Kevin Lee

China's Biggest Challenge: Urbanizing the Interior

  1. Yang's Journey

    Yang's Journey

    China is today the world's second-largest economy, but to sustain its fierce growth it needs to expand beyond its coastal boomtowns and urbanize its mostly rural interior. As interior towns like Daojiang expand to accommodate new buildings, businesses, and people, former farmers and laborers are finding the adjustment challenging, in many cases making the leap from the 19th to the 21st century almost overnight. While some citizens may struggle to keep up with the daunting pace of change, others embrace the economic opportunity. One man, 76-year-old retired farmer Yang Caiguan, is doing the best he can to adapt to a new world he still doesn't quite understand.

    Click here to see how Yang's world has changed.

    Kevin Lee
  2. World's No. 2 Economy--For Now

    World's No. 2 Economy--For Now

    In 2010, China leapfrogged Japan to become the world's second-biggest economy. The country's 10 percent average growth rate since the 1980s puts its economy on a trajectory to surpass the U.S. within 20 years, according to Bloomberg calculations.
  3. Record Output

    Record Output

    China's industrial production has grown almost fourfold since the country's accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001. That's double the fastest recorded increase in the U.S., during the eight years after the Great Depression.
  4. Torrid Growth

    Torrid Growth

    "There is absolutely torrid growth taking place in central China," said Daniel Rosen, a principal of the Rhodium Group, a New York-based economic advisory firm.

    Accelerating the urbanization of central and western China will push economies there to grow, Vice Premier Li Keqiang said in a speech in February. Boosting domestic demand and moving people into the cities are priorities to maintain China's fast long-term growth, he said.

    The Chinese government has said it aims to quadruple per-capita gross domestic product from 2000 to 2020.

    Qilai Shen
  5. China's Copper Addiction

    China's Copper Addiction

    China's consumption of the metal has tripled in a decade to an estimated 6.8 million tons this year, according to CRU, the London-based metals and mining consulting firm.

    The demand is being fed by the country's growing appetite for power, consumer electronics and appliances. The country's annual need will almost triple to 20 million tons by 2035, according to Cru.

    Qilai Shen
  6. Enriching the Interior

    Enriching the Interior

    Increasingly more Chinese are moving to new urban centers. This transformation epitomizes the government's vision for the next--and potentially biggest--phase in its economic rise: bringing the prosperity of its coastal boomtowns--such as Shanghai and Guangzhou--inland, where more than half of its 1.3 billion people live, mostly in rural homes.

    Qilai Shen
  7. Future Boomtowns

    Future Boomtowns

    Many new urban centers are springing up across central China. Daojiang is 500 kilometers (311 miles) from China's southern central manufacturing belt, but local government officials aim to double the size of the town to attract new business. By 2012, three new highways will connect Dao County to the east and south coasts, as well as to Inner Mongolia in the north. The first rail line through Dao opened last year, connecting it to Luoyang in the north and Zhanjiang on the south coast.

    Qilai Shen
  8. Great Leap Forward

    Great Leap Forward

    The move from a farm to the city can be jarring for many Chinese. Yang Caiguan, a retired 76-year-old farmer and laborer, is one of many who have done so in China's continued drive to urbanize its vast rural population. Last year he moved to Daojiang with his wife, Jiang, into a gated development called Songlinyuan. It had been bought for them for 350,000 yuan ($50,000) by their factory-owning son, Yang Dongsheng, out of a feeling of "xiao dao," the Chinese expression for filial piety.

    Qilai Shen
  9. All the Mod Cons

    All the Mod Cons

    Yang's apartment is filled with the amenities of modern life--flat-screen TV, air conditioners, washing machine, water heater, and gas-ignition stove--foreign to him and his wife until this year.

    Qilai Shen
  10. Unfamiliar Technology

    Unfamiliar Technology

    After they moved in, Yang and his wife found themselves surrounded by modern technology they didn't know how to use. For a time, Yang, who is illiterate, would phone his children daily asking how to operate the appliances. Unused to her new electric-ignition gas stove because of the way it whooshes when it lights up, Jiang stopped cooking. Now Yang prepares all the meals.

    Qilai Shen
  11. Old Habits

    Old Habits

    For all the creature comforts, Yang isn't sure if their new life is better than the old. "It's a bit more comfortable living here," he says. "In terms of routines, I'm more used to my old house. There we were more at ease. I could spit on the ground freely and walk around."

    Qilai Shen
  12. Living in the Past

    Living in the Past

    Before moving to Daojiang, the Yangs had lived 8 kilometers (5 miles) and seemingly a century away in a mud-brick house Yang built in Caoxieping, Chinese for "Straw Shoes Floor." There was no running water, the toilet was an open cesspool, and Jiang cooked hunched over a wood-fired stove.

    Qilai Shen
  13. Simple Pleasures

    Simple Pleasures

    Yang can still enjoy smoking tobacco in a bamboo pipe or drinking the yam wine he brought back to Songlinyuan from his village house.

    Qilai Shen
  14. Escaping Death

    Escaping Death

    The Yangs' journey to Daojiang traces China's history during the Communist era. Once local landlords living in a 300-year-old ancestral mansion, Yang's family were considered class enemies during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. They escaped slaughter during Dao county's bloody 1967 rampage after being protected by village officials, Yang says.

    Qilai Shen
  15. Energy Consumption

    Energy Consumption

    The Yangs were taken aback when their new lifestyle led to a monthly electricity bill of 200 yuan ($30), equal to what they paid for a full year back in Caoxieping. Yang suspects that some of his appliances aren't as energy-efficient as their labels claim. "The meter runs really fast when this is turned on," Yang says. "Does it really save a lot of electricity?"

    Qilai Shen
  16. Commercial Communists

    Commercial Communists

    Hand-painted advertisements for new appliances and consumer electronics line the main road to Daojiang from Guilin, a popular riverside tourist destination to the south.

    Qilai Shen
  17. Government Subsidies

    Government Subsidies

    Rural customers spent 67.8 billion yuan buying home appliances in the first half of 2010, more than the whole of last year's total, spurred on by government subsidies for farmers. About 600,000 tons of refined copper consumed in China last year went into home appliances, equivalent to the amount of metal that would be needed to build 82 Eiffel Towers.

    Qilai Shen
  18. No. 1 Salesman

    No. 1 Salesman

    Inside the showroom of the Yinfeng Home Appliances Supermarket, Cheng Zhifang belts out karaoke between serving shoppers. By his own claim the best salesman on the floor, the 29-year-old quit itinerant jobs on the coast last year to come back home in the hope of finding better prospects.

    Qilai Shen
  19. On the Grid

    On the Grid

    Thousands of new energy consumers like the Yangs mean that there are hugely growing demands on China's many regional grids, which are expected to eat one million tons of copper each year for the next five years, according to CRU, a London-based metals and mining consulting firm.

    Qilai Shen
  20. Grow--or Else

    Grow--or Else

    China must succeed in building out counties like Dao, or risk social turmoil, says Zhang Jun, director of the China Center for Economic Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. "There is no alternative," he says. "A failure will exacerbate the imbalance with eastern China. That would impose a huge threat to stability, not only to China but the whole world."

    Qilai Shen
  21. The Loneliness of the Cities

    The Loneliness of the Cities

    But it won't be easy for the people who have to make the most abrupt changes. Yang and his wife still seek out remnants of their old lifestyle to escape the loneliness of their new environment. At 8 a.m. most days the couple walks to a small roadside house where they gamble up to 10 yuan ($1.50) a day playing a traditional card game with new acquaintances. "We gotta get used to it," says Yang. "We didn't want to move. My son wanted us to live here."

    Qilai Shen