China: Under Construction

CBS News Correspondent Barry Petersen
This Letter From Asia comes to you from Hengdien in Southern China. We all know that China is rising. Look at how many things we buy from this country. And every time an American buys something with the label "made in China," it helps to make China – because this country is seemingly under construction from one end to the other.

A lot of what China is building are simply better places to live because with a fast growing economy living better is now possible. And thanks to the success of capitalism some will live better than others…a housing development outside Shanghai is called Thames Village and has a distinct English theme.

Yes, there's a statue of Shakespeare, and, yes one more time, Winston Churchill stands overseeing it all.

But it's the houses that are the draw…it will cost up to a million dollars or more to live in one of these showplaces. That means only the lucky few will ever live here…since for the vast population of China the annual income is about a thousand dollars a year.

But it's not just shelter…take a look at the Shanghai. On an island once better known for its small farms, there is a skyline that would be the envy of any metropolis.

It is called Pudong, the centerpiece in China's ambition to be Asia economic capital. And if you think it's impressive now...the Chinese government just announced that it will invest the money to continue developing Pudong until it is twice its current size.

Now let's switch cities to the mother of all construction projects….Beijing. The building here is two-fold…first, an entirely new business district with high-end apartments, five-star international hotels, and skyscraper after skyscraper of offices.

But look around a few corners and you see that other construction project…the new venues going up fast for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

China can do all this quickly for a variety of reasons…but the most important one is that no person can own land here. When the communists took power, they ended land ownership – so land belongs to the government and when they need it for, say, a sports stadium there are no appeals, no courts, no way to stop it.

That means the disappearance of something Beijingers miss… the hutong neighborhoods. They are centuries old collections of often one room houses usually with no plumbing… toilets are at the end of the block.

In one hutong, for instance, our favorite Peking Duck restaurant. Best to call us if you want to go there, because it's easy to miss the last turn down the right alley.

And there is another reason to call us…because these neighborhoods are disappearing at the drop of a bulldozer.

And that is a price to pay for progress…after the skyscrapers are finished and the streets congested with new traffic…the cities will not only never look the same…they will never quite be the same.

By Barry Petersen