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Glimpses of hope in the new China

Reporter's notebook: A test of faith

By CNN's Stan Grant in Guizhou

Miao worshippers at a state-approved church in southwestern China.
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2001: 7.3 percent
2002: 8.0 percent
2003: 9.3 percent
2004: 9.5 percent
2005: 8.0 percent (est.)
Source: IMF

(CNN) -- The women have tears in their eyes. I have been with them for barely two hours, I have barely even spoken to them, yet they are saying goodbye to me with tears in their eyes. They sing to me, a hymn in their own language.

"May God bless you...'til we meet again."

I have come to them over the mountains of Guizhou: here to their tiny church in the hills.

They are the Miao people, one of the dozen different ethnic groups in this province, one of the poorest in all of China.

All day, day after day, year after year, they work in their fields, barely yielding enough to eat. Around them China is changing, the outside world is throwing up opportunities once unthinkable.

They watch the young of Guizhou leave for the rich province of Guangdong in the south; the promise of a better life, a richer life. But they are old and they stay.

Here all that is new gives way to all that is timeless: The new China? No. They are thinking of a life beyond this one and so they come here to their tiny church to pray and to sing and to cry.

A man has brought me here: a Christian man whose faith must still remain a secret, few friends he can confide in, his work colleagues unaware. His wife, a member of the Communist Party, prefers not to know.

But here Wu Da Ping has nothing to fear, nothing to explain. Pictures of Jesus, frayed, yellowing, torn from the pages of old books, adorn the walls. The people pray quietly, the preacher speaks his sermon softly. Someone will mutter "Amen", others burst spontaneously, randomly, into song. Such devotion, so pure.

I am among people who have suffered for their faith.

I meet a man arrested during China's Cultural Revolution. Allegiance then was only to Chairman Mao, to the Communist Party. Is he free now to practice his faith? I ask. This is a "legal" church, after all. A sign of a more open, more accepting China. He laughs.

This is the China I have witnessed. A land of smoke and mirrors: a mirage. Here freedom can be measured more accurately on a balance sheet than in the sum total of a man's life. "To get rich is glorious" and the freedom to attain that glory seems boundless. But the glory of the spirit, that is rationed. A "freedom" to be doled out cautiously; of course, such freedom is not freedom at all but the ultimate display of control: concession.

A man here may well laugh.

But if concession it is, then concession it will be. Faith will be practised, gods worshipped. Mothers will leave children to find work. A dollar a day will be deemed a worthy return for such sacrifice. Factories will lure the hopeful, who will swell the populations of already bulging cities. Smog will fill the air and the lungs. Politicians will go unelected and protest unreported.

And all is acceptable if the wheel keeps turning, if the rich get richer and the poor get to see it and then see themselves or their children one day among the rich too.

Confident, ambitious

In this, there is hope. The "new China" feeds on hope. I meet boys playing basketball, confident, ambitious. One wants to be a teacher. "Come to my school," he says. Here are future lawyers, business owners, politicians; one, even a future China President, he tells me. All speak English. All ask me if I speak Chinese. I feel my inadequacy. The future is theirs. I must try to catch up.

I meet a girl, a factory girl with ambition. Five years earlier she joined the army of migrant workers fanning out across the country. She left her home in Shanxi province for Guangdong.

Hers has been a lonely life. She tells me of her family, how she misses them. There are nights spent by herself, huddled over her desk, in a tiny room. Here she studies; the factory girl is now a college girl. No more work on the factory floor, now she sits in an office. Her future is in management.

"Don't bring your dreams to Guangdong," she tells me.

Her experience has taught her it is not about dreams, it is about sacrifice.

But dream, people do. I see them at the railway stations and bus depots. The faces of the poor, carrying all they own, bundled up with their hopes. I see them on the dance floors of Guangzhou's discos; kids moving to a new beat, launching their own cultural revolution. I see it on basketball courts. I see it in the way people dress; the cars they drive; the food they eat. Dreams: the new China is all about dreams.

But there is another image. It is a lasting image; it poses questions beyond China's ability to answer right now. Two children in a small hut in a tiny village, they wear clothes two sizes too big. The father buys the clothes big so they last. When will he be able to buy such clothes again? The children work the fields with their father, living on maize and corn. Their mother has left for Guangdong. They don't know when they will see her again, but their father tells me, the money the mother earns is worth the price of separation.

I met these two children once before. Two years ago I came here to their village. Then they were nearly blinded by cataracts. Doctors restored their sight. In a way my eyes too have been opened. With them I can see what it is China does not have. But with them I can see too, a new world and maybe catch a glimpse of a better future.

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