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Development matters to ordinary people

2011-02-23 11:20

Growth and development can mean the same thing sometimes, but they are different, at least to my understanding. In Chinese, growth is translated as zengzhang and is related to figures, while development is fazhan and refers to progress toward better quality.

Theoretically, there can be fast economic growth without development. For example, a section of road can be renovated three or five times a year, which will consume a lot of materials such as asphalt and manpower. Such consumption will certainly contribute to the growth of gross domestic product (GDP) but it will not contribute to the development of social wealth. Neither will it improve the quality of life for residents. Instead, the lives of those residents living near the road will be badly disrupted.

GDP does not reflect improved living standards or a better quality of life. In such figure-related growth, residents do not benefit. Instead they suffer, at least those living in the vicinity of the renovated road. They have to tolerate the dust, inconvenient transport and the noise from the construction. It is the leaders who benefit from such growth, as GDP figures have become the benchmark of good governance and official performance.

Therefore, China overtaking Japan as the world's second largest economy may not mean as much to an individual as a specific local policy that reduces highway charges to trucks transporting vegetables and thus lowers vegetable prices.

Individuals do not tend to see beyond their own life and work. They can be shortsighted sometimes. But their realistic attitude helps them spot specific problems in their daily lives that need to be addressed by the implementation of public policies. And while they do not necessarily feel the effects of growth figures they do feel the effects of development.

The other day while I was walking on the pavement, I overheard one man talking with his companion about how badly the pavement of a section of his neighborhood was paved. The man said that it had been paved several times in just a couple of years, but it had only made the condition of the pavement even worse.

The striking contrast between a commercial tower that epitomizes modern technology and uneven pavements full of hazards in the same city should be at least an embarrassment to city authorities.

Yet local authorities are busy making new magnificent plans. Of the more than 200 prefecture level cities, 186 have set the target of becoming international cities in the next five years.

Such plans entail big construction projects, such as skyscrapers, convention centers, large squares and other landmark structures, which will no doubt make these cities look smart and modern, but which may not improve the quality of life for the majority of residents.

When a local government finds the technology to erect a modern skyscraper but not the means to make a usable pavement, it is not hard to identify where the problem lies.

The contribution a skyscraper makes to growth is, of course, much greater than that of a section of pavement. In addition, the former looks more conspicuous, which undoubtedly adds to the pride of local authorities. But this growth is not the development that benefits ordinary residents.

A traditional Chinese saying goes: "The first glance at the courtyard will reveal how diligent and frugal a housewife is, while the process of making and serving tea will show how virtuous the housewife is."

The same is true with a city and even a country. A bad pavement suggests that city authorities do not care very much about ordinary residents.

The transformation of the development mode, which is the priority for the country's 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015), should be the shift of emphasis to development that can really benefit ordinary residents.

The author is a senior writer with China Daily.

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