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The Forgotten

But nearly all of the media have been unanimous in one positive point: average Chinese citizens are immensely proud of these Olympics. Thousands of Chinese, "Many Without Event Tickets, Flock to Beijing to Bask in National Pride," read the subhead to a recent Washington Post story. "Even the Cynical Succumb to a Moment of Real National Pride," read another New York Times headline. And indeed, many Chinese are proud of being able to stage such an important event.

But focusing solely on pride ignores another China, one far different from the middle classes with the money to travel to Beijing. As China has liberalized its economy, vast agricultural regions of the country have fallen far behind the cities--so much so that this “communist” nation now has one of the worst income inequalities in Asia. Indeed, according to the World Bank over 200 million Chinese earn less than $1.25 per day, a near-African wage, and today China’s Gini coefficient, the standard measure of inequality, is far higher than that of India, historically considering the ultimate class-stratified society. And for these rural Chinese, the Olympics are just one more event to watch from afar, before they turn back to their daily struggle.

Trips over numerous years to rural parts of Yunnan, a poor province in China’s southwest, showed me this China. In small villages, families I met lived in one-room stone dwellings, where they slept on mats and cooked on a simple stove. Outside, they raised a few pigs, or sowed small terraces of rice and vegetables.

Yunnan is hardly unique. Interior China’s GDP lags far behind eastern China’s, fulfilling former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s prophecy when he unleashed China’s reforms that “some will get rich first.” As China opens to foreign imports, small-plot Chinese farmers will find it even harder to make a living, since they’ll be competing with the massive Brazilian, American, and Australian agribusinesses. Worse, the pollution caused by Chinese industry is destroying farmland and water sources--vast parts of the agricultural heartland will virtually run dry within thirty years. Meanwhile, rural people actually face higher tax levies, according to their income, than many richer city citizens, partly because local officials just want to make more money.

Not surprisingly, many of these rural dwellers aren’t exactly waiting to see Michael Phelps’s latest swim. At best, for rural Chinese the Games might be an interesting distraction on television, rather than a source of major pride. “It is something that only the people in cities around Beijing care about,” one young Chinese in a rural town told Rian Dundon, a photographer who studies youth culture in China’s interior. "People from Hunan [an interior province] and other far away places, we don't really feel very excited about it and I don't feel a personal connection to it.” Indeed, Dundon found that young people in the interior were angry that whatever positive impact comes from the Games would only be limited to the cities, not the interior. “As you know after all, the Olympics can only affect a very small part China. The rest will be left behind,” another young rural Chinese told him.

The bottom line is that the Olympics are not very important to the rural poor, who are unenthused by the prospect of glory for a country that has not done well by them. It’s telling that when recent polls have been done of Chinese satisfaction with their current life, the samples almost never include rural people. Rural Chinese women have one of the highest suicide rates in the world, while other polls of rural areas show high rates of anger at the high taxes and fees levied on rural people, essentially so that local officials can gorge themselves. “We don’t see the point of these Games,” one peasants’ activist told me last year, just after the police had thrown her out of her temporary house for the umpteenth time to stop her from protesting more. “We thought it might be good but it doesn’t help us”-–sentiments echoed by nearly every other rural activist I’ve spoken with.

It is these Chinese–-over half the country’s massive population lives in rural areas--more than the better-known, middle-class urban dissidents, who truly scare the Beijing regime. After all, unlike in other high-population countries, the vast majority of Chinese still live outside urban areas. As freedom of movement opens up, China eventually faces a poverty-driven mass migration that will make the 1930s Okies look like a minor stroll. Already, some 150 million Chinese have migrated to cities over recent  decades, often finding little work and remaining second-class citizens. Today, some cities in central China have begun developing areas full of homeless vagrants, who usually camp near transit stations, close to where they arrive. In Lanzhou, one particularly rough interior city, crowds of these migrants slept in a public park by the river, where I found them, early one morning, trying to sneak in an open-air bath before the police noticed.

When they stay at home, rural Chinese don’t stay quiet. Through media and their network of friends, even the most isolated rural-dwellers, I’ve found, now realize there is another China out there, that their urban peers enjoy luxuries like cars, large homes, and designer clothes. More aggressive Chinese reporting, too, has begun exposing the vast corruption of local officials. Although China remains a somewhat closed society, groundbreaking newspapers and magazines, as well as muckracking Internet sites (some rural people are able to obtain Internet information from relatives who spend time in cities) have exposed staggering numbers of corruption cases across the country, including many in rural areas.

And as their lives become harder, and they see officials and urban-dwellers helping themselves, many rural residents fight back. China’s own security forces say that there are 50,000 annual demonstrations against the government in the country, and most experts believe that the vast majority now occur in rural areas--including riots, in recent years, where villagers attacked or bombed police. Some angry farmers travel to Beijing, where they set up an entire “village” in an outlying suburb and use it as a base to launch protests near the Communist Party’s headquarters; when I tried to visit the “village,” last year my contact warned me he’d been roughed up there days earlier by police. “Eventually, this could explode somewhere into a much larger, more violent movement,” Li Datong, a prominent Chinese political writer, told me in Beijing.

What’s worse, the Olympics have actually made many rural people’s lives tougher. Like the protestors’ “village” in Beijing, most of the sites around the city where rural people came to try and plead their cases to higher officials have been shut down. Factories around the city, which often employ migrant workers from rural areas who are willing to do these dirty jobs for low pay-–but better pay than on the farms-–also have been closed, in an attempt to present a greener Potemkin façade for the Games. Meanwhile, activists told me, police have traveled across Beijing rounding up many of the migrant workers from rural areas who are living in the city and sending them home, in order to beautify Beijing as well--essentially forcing them out of both job and home. Even the cynical may have succumbed to national pride, as the Times headline said, but China’s forgotten poor have not.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a special correspondent for The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's China Program.

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By Joshua Kurlantzick