The Digital Journalist
Impressions from China
January 2005

by James Whitlow Delano

To observe a society in a snapshot of time can create a false impression. Erasing the past is nothing new to China. The Communist Revolution and the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution are two recent examples of such iconoclastic behavior. What is different now is the scale and concentration of the effort. It is distilled in its purity and awe-inspiring for its totality.

China surpassed Japan in 2004 to become the second-largest consumer of petroleum, after the United States, on the planet. Its economy and social stability, not to mention its might, will profoundly affect the prospects for world peace in the years ahead.

Despite such sparkling growth statistics, China's per capita GDP is only around US$1,000 a year and, despite a government described of as communist, one of the world's greatest chasms exists between rich and poor.

No great wave of immigration, as seen 80-100 years ago in America, is necessary to meet a demand for cheap labor, as China's depressed, agrarian interior possesses millions of landless peasants eager to illegally migrate to cities to earn higher wages for unskilled labor. These peasants are the fodder for urban factories which fuel China's phenomenal economic growth.

While reforming markets, the government's social safety net was largely abandoned, creating uncertainty in social welfare, education and retirement. In the past five years begging on the streets, by the aged and those permanently disabled by industrial accidents, and prostitution have reappeared with a vengeance.

Large swathes of land have been confiscated from under peasants' and even city residents' feet to make room for grand construction projects targeting the moneyed classes or foreign investors. Entire cities have been inundated as a result of dam projects. Some 1.3 million people were uprooted for the 3 Gorges Dam project alone along the Yangtze River.

Meanwhile a small, select minority has grown fantastically wealthy and prone to conspicuous material consumption. The seeds for class warfare have been laid. Will China be able to bridge the growing gulf between wealth and poverty?

My goal is to visually document the effects of this great transformation on the people of the People's Republic of China and the environment in which they live.

© James Whitlow Delano