Time has come to take a gamble on the Wild West
When the mainland leadership announced its ambitious 'go west' programme in 2000, the excitement over tapping the Wild West was palpable from almost everyone and everywhere, from the people in the poorer western regions and the overseas media to foreign businessmen.
Seven years later, Beijing does not have much to show for this, despite billions of yuan invested in infrastructure projects. The wealth gap is as wide as ever and the residents in the vast and poor western regions bitterly complain that they have been left behind.
With uncharacteristic frankness, central government officials have openly admitted as much. Lack of funds, poor transport infrastructure and low education standards are hampering the development of the region, the top officials in charge of the 'go west' campaign said several days before the opening of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
Wang Jinxiang, deputy minister of the National Development and Reform Commission, admitted that the western region had attracted only 3 per cent of foreign direct investment. Per capita GDP of the west was about 6,000 yuan in 2005, much less than the national average.
This has given more ammunition to the NPC and CPPCC delegates from the west to criticise the central government and to urge it to allow the western provinces to spend more on mega-industrial projects and speed up the progress of industrialisation.
But the mainland leadership must resist the temptation and the intense lobbying. After all, the bad news is a blessing in disguise, particularly from the ecological point of view. Precisely because of lack of funds and poor transport infrastructure, industrialisation has been historically slow in the western region.
This has preserved not only the tradition and cultures of ethnic minorities but also the fragile environment of the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau, the forests in Yunnan and Sichuan and the plains of Inner Mongolia .
But the ecological balance has already shifted for the worse in the past seven years. The mainland leadership has invested billions of yuan to tap the vast mineral deposits including oil and gas, plans to dam more rivers, and even destroy the environment by diverting the region's rivers to Beijing and other northern cities thousands of kilometres away. All this is aimed at satisfying the thirst for energy and resources in the booming coastal regions.
With the wealth gap widening, officials in the western region have pursued industrial and mining projects that are damaging the environment. Farmers have ignored the impact of felling trees to cultivate land and used crude methods to dig for coal and gold.
Official media reports said the environmental damage in the western region was getting worse. Visitors to the headwaters of the Yangtze and Yellow, the mainland's two biggest rivers, in Qinghai have been shocked by the scale of the degradation.
Massive industrialisation in the west, even one-third of the scale in the east, will bring irreversible ecological disasters, not only for the whole region but for the whole country.
Thus it is heartening to see Premier Wen Jiabao, when delivering his work report last Monday, emphasise that the 'go west' campaign would continue to focus on infrastructure projects, ecological protection, science, education and development of speciality industries. Mega-industrial projects and encouraging farmers to cultivate land or undertake small-scale gold digging or mining is not the only way to boost people's living standards.
It can also be argued that, for the sake of the environment and long-term economic security of the country, the mainland leadership should pay monthly salaries to farmers in the west in exchange for returning their farmland to its natural state or for giving up mining. With soaring revenues, the government can afford it.
Mainland leaders have long argued that the western region should develop so-called speciality industries such as tourism to boost revenues. But that has been slow.
However, they can boost tourism and lift living standards in the west by first overcoming ideological barriers to the development of the gaming and entertainment industry.
The mainland leadership is close to approving horse racing, following years of lobbying. Instead of allowing the races in the booming east as widely expected, it should allow them only in the western region, a move that would greatly boost employment.
Eventually, when the time comes to liberalise gambling, there is no better location than the Wild West.