Wed, Oct 25, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Wuhan highlights China's wealth divisions

AFP , WUHAN, CHINA

A waiter in Wuhan, China, lights up candles in God's Music Bar, a former Catholic church in an area that was a French concession in early 1900s, on Friday. Well-connected youths have taken to the bar for its expensive drinks.

PHOTO: AFP

In this booming industrial city of 10 million people, evidence of the problems China's rulers are trying to address in creating a more "harmonious society" are everywhere.

"Everyone has his own problems; myself, I have succeeded so I can pay for my bottle of cognac. This is harmony," said a 34-year-old businessman sitting in an old Catholic church in Wuhan's former French concession.

In a brash sign of the times, the church has been turned into "God's Music Bar," a trendy venue for the well-connected youth of the city who sip expensive drinks as they listen to a band blaring pop music.

The businessman's bottle of cognac cost him 500 yuan (US$63), more than a month's salary for many workers in Wuhan, which is the capital of Hubei Province and is located on the Yangtze River.

The average annual salary in Wuhan rose to 10,850 yuan last year but at the low end of the pay scale, many people still earn just 200 to 300 yuan a month.

And although the cost of living in Wuhan is nowhere what it is in China's booming cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, the social disparities Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) is targeting in his quest to build a "harmonious society" are huge.

Wuhan, like its peers, is in the midst of a building boom where old dilapidated quarters are being torn down and replaced by luxurious commercial centers that are destined to become windows into another world for the masses who need to hold onto their money to pay for the simpler basics in life -- education for their children and medical treatment.

"If you have enough money, then you can take care of yourself," said a local doctor who lamented the rising cost of medical care and the lack of a social security network.

As is common across China, locals stash their savings in the bank to wait for the proverbial rainy day when a loved one becomes sick or faces a medical crisis.

Wuhan's roads offer another contrast in social divisions where old and polluting buses, the government's answer to public transport, compete with sleek new sedans zipping along the city's long thoroughfares where the marble statues of revolutionary egalitarian and former chairman Mao Zedong (毛澤東) still stand.

As evening falls, the ordinary people still flock to the riverside where dancing and exercise is free, while the city's many karaoke parlors, their neon lights shining, offer the monied class a different kind of carousing.

In the mayor's office, officials are busy figuring out how to build a harmonious society while also holding on to the development model that has allowed Wuhan, like many other Chinese cities, to lift part of the population out of poverty in record time.

"Our growth rate reached 15.2 percent in the first nine months of the year," Wuhan Mayor Li Xian-sheng (李憲生) said in an interview.

"This corresponds to our needs," he said of a growth rate that outstripped the national average of 10.7 percent during the period.

Li said he needed a high growth rate to create jobs, his top priority, and to fight pollution in the city that is able to maintain a lot of greenery despite its drab surroundings.

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