China is a land of incredible extremes.
Last week I was in Beijing. At
the start of the week, a cool wind from the north kept temperatures at or below the seasonal average of the low-teens
(centigrade); then on Wednesday (the 18th) something very strange happened. The temperature hit an incredible 29.2
degrees. The hottest March temperature there for 59 years.
There are numerous
examples of extreme climatic variation and differences. One of the most extreme is the contrast between the winter temperatures
in Heilongjiang and Hainan. While sunbathers are basking in temperatures nudging 30C on the beaches of the tropical
island of Hainan; their compatriots in the north-eastern province of Heilongjiang are wrapping up like Michelin men to protect
themselves from minus 30C.
You can choose whatever measure you like – culture,
altitude, attitudes, the economy, zoology, geography, art, education standards, household income… (go on… really,
whatever you like…) – and you could be almost certain that the two poles of the given category will be miles
The variation in household income is as extreme as the above climatic contrasts.
For example, in the first nine months of 2008, the average rural household income in Gansu province (the country’s poorest
region) was 1,952 yuan – or just above seven yuan per day (about US$1); while the average Shanghai urban household (the
richest part of mainland China) earned the equivalent of 225 yuan a day (or about US$32). A 32 times difference is quite
something, but compare the top ten per cent of Shanghai urban households and the bottom ten per cent of Gansu rural households
and you begin to get the idea of just how extreme the extremes are – particularly if you compare the figures after spending
on essentials has been removed.
The differences in discretionary spending power are simply enormous;
but that’s not to say that some people in the rural areas of the further flung regions of China are not able and willing
to pay a significant premium for foreign brands. The size of this group varies greatly by region, area, and district,
but suffice to say that even in the most unlikely of places, certain foreign brands are selling like hot dumplings (or cakes
if you prefer).
When it comes to remote places, Yunnan province (which, in terms of rural income,
ranks the 4th poorest region in China) has more than its fair share…
This morning, I touched down at Tengchong airport, in western Yunnan. It’s one of those airports that is
either difficult to land at, or downright impossible to (in which case you have to do a U turn and fly back to Kunming, the
provincial capital). The peculiar topography of the area, which is in the lower levels of the Gaoligong mountains,
make for an entertaining (for any masochists on board) final approach. The pilot was battling the strong winds and unpredictable
updrafts right up to the moment the wheels of the China Eastern flight bounced on to the tarmac. Usually, in these situations,
you can comfort yourself with the thought that the pilot “must have done this a thousand times before”.
Not so with pilots flying in to Tengchong I’m afraid. The airport was opened on the 16th of last month –
and has the worrying distinction of being the newest airport in China.
After calming my nerves,
I grabbed a battered taxi, which somehow looked incongruous parked outside the shiny-new airport terminal. We headed
west, towards Burma. And, four hours later, I finished the long day in a remote part of rural western Yunnan, chatting
with a couple of farmers about the water levels of their local river.
Talking of extremes and
contradictions… only 12 hours earlier, I had been in one of the country’s oldest airports – Hongqiao –
in super-rich Shanghai.