Over the past few days, I’ve mentioned the village on the cliff several times, but haven’t yet discussed one of the biggest questions I had on my mind during my time there, Why didn’t the gov’t build this village a road? Why is it being left to charities to do the gov’t’s work?
I should say that we aren’t just talking about a single road, the majority of the projects we visited were infrastructure projects. One involved repairing an irrigation system, another was to fix a broken water pump, and the third was to build a water pump. Throughout China this charity is also involved in rebuilding schools, roads, bridges and village clinics.
This ties back into an important argument made by economists who say despite the hundreds of billions of dollars the Chinese gov’t has poured into infrastructure over the last few decades, China’s infrastructure investment is still far behind the US and other developed countries. This, they argue, means that China’s investing is still producing excellent returns, and is far from the waste of resources that more pessimistic economists allege.
Perhaps this is why I was so frustrated by what I saw in the countryside. Yes, there is still clearly a need, and yes, China is still funding infrastructure with billions of dollars, but a tiny percentage of that is reaching those who live in poverty. These optimistic economists fail to ask whether or not these resources are being used to fulfill actual needs, or if they are being wasted on vanity projects (like turning bridges into tunnels).
The Chinese aid worker I talked with about this issue tried valiantly to come up with a politically safe answer to my question, “Why didn’t the gov’t build this village road?” Finally she said, “They didn’t build it because it wouldn’t help local GDP very much. They are only interested in projects that build their resume and reputation.” The ugly fact is that instead of building a road that would have allowed these 40 families access to the city and its markets, which did make a huge difference for them, the local gov’t decided instead to invest in a new old looking town that might someday attract tourists.
The same was true of the other projects that had been ignored by local officials. In the most remote village we visited the charity had built a water pumping station. I had heard about how villagers prior to the pump had been forced to walk several kilometers and cross over a mountain to the next valley for fresh water, and how much better off they were now thanks to our efforts. So you can imagine my surprise when the village was next to a rather large stream.
“Why don’t they just use this water?” I asked, “Why were they going so far away?” The first response was, “They have always done it this way.” The second response was, “During the 60’s a mine was built upstream, it released a lot of contaminates into the water which caused many diseases.”
So even here, in one of the most isolated villages I had ever been to, reckless gov’t projects had created a need that had never existed before AND then refused to address the problem (a similar theme appeared today in People’s Daily). It should be noted that gov’t officials took us to see the pump in new cars, and then asked the charity to help pay for the needed repairs.
As you can probably tell reading this, I am more than a little frustrated by this issue. China’s gov’t has footed the bill for Olympic stadiums, high-speed railways, airports, space shuttles, and who knows how many official cars and banquets, but somehow still fails to provide the basics. While many have been impressed by China’s political system when visiting Shanghai and Beijing, one would have the exact opposite impression if they visited these villages.