We first came across Ted Alcorn through our Sichuan as our Photo of the Day. When we delved into his Ted Alcorn website for a bit of background we discovered a Beijing-based Luce Scholar with an eye for film and photography. Also a graduate from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and their School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Ted now combines the two, working freelance on a number of related photographic and documentary projects in China and beyond. We asked him to talk us through a few of his images and thoughts about China and he has most kindly obliged with this thought-provoking look at the ever-expanding gap between rural and urban living in the PRC.>>>
Like a lot of foreigners visiting China for the first time, my entry-point was a city. Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong…the country’s urban areas are globally renowned, and with good reason: they are some of the most dynamic on earth. China’s cities are where businessmen work, where students enroll, where tourists sightsee.
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But cities obviously don't offer a complete picture of the country. In fact, more than half of the Chinese population still resides in rural areas— over 700 million people in 2009.
As a photographer, China’s rural areas present me with a different set of subjects than do urban areas. As in other countries, rural areas possess a different character of landscape, a different pace of life.
What isn’t necessarily visible through a lens, though, and what I've been very intrigued to learn, is that the contrast between urban and rural areas in China is not merely the natural divergence of people living under different circumstances. The divide has been widened and sustained by Chinese public policy.
Beginning in the 1950s, urban and rural areas in China were organized under totally different governance structures, with different sets of social services for the two populations. Every Chinese household was registered to their permanent home, classified as either urban or rural depending on its location, and prohibited from moving. A person’s relationship to the state—the benefits and responsibilities of their citizenship—are in turn determined by this rural or urban status. For example, the type of housing, healthcare, and education available to a person depend on where their household is registered.
Because this status is inherited from one’s parents and is almost impossible to alter, even today, a child born to a rural household faces a totally different set of circumstances than does a child born to an urban one. It's as if they were citizens of two distinct countries.
During China’s socialist period, the workings of the economic system depended on this separation of urban and rural populations and the society actually remained fairly equal despite it. But over the last three decades, as the country has opened up to the global economy and the urban areas have taken off, the rural areas have been left behind. When people talk about China being an 'unequal' country now, a big part of what they are describing comes down to this difference between urban and rural populations.
An average urban household's income is now three times higher than that of their rural counterpart, and the disparity continues to widen. Urban residents are also more likely to get a complete education, have access to good healthcare, and benefit from a pension in their old age.
The Chinese government recognizes that this is a problem and has made some small adjustments to the household registration system in recent years. It is now easier for rural residents to move their household registration to a town or small city, or to temporarily migrate to bigger cities for work. But most of these migrants still aren't able to transfer their household registration and thus to access education, housing, and social services in their urban place of residence.
As an outsider, and a very ignorant one at that, I can't do much more than observe. Certainly I hope that Chinese policymakers confront these problems and work to establish a fairer society. For visitors, I think it is enough to engage with the reality, and to acknowledge these invisible forces that nevertheless shape the lives of Chinese just as powerfully as visible obstacles do.
Editor's Note: China Through My Lens is a regular photo series featuring the work of photographers and avid travelers living in China. Photographers are asked to share five to ten of their favorite photographs of China with short explanations of each photo. The idea is to share each individuals' unique focus and view of China—moments captured through their camera lenses. Contact us if you would like to show China through your lens.