New York     Dr. Cesar Chelala

In 1990, during my first trip to China, I had the unique opportunity of meeting Mrs. Chou Fei, the widow of Dr. Ma Haide, who had died in 1988, and who was one of the doctors closest to Mao Zedong. Dr. Ma Haide’s original name was George Hatem. He was born in a Lebanese-American family in New York State.  After graduating as a physician, Dr. Hatem, along with his colleagues Lazar Katz and Robert Levinson traveled to Shanghai, where he established his medical practice and changed his name to Ma Haide.

Disillusioned with corruption in Shanghai and the Chinese Nationalists, he closed his office and went to Yan'an to provide medical assistance to the troops of Mao Zedong. One of his first patients was Mao himself. At the time, it was feared that the Chinese leader had an incurable disease and one of his tasks was to confirm or deny the rumor. Mao’s closest collaborators were eagerly waiting Ma Haide’s opinion, because he was a foreign doctor not involved in the infighting surrounding Mao Zedong.

Dr. Ma Haide denied that Mao had a fatal disease and in 1949, he became a public health officer in the new communist government. Thanks to his efforts leprosy was eliminated from China and many venereal diseases were much more effectively controlled. Ma Haide received the famous Lasker prize for his work. He was also the first foreigner who was granted citizenship in the People’s Republic of China (PRC.)

The price of progress

Knowing Dr. Ma Haide’s background, I was naturally keen to meet his wife, Chou Sufei, a prestigious artist. When I told her that I came with regards from Dr. Sabin she invited me to tea the next day at her home. That visit allowed me to see the dramatic changes that from the urbanistic point of view were happening in Beijing. She lived in a siheyuan, the name given to a type of traditional residence in Beijing, several of which are connected by a series of alleys called hutongs.

The siheyuan have a large central courtyard where children play and where neighbors can perform common tasks. However, from the middle of last century the number of these residences has begun to decrease dramatically with only a few remaining in Beijing. Today they are like historical relics of the past, being systematically replaced by gigantic skyscrapers. Change is not only urbanistic, however. The anonymous life of the great modern buildings is gradually replacing communal life.

When I arrived at Mrs. Chou Sufei’s home, she met me with her secretary, an unusually tall and very cordial man. Ms. Chou Sufei, by contrast, was a relatively small but very attractive woman who possessed an intriguing beauty. We had the opportunity to talk about the big changes that were happening in China –not only from the urbanistic point of view- which at the time was at the beginning of a dynamic and unstoppable economic development.

The unpleasant consequences of economic development

China's rapid economic progress has not only made of China one of the leading economic powers but has also had serious consequences on the environment and on the health of its population. The country is now home to 16 of the 20 cities with the highest pollution in the planet, and is thought to be second country in carbon dioxide emissions.

Air pollution in major Chinese cities is considerable. This is due not only to toxic emissions from cars, but also to the burning of coal as a source of highly polluting energy. Air pollution and water affects everyone, but especially children and the elderly. Children are particularly susceptible because their immune system and detoxification systems are not fully developed.

Moreover, China has only 7% of arable land, which decreases at a rate of one million hectares per year because of the rapid increase in urbanization. As a result, the country must import large quantity of grains such as soybeans and wheat and other commodities like copper, aluminum, cement and oil. China’s economic reforms have benefited millions of people, improving their quality of life. Paradoxically, the widespread use and abuse of natural resources has depleted them and contaminated the environment.

In northern China, for example, severe pollution has cut down five and a half years from life expectancy. This is the result of policies from the 1950s to provide free heating by coal burning which significantly increased pollution levels, particularly in cities north of the Huai River, mid-way between the Yellow River and the Yangtze River, the two largest rivers in China.

Will China be the leading world economic power?

Many believe the answer to this question is positive, and differ only on when China will replace the United States as the number one world power. They base their opinion on the rapid and sustained growth of the Chinese economy and the characteristics of its relations with other countries. While the United States expands its military dominance, the Chinese, by contrast, do it commercially.

Even if China has made enormous progress in recent decades, it still faces significant challenges. Large disparities remain between coastal and inland regions, and the country has energy supply shortages, environmental degradation, corruption and international problems, particularly related to the sovereignty of the islands in the South China Sea.

The Chinese economy has yet to solve the huge and growing gap between rich and poor (around 1% of the population owns 40 to 60% of the wealth) and an unbridled construction bubble in recent decades, has left vacancies in thousands of apartments or houses. In this regard, the economic crises in the United States and several European countries were based on the burst of a similar construction bubble.

However, one cannot ignore the country’s economic development has lifted millions of people out of poverty, tripling the income of urban residents and increasing life expectancy of its inhabitants as quality of life improves.

Nobody should doubt the seriousness and determination of Chinese leaders in facing these challenges. In a rapidly changing world, it is risky to predict how China’s economic development will continue. One thing is certain, however, unless the unforeseen occurs, China will be a leading economic power and one of the most significant players in the global political chess game.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is the foreign correspondent of The Middle East Times International (Australia).


Copyright 2007