Hebei has learned to live with less, so powerful neighbours can have more

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 July, 2008, 12:00am

Long-time Hebei resident Shi Chongde used to travel between Shijiazhuang , the provincial capital, and Beijing on a regular basis, and the attitudes of railway service staff towards the two destinations always cut deep into his Hebei pride.

'They would clear the cabin and collect all the rubbish when the train was about to arrive in Beijing, but in the opposite direction, the crew would play cards or simply sit there watching the whole cabin fill up with empty bottles and fruit peel,' Mr Shi said.

To add insult to injury, many of the crews worked for the Hebei railway authority and lived in Shijiazhuang. 'If you don't respect your hometown in the first place, there is no way others will respect you and your hometown,' he said.

The attitude Mr Shi described is at the heart of the way the province sees itself compared with its powerful neighbours, the municipalities Beijing and Tianjin . For decades, Hebei's main reason for being has been to serve the needs of its betters, particularly Beijing. But this has been at the expense of Hebei's own development.

A 2005 report by the Asian Development Bank disclosed for the first time in detailed numbers just what kind of sacrifice the province has made for its neighbours. The report said 2.73 million Hebei residents from 3,798 villages in 32 counties near the Beijing and Tianjin borders were living in poverty.

'Our conclusion is that there is a large-scale poverty belt in the areas surrounding the two big municipalities of Beijing and Tianjin,' the report said.

This is in stark contrast to other booming central cities that have helped surrounding areas expand their economies.

The Yangtze River Delta area with Shanghai in the centre and the Pearl River Delta area centred around Guangzhou and Shenzhen have helped surrounding regions develop quickly by allowing those nearby cities to share their resources and supply huge consumer demand.

But Hebei is obviously an exception to the theory of 'getting rich together'.

For example, as neighbour to Beijing and Tianjin, Hebei has to limit the number of potentially profitable large-scale factories or industries that could pollute water resources.

Media reports said Chicheng county in Zhangjiakou lost about 1 billion yuan (HK$ 1.15 billion) in income between 1996 and 2002 to protect water resources. Chengde has had to forgo about the same amount in potential income by banning factories from being built along the Chaobai River, a major water resource for the capital.

At the same time, Hebei is one of the most water-scarce provinces in the country. Its residents use about 386 cubic metres of water per person per year, about one-eighth of the national average.

On top of the water shortage, 'water resources in many cities and counties have been specifically reserved to secure the water supply to Beijing and Tianjin', the Hebei government website said.

The Guanting Reservoir northwest of Beijing has long been a major source for the capital, but Beijing stopped drawing from the reservoir in the late 1990s after it became polluted by upstream factories.

Hebei ordered factories and farmers to move out of the surrounding areas after the central government ordered the province to clean up supplies in time for the Beijing Olympic Games.

Farmers in the area were even asked to grow drought-resistant crops to consume as little water as possible, with the water savings to be used to meet Beijing's needs. Farmers lost about 13,500 yuan per year for every hectare they converted to drought-resistant crops, but government subsidies only made up for about half those losses.

Xiao Yutian , a Hebei member of the National People's Congress, told this year's NPC meeting that matters had got so bad that farmers, particularly in Zhangjiakou, lived in run-down houses and could only afford to eat meat once a year, during the spring festival.

'They even see tofu, a regular food, as something expensive that one can only afford to buy once in a while. Do you believe that's how hundreds of thousands of people are living just 100km away from Beijing?' Mr Xiao asked.

To be fair, the so-called poverty belt in Hebei has received growing attention since the 2005 Asian Development Bank report. The State Council has since asked Beijing and Tianjin to help boost Hebei's economy, but it might take years for those measures to yield results.

Media attention will probably not shine on the poverty belt during the Hebei stages of the Olympic torch relay because authorities have deliberately excluded underdeveloped areas from the route.

Only Shijiazhuang, a booming industrial town Tangshan , and Qinhuangdao , a seaside resort and host city of Olympic soccer games, were selected to showcase Hebei.

The three cities share the hallmarks of modernisation drives - high-rise buildings, widened streets and block after block of newly planted trees and flowers.

The three cities even share a common joke which probably started in Qinhuangdao. The joke, which is doing the rounds in a Qinhuangdao chat room, describes the confusion of a US pilot sent to bomb the city as he nears its skyline. 'Are you sure this city hasn't been bombed already?' the pilot asks.

Qinhuangdao residents used the joke to mock the city's rampant, poorly planned expansion, which left many large holes in the ground when some big construction projects failed at the halfway point.

People in Shijiazhuang and Tangshan quickly adopted the joke and changed the city name to reflect the changes in their own cities.

'Shijiazhuang has basically been a big construction site for the past three to five years - they build and then they tear it down before rebuilding. That's basically what they have been doing,' Mr Shi, a commuter, said.

He has seen buildings reach higher and streets become greener, but people's living standards have not risen along with the 'face projects'.

'I don't blame Beijing or anyone, because they don't make decisions for Hebei or Shijiazhuang. The simple fact has been local officials did not do their jobs,' Mr Shi said.