BEIJING – Amid all the talk of China’s rise and Beijing’s new influence at the top table of international diplomacy, it is sometimes easy to forget that the Asian giant is still, in many respects, a third-world country.
The UN Children’s Fund offered a sharp reminder this week, with a report highlighting the way in which diarrhea worldwide kills 1.5 million children under 5 years old every year. And there, on the list of the top 15 countries that account for nearly three-quarters of the deaths, is China.
This is not the kind of international company that China is accustomed to keeping these days. Its leaders - jetting between UN summits and G20 meetings - far prefer to hear how the US and China are going to shape the future of the planet.
Maybe they will. And to a large extent, China owes its place on UNICEF’s list to the country’s enormous population: There are so many children under 5 here that even a small proportion of them works out to a large absolute number.
“This is the numbers phenomenon of China,” says Dale Rutstein, a spokesman for UNICEF. “30,000 deaths in Uganda is very different from 40,000 deaths in China.”
At the same time, he adds: “Large parts of China are still underdeveloped. It is not surprising that China still has to grapple with the problem” of poverty-related diseases.
Wide swaths of China are indeed horribly poor, and that fact tends to get obscured by all the attention that the world pays to futuristic skyscrapers in Beijing and Shanghai, or to China’s position as the second-largest exporter in the world.
Certainly, China’s economic reforms over the past 30 years have pulled hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. But 300 million people here are still living on under a dollar a day, the World Bank’s criterion for absolute poverty.
It’s no easier living on less than a dollar a day here than it is in Burkina Faso, and the people trying – almost all in the countryside – lack many of the same basic services that their African counterparts lack.
Chinese officials sometimes like to play up their country’s status as a “developing nation”: It helps them argue against the sort of hard-and-fast CO2 emissions limits that rich countries have set for themselves, for example.
But being a “developing nation” has other implications – like 40,000 preventable diseases a year.