China’s Mosaic

To the Editors:

Nicholas Kristof is right to say that living standards have risen in China since economic reforms began in the late 1970s [“A Little Leap Forward,” NYR, June 24, reviewing China’s Democratic Future]. However, the official figures and anecdotal evidence he cites for proof of “stupendous” economic development are widely discredited by economists both in China and abroad. At least one in ten still lives in poverty, according to Wu Zhongmin of the Central Party School in Beijing. Moreover, average income flows do not translate directly into overall quality-of-life improvements because of environmental degradation, a collapse of public services, and Latin American–sized inequalities, the subject of numerous World Bank research papers on China. This is part of the reason why conventional Western perceptions of China as a success and India as a failure, which Kristof goes on to endorse, are also being challenged both inside and outside China. Even if we entirely ignore the issue of civil and political liberties (a huge “if” that no serious scholar of human affairs would consider reasonable), India has performed as well as if not better than China in the last quarter-century in enhancing material welfare. India’s Human Development Index (a broad measure of material welfare calculated by the United Nations Development Programme) remains behind China because its starting point was lower and its economic reforms began a decade later. The 850 to 2,000 killed in the 2002 Gujarat communal riots in India compare to the 5,000 to 10,000 executed annually by China on charges as slight as selling black market crude oil, and the 700 believers in Falun Gong tortured to death by police since 1999. Finally, China’s unresolved constitutional crisis, the subject of my book, has no parallel in India.

Bruce Gilley
Princeton, New Jersey

Nicholas Kristof replies:

Come on! China has tremendous inequities and is capable of mind-boggling repression, but to deny that its economic development has been “stupendous” strikes me as a reluctance to shi shi qiu shi, or seek truth from facts. The World Bank’s World Development Indicators 2004, for exam-ple, reports that China’s average annual growth rate in the 1980s was 10.3 percent and from 1990 to 2002 was 9.7 percent—the highest in the world for that period. Forthe world’s most populous country to have the world’s fastest growth strikes me as pretty stupendous (by comparison, India registered growth of 5.7 percent in the first period and 5.8 percent in the latter period).

Sure, there are problems with the data. But traveling to the poorest parts of China—Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia, Guizhou, and so on—only confirms the transformation that has taken place. To take one example, there’s a family I’ve visited periodically over the last fifteen years in the Dabie Mountains of central China. The village used to be accessible only by footpath, there was no electricity, girls got little if any education, and families ate meat perhaps once a year, on Chinese New Year. On my last visit, the village had a road, electricity, and—because of remittances from peasants who have gone to Guangdong to work—plenty of new homes. Girls now go to elementary school at least, occasionally to high school.

Granted, China still has lots of poor people. But the prevalence of child malnutrition dropped from 17 percent in 1990 to 10 percent in 2002, and every other measure of welfare—maternal mortality, child mortality, and so on—shows similar sharp improvements. The executions and torture in China are real and are part of the mosaic. So are the improvements in child mortality since 1990, which mean that 211,000 fewer children now die each year. If you’re a parent in a poor part of China who can now count on your children surviving, that’s pretty stupendous.