the contradictions of living in an economy in the fast lane persist, reports Reshma Patil.

world Updated: Jan 23, 2010 23:55 IST
Reshma Patil

At Mao’s Stinky Tofu shop beside Tiananmen Square, migrants stirring woks of hot oil complain about the four yuan (Rs 28) price of the fermented bean curd famed for its exotic smell – which resembles the odour of fetid kitchen waste.

“Business is bad and there are no tourists” the migrants from the less developed province of Anhui complained. Quizzed about China’s latest economic accomplishments — it recently became the world's top exporter and is set to become Asia's number one economy — they said they had never heard about them.

A 15-minute drive from Tiananmen Square into the heart of modern Beijing, a young practitioner of Chinese medicine walked out of the country’s first Apple store. He window shops once a month there, looking for a laptop for his girlfriend. “I’m a proud Chinese. This year I can buy my family’s first car,’’ said Guo Hui, standing in the cluster of glass buildings named the Village, after trendy Greenwich Village in Manhattan. The Chinese bought more cars than the Americans last year, making China the world’s biggest automobile market.

China’s vibrant economy is sailing on course in 2010 and will displace Japan as Asia’s largest economy this year. The Chinese economy beat the communist leadership’s 8 per cent target to expand 8.7 per cent in 2009 — growth hit an exuberant 10.7 per cent in the last quarter.

But analysts in official think tanks and the government-run media prefer to are busy reminding the world that China is still a developing nation with a widening urban-rural income gap. “China’s still a developing nation with hard tasks ahead,’’ said Zhao Gancheng, director of South Asia studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies. “Despite all the good news, we can’t avoid seeing the realities in domestic development.”

Chinese professionals Hindustan Times randomly interviewed about living in Asia’s fastest-growing economy, were not bullish about their personal prospects.

“My big challenge is to find a better job and learn English,’’ said Chen Xi, an economics graduate and migrant from Urumqi, the capital of northwest Xinjiang province, as she strolled the Village, passed a movie theatre where tickets for the 3-D movie Avatar had been sold out. Chen works as secretary in an IT firm and goes by her English name — Coffee. Asked if China’s rising economy improved her life, Coffee instantly replied: “Not yet.’’

China entered 2010, the Year of the Tiger, according to the Chinese zodiac, by surpassing Germany as the world’s biggest exporter despite a 16 per cent slump in Chinese exports last year. “China exports more than Germany? I don’t think so,’’ said Coffee, who first tasted the beverage after which she is named only a decade ago.

The news made waves beyond China, but the Chinese media reported it cautiously, giving more space to fears of a bubble economy, inflation and the problem of surging bank loans. “In structure of exports, innovation and competitiveness, China is far from being eligible for the title of trade power,” Xinhua quoted analyst Zhao Jinping, of the Development Research Centre of the Cabinet.

Beijingers would rather discuss housing prices that have seen their fastest increase in 18 months. “I cannot dream of owning a house,’’ said Guo. “I’ve never even travelled outside China.’’

China, the world’s biggest investor in high-speed railways, launched the world’s fastest long-distance bullet train in December. What mattered to the migrants selling stinky tofu was that they couldn’t afford train tickets for the annual Chinese New Year holiday next month when 210 million people rush home.

In Tibet, officials are planning the world’s highest airport. In east China, the mainland’s richest village Huaxi is building its first skyscraper.

January figures estimate China has 384 million netizens — 86 million more than last year — making it home to the world’s biggest internet-user population. The top online debate: the pros and cons about an $8,888,888 donation from a Chinese alumnus to Yale University.

Young taxi driver Li Xue Wu, who tunes into nationalistic radio news, gossips like Mumbaiites about migrants shrinking the capital’s jobs and resources. “China has been the world’s biggest power for 5,000 years, you know,’’ he said. He proffers advice on how India should advance its economy. “India has free speech. But if India also wants to develop, China’s one-child policy is necessary.’’

China’s foreign exchange reserves — the world’s biggest — grew 23 per cent last year to 2.4 trillion dollars. The sum doesn’t ease the worries of Chinese students who were urged to join clerical village jobs last year to ease unemployment.

“In my dorm, we discuss China’s rise. But we mostly discuss how to earn money,” said electronics student Pan Wu Da from eastern Hangzhou city, as he bought a laptop. China is overtaking Japan in sheer wealth, but the Chinese techie said he wants to move to Japan to learn how to genuinely innovate in technology.