Page last updated at 11:15 GMT, Monday, 15 June 2009 12:15 UK

Part 1: In search of the real China

Part 1: Heading out into the real China Part 2: The mathematics of Chinese labour Part 3: China's mass consumer culture Part 4: Change from 60 years of Communism Part 5: The chill of China's economic crisis Part 7: The multiple realities of China Part 6: In Pictures: A trip through China's crisis

By Paul Mason
Reporting for BBC Newsnight and World News America

I have started my China journey in Yanchi County. Yanchi is all about sheep. It is a major lamb producing area and home to the Tan Yang breed of sheep, whose wool is so naturally curly it looks like perfectly coiffed dreadlocks.

Li Xiao Li
Yanchi is a major lamb producing area

For the Tan Yang sheep this means an early and final visit to the halal slaughterhouse in downtown Yanchi.

There is more to lament for the Tan Yang. Here the Great Wall of China runs in a kind of jagged, sandy mound for hundreds of miles alongside the motorway.

It is a haunting sight, dotted with swallows' nests and shepherds' huts. But the ground is so barren here that the government has banned sheep grazing.

So the Tan Yang have to spend most of their days in the farmyards, eating their staple diet of cornmeal and liquorice bush.

For the people of Yanchi life is hard, but for 20 years the upside has been perpetual economic growth and incremental improvement.

I want my kids to have a job like yours. I keep telling them - don't be like us. Don't live the hard life we've lived.
Li Xiao Li

I meet Li Xiao Li as she carefully removes the skin of a Tan Yang, taking care not to get blood on her designer jeans.

"I want my kids to have a job like yours," she tells me. "I keep telling them - don't be like us. Don't live the hard life we've lived."

To send her daughter to school she spends most of her monthly income, and puts the rest aside to cover health costs.

This is the big problem in China: absent a welfare state, even poor-ish Chinese people save lots of their money, or spend it on health and education. The actual consumer economy is weak.

Escaping the propaganda

That is a problem now because the export economy has taken a massive hit - exports were 22% down in the first quarter of this year.

China has to try and rebalance its economy towards domestic demand.

Easy for economists to say, but it would mean a revolution in the life of people like Ms Li.

It is to find out if they can do this that I am on this journey, with legendary Chinese fixer and translator, Edera Liang, and driver Wang Zhi Gang.

I am trying to dodge the usual obstacles that greet foreign journalists in China - the dinners, the rice wine, the official briefings from propaganda chiefs - and just see it as it is.

Paul Mason's journey across China will be broadcast in two parts on Newsnight on Tuesday 16 and Wednesday 17 June 2009 at 10.30BST on BBC Two, and then available to watch on the Newsnight website.

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