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The cost of success: What China cannot hide
WHAT CHINA CANNOT HIDE

 Visitors walk through smoggy haze in Bejing's Tiananmen Square. The environment bears the cost of economic success in China.
AP PHOTO/GREG BAKER
Visit the Photo Place
Date published: 11/6/2012

ROANOKE

--Riding on a tourist bus into the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou at dusk one evening, I saw two starkly contrasting images out of my window. Near at hand, a factory smokestack belching out black smog. In the distance, bright fireworks, part of a "fireworks festival" taking place as we arrived in the city.

I saw many such contrasts while traveling in China, but this one stands out. Most visitors to China see the "fireworks" close up. These are the remarkable economic achievements of the regime, the successes that have made China a global economic powerhouse. The black smoke represents the cost of success, which is all too often hidden, either by accident or design. Even in the short time I had in China, and even seeing only parts of four large urban areas, I saw plenty of evidence of the tug-of-war between black smoke and fireworks.

In Shanghai, I saw the ongoing construction of what will be the tallest building in the world. Nearby are some of the most impressive office buildings in the world. Less than 250 feet away from all this grandeur, I saw an elderly woman picking through the trash, looking for plastic. The same woman asked a group of young Chinese if they were finished with their plastic water bottles.

In a related contrast, I stayed in five-star hotels throughout my stay in China. Each one allotted two bottles of water per guest, per day, since even in the best hotels, tap water is not safe. I was told that everyone in China drinks bottled water or boils tap water before drinking. (China was one of 20 countries I visited in 2012; it was the only one where I had to brush my teeth with bottled water.) Five-star hotels highlight another typically Chinese contrast: Each has a modern Business Center and free WiFi. However, I could not log onto Facebook or to Google. More evidence of government control appeared elsewhere. At outlets for pearls and jade, I learned that the government owns all the pearls and jade in China. Indeed, even those who own private homes in the country do not own the land below them.


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