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May 30, 2017

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Chengdu kaleidoscope: hot pot, 'spicy girls' and panda

CHENGDU, Sichuan -- This 4,000-year-old city is the capital of Sichuan, known for millennia as "the land of abundance." Besides abundance, Chengdu is also famous for its rich cultural and historical heritage. The Bashu culture, referring to Sichuan's two ancient states Ba and Shu, dates back 4,000 years according to excavated Sanxingdui Ruin (三星堆遗址) south of Chengdu. To the ordinary visitor, however, Chengdu 's lure includes its pungent foot, sultry "spicy girls," and the cuddly panda, among others.

Stepping out of Chengdu's Shuangliu International Airport (双流国际机场) at midnight, the group of overseas journalists including this reporter was welcomed by smiling, uniformed young volunteers, mostly college students recruited by our host to help the jaded travelers after a back-breaking flight from half a world away to attend a global Chinese media forum. As the bus rolled out of the airport and sped to the city, the first thing greeting the visitors was the ubiquitous slogans, on billboards and on walls, exhorting people to "Build a Harmonious Society," (构建和谐社会) "Build a Civilized Society," (建设文明社会) and "March to a Modestly Well-Off Society" (迎向小康社会).

The message is clear. Mainland China is giving top priority to harmony in its "peaceful rise" (though Beijing prefers the rather self-deprecating "peaceful development") and its long march to a society free from abject poverty. The definition of "modestly well-off," or "xiaokang" in Chinese, is vague. When Deng Xiaoping initiated his version of "perestroika" and "glasnost" (reform and opening up) in 1978, xiaokang was defined as US$1,000 in per capita gross domestic product (GDP), when the figure at that time was a meager US$150. Now, however, xiaokang is known to mean a much higher figure because China's per capita GDP already exceeded US$2000 in 2006. The new target is US$6,000 in 2020 if not sooner.

It is not hard to understand why harmony has become so important today. It is because the opposite would be too frightening to contemplate. For nearly 30 years, the mainland's GDP has increased 10 folds but the distribution of wealth has been unequal and inequitable, resulting in widespread discontent among the rural poor and the urban unemployed, whose pent-up anger has often led to violent protests. It was President Hu Jintao who first coined the catchword in 2005 when he sensed that the danger of the ever-widening income gap between rich and poor could derail the country's economic development and doom the regime's one-party rule.

In Chengdu, however, the building of a "harmonious society" seemed less a problem than elsewhere in the country. People in Chengdu, and Sichuan at large, are content and laid-back, preferring to enjoy life more than to worry about it. They are optimists if not hedonists. They love to have fun. They love to kill time in the ubiquitous teahouses, shooting the bull all day in one of their favorite pastimes known as "bai longmenzhen" (摆龙门降) meaning chatting, rambling and gossiping on any subject. Life in the Land of Abundance is so easy and idyllic that they believe in the saying "don't come to Sichuan when young; don't leave Sichuan when old." (少不入川,老不离川). But there are exceptions. Deng Xiaoping and Zhu De left Sichuan young to join Mao Zdeong's peasant revolution and ended up as the founders of the PRC. So did the ROC's centenarian statesman Chang Chun and maestro artist Chang Ta-chien, who followed a different pursuit to become towering figures in contemporary Chinese history.

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