Thu, Jul 31, 2003 - Page 16 News List

The long road to prosperity

China's economic boom has skipped over millions living in the country's interior, who nevertheless strive to realize their own dreams of prosperity

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , YIWU, CHINA

Jin Xiaoqin and her husband have climbed the Yiwu economic pyramid and own a factory making plastic figurines of Mary and Jesus. Xiaoqin sits at her booth at the Yiwu commodities market.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

Jin Xiaoqin epitomizes all that is going right in China.

Through 15 years of hard work and keen attention to the fickle global market for trinkets, she and her husband have climbed from street peddling to owning a plastics factory with 50 workers, all migrants from poorer regions.

This year, their hottest products are painted figurines of Jesus and Mary, sold to buyers from the US and South Korea.

"The glow-in-the dark statues sell pretty well, but not as well as the painted ones," Jin noted, perusing her display in Yiwu city's vast wholesale market for small goods of every kind.

Her trajectory is multiplied by the thousands in Yiwu, perhaps the most sizzling city in the zooming province of Zhejiang, in China's southeast.

Three hundred twenty-two kilometers to the interior is Caijiacun -- a broken farm village that functions mainly as a source of workers for Yiwu and other boomtowns. Caijiacun epitomizes the rural stagnation that could be China's most intractable problem.

"We pretty much lead a hand-to-mouth existence," said Cai Songquan, whose 24-year-old son, like most everyone else in the Jiangxi province countryside who is young and able, left home while in his teens.

Linking these disparate worlds are the migrant workers, more than 100 million nationwide, men and women from China's interior.

They travel for work because they have no alternatives and because they dream of better days. In factories large and small, foreign-owned and domestic, they assemble computer parts or shoes or, as Cai's son did until he was laid off a few weeks ago from a factory in Yiwu, toys.

The migrants face numbingly low wages as they scramble to save for marriage and a home and, in their wildest dreams, a little shop back home.

A clever and lucky few gain skills that help start them up the modern economy, on a long ladder.

The fates of migrants like Cai's son, along with that of relatives in the villages who increasingly depend on money sent home, is one of China's biggest unknowns.

Will large numbers of migrants, like those elsewhere, climb to lives of reliable earnings and respect, perhaps even seeing a child or grandchild make it to college? Or will many remain on a virtual treadmill, as the son, Cai Gaoxiang, feels he has done over the past year, watching as the meager pay for his labor has actually declined?

On such issues may hinge whether China hardens into extremes of wealth and poverty, as some fear today, or emerges as the middle-class country that everyone hopes for.

A tour from booming Zhejiang to the interconnected villages of Jiangxi provides evidence for both futures.

The boom

"Build the World's Biggest Supermarket, Construct an International Shopping Heaven!" reads the giant electronic sign at the entrance of what once was called the Yiwu Small Commodities Wholesale Market. Now, relocated in a cavernous new four-story air-conditioned quarters, the market has renamed itself, with no apparent hubris, the Yiwu World Trade Center.

Inside are thousands of stalls staffed by local factory owners and traders, offering an astonishing selection of hair bows and Christmas ornaments, key rings, plastic jewelry, lava lamps and every other made-in-China trinket that fill stores the world over.

Jin Xiaoqin, a lively woman in her mid-40s, waits for walk-in buyers and watches the fax machine in her booth. On the shelves are a dozen variants of Christian statuary.

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