Reporter's Notebook: A Journey Down the Yangtze

She has no refrigerator or TV -- electricity is expensive, and she just uses a little to power a single lightbulb inside her house at night. She has never been to Shanghai -- or anywhere else outside her home province of Sichuan -- but she knows that the price of meat there is even higher than in her local village, which makes her think life must be even tougher in Shanghai.

Her big dream is to be able to rebuild her house with a strong roof -- during the winter storms she sometimes fears that her roof will be blown away. "It is good to be able to feel safe inside your house." As for her life -- well, it all depended on how the weather treated her crops -- corn, oranges, vegetables, a little rice. "Kao tian chi fan," she said. "I depend on heaven to eat food."

And so it goes in much of China, a crowded, noisy, difficult society to live in that requires much tolerance and much putting up with adversity. Over their long history, the Chinese have become masters at going with the flow.

Of course some challenge the system -- Mao Zedong was successful with his revolution in 1949 -- but most who try get crushed, rightly or wrongly, in a society that for centuries has simply not had much room to accommodate individual priorities.

In the city of Chongqing we met migrant laborers from the countryside who worked on construction sites for $200 to $300 a month. They ate better in their new jobs than if they had stayed at home on the farm -- and yet they knew they didn't stand a chance in their lifetimes to ever buy one of the $100,000 apartments they were building. But maybe if they had enough money to get their children through school one of them might be so fortunate.

In Chongqing I saw how wide the income gap is becoming in China. A very pleasant woman, Rachel Zhou, who runs the newly opened Cartier store, told me how she had just sold a watch for over $26,000. She had gotten her job after working in a four-star hotel for some years, and having been exposed to foreigners and their lifestyle she understood the concept of luxury.

But when she brought her parents to visit the Cartier store, they walked around as if they had seen ghosts peaking out from the jewelry cases. "They could not understand how a ring could cost that much," she said.

Rachel was born in 1977, as the excesses of Maoism came to an end -- but her parents lived through the famines and the madness of the Cultural Revolution when anarchy prevailed. They could not grasp the world their daughter seemed so comfortable in.

A New Skyline

Some of Chongqing's new wealth comes from the fact that the Three Gorges Dam has deepened the water level of the river enough to allow big container ships to reach the city from the coast, boosting trade.

The Chinese government is keen to spread economic development across the country, conscious of the fact that there is now a huge gap between the eastern seaboard where most development had occurred, and the still relatively backward interior. Chongqing has been among the first beneficiaries -- and the city is acquiring the requisite skyscrapers as befits its newfound wealth, including a replica of the Chrysler Building in Manhattan.

Downriver from Chongqing some of the negative effects of the Three Gorges Dam also have started to become clear. Since the reservoir behind the dam began filling up in 2003, about one and a half million people have been forced to leave their homes and move to higher ground.

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