BEIJING - Here's some not very good news for the Israeli student: In China, students pay tuition fees too, and the fees are even higher, relatively, than those paid in Israel - since 1989, the Chinese student has been paying around $1,000 a year in tuition fees. And here's some not very pleasant news for drivers too: While there may be only around 10 million cars in China, the Chinese driver is forced to pay a fair sum for the privilege to drive because numerous toll roads have conquered the country's expanses.
These developments are part of the profound revolution China is undergoing toward becoming a market economy. There are no free meals; everything must be paid for. The transition from the era of Stalinist-like centralized planning to a market economy was initiated by former Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping in 1978.
"To get rich is glorious," he said at the time, uttering words that even Benjamin Netanyahu would be afraid to say. The pace of the reforms was stepped up in the wake of the student riots in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
One citizen told me of the terrible shortages and the rationing that existed in China in the 1970s. His mother would use chopsticks to drip just a drop or two of oil into a pan to cook with because every family received just a single bottle of oil a month. The transition to a market economy has extricated hundreds of millions of Chinese from the circle of poverty. Thus far, some 50 to 60 percent of the economy has passed over into private hands, and the day is not far off when China will catch up with Israel - in this regard too.
Private enterprise has also led to a significant revolution when it comes to the growth rate. In the past 25 years, the Chinese economy has grown at an average rate of 9 percent a year, with the principal engines of this growth rate being exports and the field of construction.
Some 10 years ago, the regime privatized the construction industry and permitted private purchases of apartments, resulting in a massive increase in the rate of construction, the clearing away of slums and the construction of skyscrapers. China today is the world's biggest consumer of steel and cement.
The construction boom has also been boosted by the process of urbanization that China is undergoing, with many young people leaving their poor villages and moving to the cities for work in construction and infrastructure. If 25 years ago some 80 percent of the population made a living from agriculture, today just 60 percent of the Chinese population works the land (1 percent is around 13 million people).
The Chinese farmer has also undergone a revolution. The economic freedom has allowed him to cultivate what the market demands, and not what is dictated to him from above. As a result his standard of living has risen, but on the other hand, the economic gap between him and the residents of the big cities has widened.
Since 1980, China's GDP, in real terms, has increased eightfold, as opposed to a 250 percent increase in Israel's GDP over the same period. The standard of living in China, therefore, is not all that low in relation to Israel, as many believe.
A laborer in a Chinese city earns a wage of some $200 a month; an engineer or government official makes around $500 a month. But to assess correctly the standard of living, one must take into account the very low level of prices in China. GNP per capita in China is some $1,100; but when one includes the low level of prices into the equation, GNP per capita climbs to $5,500, about one third of the standard of living in Israel.
A visitor to China will be surprised to discover that his prejudices about the vast country have to undergo a comprehensive revision: Beijing is cleaner than Tel Aviv; its markets sparkle when compared to the Carmel market; there are parks, sculptures and street performances; and the people are well dressed.
I was overcome with envy when I heard the Chinese lauding the market economy and private enterprise. "We realized the need to move over to a market economy in time, and we are doing it in an orderly and gradual fashion," they say.
"Just a moment," I said. "What about the price? What about the increasing gaps between the city and the village, the new chase after the money gods?"
To this they replied with a Chinese proverb: "When you open the window to air the room, some flies can come in too."
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