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Last Updated: Sunday, 20 November 2005, 00:33 GMT
Chasing the dream in modern China
By Jill McGivering, BBC News in Wuhan

Li Sheng-tsiang is a local success story.

Brought up in a small fishing community on the outskirts of the central Chinese city of Wuhan in Hubei Province, his school friends laughed at him when he said he wanted to run his own business.

Modern shopping mall in Wuhan
Wuhan is quickly changing

But the economic reforms brought new opportunities and today Mr Li runs a electric cable factory employing 70 people.

The new wealth being generated by factories like Mr Li's and by an estimated 4,500 foreign joint ventures now established in the city, is transforming Wuhan.

Western-style shopping centres with top international designer brands are springing up. The most popular items are said to be those big sporting logos.

Hi-tech business parks and plush middle-class apartment blocks are being built too. But all this is still beyond the financial reach of many ordinary workers here.

Migrant worker Pu Shan-ling
Wuhan is great... There are lots of opportunities to earn money
Pu Shan-ling, migrant worker

I visited a construction site in the centre of Wuhan. Most of the workers clambering across the bamboo scaffolding were migrant workers.

When they stopped to eat their lunch, I went to meet one, a middle-aged man called Pu Shan-ling. He was from the western province of Sichuan and had worked in construction in Wuhan for the last four years, he told me.

"Wuhan is great," he said. "Everything about it is good. The economy is good and it's very open. There are lots of opportunities to earn money."

The eating and living conditions, though, were not as good as back home with his wife and child, he added. He led me to the back of the building site to a one-storey block of whitewashed rooms where he and other migrant workers lived.

It was crowded with bunk beds, sparsely finished with a bare concrete floor and glassless windows. I was told that workers like Pu Shan-ling earned $2-3 a day - but clearly he saw that as a better wage than he could earn back in Sichuan province.

But for those who are earning well, like the Li family, Wuhan is offering the trappings of a new, more luxurious lifestyle. I visited the Li family in their home, part of a gated development set back from the main road.

His daughter, 16-year-old Xue, showed me round, pointing out excitedly the big living room, dining room, wall-mounted TV screen and the family's multiple bedrooms.

The apartment was pristine with polished wooden floors and glass-fronted cabinets showcasing glasses and bottles of brandy. Every piece of furniture looked brand new.

Different priorities

Mrs Li, immaculately groomed, told me over tea that her parents had also come from humble origins - as factory workers.

"They worked very hard," she said. "It was mainly about their meals, getting enough to eat. But my generation has all the things we need - food, a flat and some everyday living stuff, like a TV set and air conditioning."

Her daughter's generation, she went on, would benefit even further. "For them, it will be about how to enjoy a better life," she said. "Like having holidays, travelling around."

Xue's outlook was certainly different again from her parents. She goes to Wuhan's prestigious Foreign Languages School and loves practising her impressively fluent English.

Li Xue
Xue, 16, dreams of an even brighter future

In her bright, sunny bedroom, a photograph of a singer with the Irish pop group Westlife had pride of place.

She liked to go to her room to call her friends, she said, so her parents could not hear what they were talking about. Everyone at school had at least one mobile phone, she added.

I asked her how she saw Wuhan in the future, given the rapid changes the city had seen in the last few years.

"It will be much faster," she said. "In the future life it'll be a high-tech society. Wuhan will be completely different. There'll be many skyscrapers, the roads will be wider and I'll take my laptop every day with me."

That is a common dream here in Wuhan - the hope that in another 10 years, this and other central Chinese cities could be as wealthy and international as Shanghai today.

But the challenge is making sure that as this happens, those still excluded from the boom are lifted out of poverty too.


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