Cities like Shanghai and Beijing have been transformed by China's booming economy.
Until now change has been far slower for the millions living far away in China's vast interior.
But now there are signs that they too may be seeing the benefits.
When I first visited Mengzi it had the feel of a country town - a place where deep-fried bumble-bees are a delicacy, where fruit-sellers squatted by the dusty unpaved roads, alongside horse-drawn carts waiting to take farmers back to their fields after market day.
The new government offices dominate the centre of Mengzi
My in-laws had worked in the state-run factories; my father-in-law making fertiliser, my mother-in-law producing batteries.
Their flat, inside the battery factory compound, was bog-standard worker accommodation from the 1970s - a couple of rooms with no amenities.
No bathroom. No hot water. And worst of all no toilet.
To answer calls of nature, one had to cross a railway line and walk two blocks to the communal toilet, where one squatted in full public view.
Water was fetched from an outside tap which was painstakingly padlocked after each trip to stop water thieves.
To wash, we visited friends or the public showers. And there was no soundproofing either.
Night after night we would lie in bed, listening to the couple upstairs screaming at each other.
In the battery factory, privacy was a meaningless concept. Most nights when the shouting reached a certain pitch, my husband Feng would go upstairs to calm tempers.
This year, however, the trip back was different. My in-laws have retired to a new suburb which didn't exist last time we visited.
Their flat has two white-tiled bathrooms with hot running water and toilets.
Smart new developments have sprung up in the suburbs of Mengzi
The complex they live in is one of several new ones. It is like setting foot in a Stepford Wives dream; rows of pastel-pink low-rise flats with curlicued iron balconies, sports utility vehicles perched on the grassy verges and uniformed guards monitoring the gates.
The Mengzi of old - with its chaos and noise - seemed a world away.
And the town itself is unrecognisable. The dusty streets have been transformed into six-lane highways circling beautifully manicured roundabouts.
Civic fountains spout water, as the street-lights change colour in a smugly synchronised display.
The centrepiece is an enormous white building, built on a slope so it dominates the town. An army of gardeners tend the shrubs, and sweep the pristine piazzas.
One friend told us his monthly salary would not even buy five kilos of meat
"It is bigger than Buckingham Palace," my husband marvelled. And this was the reason for the change.
The prefectural government had moved from the neighbouring town to Mengzi, which had been spruced up to celebrate its new status.
Workers had toiled 24 hours a day for 100 days to finish the work in time. And according to the word on the street, building the new government offices cost $10m (£5.5m).
Cycle of dependence
On the surface, the changes seem to have injected new money and new opportunities into a struggling town.
Mobile phone shops punctuate the streets and a new shopping precinct has sprung up selling smart clothes and flashy accessories.
But look closer, and the picture is not quite right. During working hours, lots of people mill around, playing cards and mah-jong.
These are the unemployed and the underemployed, who work for the town's crumbling state-run enterprises.
When we went back to the battery factory, it was clear little had actually changed for the better.
Workers at Mengzi's battery factory still live in run-down accommodation
Our neighbours were still squatting in the courtyard washing their clothes by hand.
Opposite, people were still living in a building condemned as unsafe two years ago.
And the factory workers were not even working any more. The factory had apparently run out of money to buy supplies, so had simply stopped production.
Employees were still drawing small salaries and technically had jobs, but did not know when production would start again, so were just killing time.
One friend told us his monthly salary would not even buy five kilos of meat. These are the silent victims of China's reform process.
They are not starving, but they are caught in a cycle of dependence and poverty.
Pride and problems
Nobody here has much confidence in the future, another friend said. The changes are just cosmetic, they are for the government, not the people and they have not tackled the underlying problems.
However, some people are proud of their new town. And for some, like my in-laws, life has improved.
But for those accustomed to collective life, adapting is not always easy.
The government is slowly removing itself from people's lives, leaving them to stand - or fall - on their own
"I can't get used to the new flat," my father-in-law kept saying. "It's so quiet."
When I asked him what he thought of the new government offices, he admitted he had not even seen them.
For ordinary workers like my father-in-law, government institutions were once everything: offering a job, a home, security for life.
Now the government is slowly removing itself from people's lives, leaving them to stand - or fall - on their own.
In Mengzi, the government has shown it can bring about sweeping change in a short time.
It is just a crying shame that ability was not used to solve the town's problems.
Instead, its legacy is a palace for the local emperors that stands as a monument to government waste and extravagance.
From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 18 September, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.