Thursday, May 15, 2008

Rural China and the quake

Stories of the quake in Sichuan Province earlier this week seem to be using the word "rural" more in the past few days to describe both the epicenter and the devastated towns and villages nearby. The earliest images and reports were out of cities, but we are now seeing photos like these.

The caption for the photo, left (Peter Parks, Agence France-Presse Getty Images): "A rescuer carried an elderly woman from Beichuan, one of many towns that had been inaccessible after the quake." Top right is a photo of Yingxiu, in Wenchuan County (the quake's epicenter). (Photo Chen Kai/Xinhua, via AP). With some high rise apartments buildings visible, it might not look very "rural" by U.S. standards, but that is what a caption in the print edition of the NYT today labeled it. The same NYT caption put the "city's" population at about 10,000 (among whom an estimated 2,300 survived). That would make it "micropolitan" (a form of "non-metropolitan") under the OMB definition. Certainly, this aerial photo suggests that it is remote.

I have often thought that, even though the rural-urban divide in the developed world is relevant to so many issues, the divide between the urban "haves" and the rural "have nots" is much greater in the developing world. (These issues include, for purposes of natural disasters, delivery of services, although the handling of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, respectively, may defy my general rule.) Yes, I realize that a characterization as "developing" is not really accurate as applied to China, but perhaps it helps make my point that in countries like China (South Africa and India are other examples), the urban part of the country is highly developed -- as developed as Europe or the United States. That part of the county we think of as the "first world." The rural parts, on the other hand, are "developing." You may be thinking, but isn't that so by definition? Doesn't "rural" connote "undeveloped"? Yes and no.

What I am talking about is a matter of degree. Sure, a lifestyle and services gap exists between rural and urban residents in highly and more uniformly developed countries. That's what I've been writing about for a few years now. It isn't nearly as vast, however, as in countries like China and South Africa, where great numbers of rural residents don't have access, for example, to basic sanitation. (I realize that the same is also true for some urban residents in these countries, as in the townships in South Africa and the hutongs in Beijing). In these countries, the divide between their world-class cities and extremely deprived rural areas is much sharper than in the U.S. The gap seems largely unbridged socially and economically, except as rural residents migrate to cities for work, and the hope of a better life.

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