How China's Leaders Steer a Massive Nation

"Talented people play the most important role in China's development," says Li. And then she talks about how schools and dormitories are being built, and how hundreds of cooperative efforts bring together the different parts of the country. Universities on the east coast support their counterparts in the west, and there are partnerships between eastern and western provinces. Besides, says Li, more than 10,000 university graduates voluntarily go to western China each year to teach subjects like English. Of course, she adds, this experience is useful to young people embarking on government careers, and some of the most sought-after positions are reserved for them. "But," says Li, "these graduates also have a very strong spirit of volunteerism. They want to make a contribution to society."

At the end of the meeting, as we are walking through the hallway, she says: "Our leaders have told us that this is a hundred-year project." And then she hurries past a tall floor vase to her next appointment. Her time is precious.

A New Quality of Life

Duan, the official in the west, is also in a hurry. Duan builds things, and he does so because he can. Lanzhou is not Stuttgart, where protests have held up a major rail development project. Chinese pragmatists don't have to worry about how their plans will affect endangered species like the hermit beetle.

The land already belongs to the state, and the migrant workers who are building this city are hardworking and happy to be earning about 2,500 Yuan, or roughly €300, a month. The people who are living there now can be relocated. A government brochure clearly outlines how they should feel about the whole thing. "The construction of the Lanzhou New Area is a splendid solution that was conceived by the city government and the party committee to implement the Great Western Development Strategy," the brochure reads. It also specifies, in tiny lettering, how much compensation the government will provide for specific items, such as 4,000 Yuan for a concrete well and 700 Yuan for a gravesite (per coffin).

There are indeed farmers in Lanzhou who support the New Area, even though they know that there will be a lake where their houses now stand. They hope that they will be able to work as drivers for business executives in the new city. And then there are people like the medical student who eventually wants to move to Beijing, because it's the best place to work. He says that his biggest dream in life is to own a Lamborghini.

They are the people for whom the government is doing all of this, so that it can offer them something, a new quality of life. It doesn't want the students to leave, because the brain drain is one of Lanzhou's biggest problems. It wants farmers to be motivated by hope instead of rage. And, of course, the mayor and the party secretary in Lanzhou are also thinking about their careers, given that economic growth is still the gauge of a local politician's success.

Meanwhile the city is growing rapidly, with a current population of 3.6 million. But Lanzhou, wedged between mountains, declared the world's most polluted city 14 years ago, has no room to expand. Officials even considered removing mountaintops, but then they opted for the flat, undeveloped land out near the airport instead.

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