Category Archives: inequality

“Party Congress Diary, Day 4″

FP’s Kathleen McLaughlin has been posting updates from Beijing over the last week, and her latest is a look at the unrelenting sexism of the Communist Party:

Moving in synchronicity with their interchangeable smart suits and tidy hairstyles, the most noticeable women at the 18th party congress are, by design, part of the backdrop. Several hundred young women, chosen from a nationwide search, are working during the week as “ceremony girls,” a ubiquitous feature of official China, inside both the Great Hall of the People in Beijing where the congress is being held and the media center in the Western part of the city, as the Chinese Communist Party installs its next generation of top leaders.

Serving tea, ushering people to their seats, and standing in neat rows while posing for the cameras, “ceremony girls” are ever present in official China, from the sexy soldiers marching in China’s 60th-anniversary parade in 2009 to the young women delivering medals at 2008′s Beijing Olympics.

Their constant, attentive presence is a glaring reminder of what is forever missing from China’s top tier of power: women. They can pour tea with a smile, but they don’t get a seat at the table.

Gender discrimination often seems to be getting worse in China: Although a large percentage of Chinese women are employed (70 percent, compared with 25 percent in India), urban Chinese women earn about 67 percent of what men make, according to a 2010 survey from the All-China Women’s Federation. This summer, women in Guangzhou shaved their heads in protest of growing discriminatory policies around the country that require girls to score higher than boys on college entrance exams.

China’s ranking in the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap report, which measures gender parity, is falling, from 57th place in 2008 to 69th this year.

“The gender-equality situation in China has not actually been improving in the past 30 years,” says Chan. “A small percentage of women can rise to the top in business and some sectors, but far more women are stuck in low-paid positions and service industries.”

Chan said there is “massive need” for policies that will improve women’s standing in China — things like girls’ education, affordable child care, and basic social services. “If any country prioritizes economic development and social stability ahead of social development, this kind of thing is bound to happen,” she says. “Historically and culturally, women in China have always been treated and still are treated as less important.” Just ask the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, which on Nov. 9 published a slide show called: “‘Beautiful scenery’ at 18th CPC National Congress.” The scenery in the slide show? Women.

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Filed under 2012 power transfer, Communist Party, inequality, women

“China inequality causes unease – Pew survey”

Pew has a new survey out, asking Chinese about a whole lot of things. The results confirm what a lot of us have sensed about China:

A slowdown is particularly troubling for Xi because, as China prepares for its once-in-a-decade leadership transition, a Pew Global Attitudes survey conducted there this year finds that its citizens are also increasingly worried about a variety of other domestic issues, especially corruption, inequality and consumer protection.

In the economic realm, while standards of living have improved for the vast majority of Chinese, and the country’s middle class has expanded tremendously, there is nonetheless a widespread belief that not everyone is enjoying their fair share. And as consumers, many Chinese feel at the mercy of a system that cannot guarantee the safety of life’s basic necessities.

Half say corrupt officials are a very serious problem in China, up from 39% in 2008.

Second, there is a consensus that some people are being left behind by China’s rapid growth – 81% of those polled agree that today the “rich just get richer while the poor get poorer”. Nearly half (48%) describe the gap between rich and poor as a very big problem, up from 41% four years ago.

And in another sign that many do not see a level economic playing field, less than half (45%) agree with the statement “most people can succeed if they are willing to work hard”.

Roughly four-in-ten (41%) now consider food safety a very big problem, up from just 12% in 2008.

During that same time period, concerns about the safety of medicine have more than tripled, from 9% to 28%. Similarly, the percentage saying they are very worried about the quality of manufactured goods has jumped from 13% to 33%.

These are important points, and I think they’re very telling for the crisis of confidence the Party is facing. Xi needs to seriously change course if he wants these numbers to stop climbing.

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Filed under Communist Party, corruption, economy, inequality

“Rebalancing a Divided China”

From Tom Orlik at the WSJ, a look at wealth inequality in China:

A 2011 survey from China’s South Western University of Finance and Economics found that 55% of China’s households had little or no savings for the year. That busts the myth of industrious farmers and migrant workers saving to pay for education, health care and pensions.

The survey of 8,000 households also found that the top 10% of China’s households control 86% of wealth and account for 56% of household income. That’s a considerably higher share of income than the 32% suggested by the official National Bureau of Statistics data and points to a worrying level of inequality.

International and historical comparisons suggest China’s wealth gap should be ringing alarm bells. Surveys in 1995 and 2002 found that back then China’s top 10% controlled just 30% and 41% of wealth, respectively. In the United States, Federal Reserve numbers show the top 10% are eating 74% of the pie.

China’s rich are already buying passports and homes abroad. With such a high share of assets in their hands, if they all decide to leave at once, that would leave a big hole in the banking system. China’s poor have acquiesced in an iniquitous system because their income is also rising; if that stops, they might not be so tolerant of entrenched privilege.

The main takeaway though is on the prescription for addressing China’s consumption-light growth model. The government’s efforts so far have focused on extending public health, education and pension services to reduce the need for household precautionary saving and to free up income to spend at the shops.

It’s pretty shocking that China could pull off wealth inequality higher than that of the USA, but somehow they did it. We’ll see what happens if these trends continue.

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“The Souls of Chinese Cities”

FP has put out a bunch of great China-related content in the last few days. The first one I’ll post is from Christina Larson, who explores three very different Chinese cities. From her description of Urumqi:

China’s far western region of Xinjiang follows its own time. Officially, all of China recognizes a single time zone, but Urumqi’s clocks are set two hours behind — referred to unofficially as “Xinjiang time.” It’s just one more example of the ways in which history here has tended to move in fits and starts, out of sync, both accidentally and by design.

Each evening at sunset, the adhan, or Islamic call to prayer, briefly fills the streets of Xinjiang’s capital, before being overtaken by the modern static of traffic noise and blaring horns.

But with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, history, having been frozen in time, suddenly lurched forward. The long border went from being Xinjiang’s biggest liability to its greatest asset. Within two years, borders had opened with 16 countries, and Yimirhan, who had by then been promoted to a driver, was soon driving across them. He recalls his first time navigating the “beautiful and frightening” hairpins turns of the famous Karakorum highway. (His 30-year-old daughter, translating for him, smiled at her father’s youthful excitement.)

Sensing a power vacuum in Central Asia, Beijing soon turned its attention to strengthening economic and political ties with its western neighbors, as well as investing to extract Xinjiang’s rich reserves of coal, gas, copper, and other minerals. If China’s modern construction boom came 15 years late to Urumqi, building is now on overdrive here, for economic and political reasons: a 21st century form of manifest destiny.

Today the paved road from Urumqi to Yili takes 10 hours, not 24. New rail lines have opened between Urumqi and Altay, and between Kashgar and Hotan, and there’s even talk of extending the Urumqi-Kashgar rail line all the way to Istanbul. There’s also a plan floated to build a rail link between Urumqi and the port of Gwadar in Pakistan.

Alas, Urumqi’s new wealth has not been evenly distributed. The man appointed in 1994 to be Xinjiang Party Secretary was Wang Lequan; until his ouster following the 2009 ethnic riots in Urumqi, which left roughly 200 people dead, he was a chief architect of Xinjiang’s modernization: well-connected, savvy and adept at wrangling funding from Beijing. He was also a hardliner whose policies toward ethnic minorities — including restricting religious fasting, praying, and other observances in schools and government offices — earned him no love from the city’s Uighur Muslims. One professor told me that the most harmful result of his policies was to systematically deny Uighurs opportunities and promotions in government agencies.

Urumqi today is a divided city. Government investment is flowing into the northern part of the city, but the southern part, the Uighur corridor, has seen little development since the 2009 riots. One Saturday evening, I went to a Uighur wedding, held in a third-floor hotel ballroom, with fraying rugs and chipping paint. The guests, dressed in everything from gowns to jeans, danced to a mix of pulsing techno music and traditional Uighur songs; groomsmen sprayed the happy couple with silly string from a can. The bride and groom had met at Xinjiang University, and although they and their guests were also mostly well educated, they lived in a world apart; there were no Han Chinese guests. (As a Han friend put it: “Even in the same city, Han and Uighur barely talk to each other; segregation is not an ongoing process, it is a fact.”)

Another afternoon I visited the famous Border Hotel complex, where Central Asian traders come to do business. Typically, I was mistaken for Russian. With me was a young Uighur guide, whose own language is close enough that he can understand most Central Asian languages. But as we entered one hotel lobby, the doorman, a pale, sweaty Han Chinese man with a receding hairline and a nervous manner, stopped him: “What are you doing? Where are you going?” Behind us, an assortment of unshaven Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and Tajiks passed by unmolested. “To be Uighur is to be under constant suspicion,” my guide hissed through his teeth. I could easily see that a negative feedback loop was at work. He waited for me outside, puffing nervously on his cigarette; when I came back, he complained: “It’s getting worse.”

I asked if he’d ever been to any of the bordering countries, but he shook his head. “I can’t get a passport.” Fearful that Uighurs will radicalize if they travel abroad, the government has limited their ability to cross borders — a policy that raises the uncomfortable question of just who is supposed to benefit from the “New Silk Road” strategy.

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Filed under ethnic conflict, inequality, Xinjiang

“China and the Unofficial Truth”

Evan Osnos has a funny-ish piece about Chinese netizens watching the opulence on display at the NPC and NPCC:

While Premier Wen Jiabao was pledging that the government would “quickly” reverse the widening gap between rich and poor—last year he said it would do so “gradually”—Chinese Web users were scrutinizing photos of delegates arriving for the meeting, and posting photos of their nine-hundred dollar Hermès belts and Birkin and Celine and Louis Vuitton purses that retail for car prices. As Danwei points out, an image that has been making the rounds with particular relish shows the C.E.O. of China Power International Development Ltd, Li Xiaolin, in a salmon-colored suit from Emilio Pucci’s spring-summer 2012 collection—price: nearly two thousand dollars. Web user Cairangduoji paired her photo with the image of dirt-covered barefoot kids in the countryside and the comment: “That amount could help two hundred children wear warm clothes, and avoid the chilly attacks of winter.” And it appended a quote from Li, of the salmon suit, who purportedly once said, “I think we should open a morality file on all citizens to control everyone and give them a ‘sense of shame.’” (This is no ordinary delegate: Li Xiaolin happens to be the daughter of former Premier Li Peng, who oversaw the crackdown at Tiananmen Square.)

Another message making the rounds uses an official high-res photo of the gathering to zoom in on delegates who were captured fast asleep or typing on their smart phones. (h/t ChinaSmack.) A separate message provides instructions on how to be a good delegate: “After you eat, remember to go to the Great Hall to clap! Raise your hands! Clap! Raise your hands! Clap! Raise your hands!” And yet another message going around involves high political stakes: a property developer and conference delegate named Zhang Mingyu was using Weibo to send out calls for help, saying that Chongqing police had raided his Beijing apartment and were planning to detain him for earlier announcing (online, of course) that he planned to tweet juicy new information about a politics/corruption/mafia/police story in the big city of Chongqing. Got that straight?

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Filed under Communist Party, inequality, National People's Congress

“The End of the Chinese Dream”

There should probably be a question mark at the end of that headline, but many Chinese might leave it as is. Essentially FP is writing about the growing income inequality that is making many common Chinese angry- they notice that while the economy is still growing quickly, less and less of the money is making its way down to them. Have the Chinese rich managed to pull an America and cut the rest of the country out of the rise?

In June, a Chinese friend of mine who grew up in the northern industrial city of Shenyang and recently graduated from university moved to Beijing to follow his dream — working for a media company. He has a full-time job, but the entry-level pay isn’t great and it’s tough to make ends meet. When we had lunch recently, he brought up his housing situation, which he described as “not ideal.” He was living in a three-bedroom apartment split by seven people, near the Fourth Ring Road — the outer orbit of the city. Five of his roommates were young women who went to work each night at 11 p.m. and returned around 4 a.m. “They say they are working the overnight shift at Tesco,” the British retailer, but he was dubious. One night he saw them entering a KTV Club wearing lots of makeup and “skirts much shorter than my boxers” and, tellingly, proceeding through the employee entrance. “So they are prostitutes,” he concluded. “I feel a little uncomfortable.”

But when he tallied his monthly expenses and considered his lack of special connections, or guanxi, in the city, either to help boost his paycheck or to find more comfortable but not more expensive housing, he figured he’d stick out the grim living situation. “I have come here to be a journalist — it is my goal, and I do not want to go back now. But it seems like it’s harder than it used to be.”

Despite China’s astonishing economic growth, it has gotten harder for people like my friend to get by in the big city. His is not a particularly lucrative profession. Like many in Beijing, he cannot count on his annual pay to keep pace with China’s official rates of inflation — which many economists suspect are lowballed anyway.

Could it possibly be true that a swath of people in China’s big cities is downwardly mobile, if one compared wages with living expenses? I asked Patrick Chovanec, an associate professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management in Beijing. Alas, he told me, it’s difficult to find much clarification in China’s famously fudgeable official statistics. (For instance, the official unemployment rate only includes individuals with urban hukous, or permanent residency permits — which excludes the most economically vulnerable.) Still, he noted: “If you perceive that you’re losing buying power — or have rising but unmet expectations — that’s when people get upset.… And this country, for a country growing at over 9 percent, is in a foul mood.”

As Michael Anti, a popular Chinese blogger and political commentator, told me, “The rich are becoming a dynasty.” Now people in China recognize that “you get your position not by degree or hard work, but by your daddy.” Anti added that though corruption and guanxi are hardly new concepts in China, there was previously a greater belief in social mobility through merit. “Before, university was a channel to help you to ruling class. Now the ruling class just promote themselves.”

There is a dark sense that something has changed. “It’s not simply income equality that bothers people — that’s a misconception,” Chovanec told me. “When Jack Ma makes a billion dollars for starting a successful company, that’s OK.… It’s inequality of privilege. It’s how people make their money. There’s now a whole class of people getting wealthy because of who they are, not what they do — and they follow a different set of rules.”

In today’s China, the abilities to buy and sell real estate and to win government contracts are among the greatest drivers of wealth, and it’s those who are already wealthy and well-connected who have access to these opportunities. If their children are lazy or dull, they can use their stature to create opportunities and positions for them, cutting short the trajectories of more able aspirants. Social status is becoming further entrenched because, as Chovanec notes, “Government is so pervasive in China’s economy.… Government has great power in determining winners and losers, so who you are and who you know does more than anything else to determine success.” And those at the top increasingly act above the law. “Privilege begets money, and money begets privilege.”

There are certainly many counter-examples, but the trend of super-rich getting super-richer while the middle class admits fewer and fewer members (and at a higher and higher price) seems undeniable.

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Filed under capitalism, class conflict, inequality

“Naked begging reveals loss of dignity among China’s migrants”

Naked protests for Ai Weiwei just a few weeks ago, now naked migrant workers? What is happening in this country?!

A family of four in China were discovered walking naked on the street begging for money to pay for the medical expenses of their newborn baby, an act which has generated criticism of shameful behavior on one hand, while others have felt the family’s behavior is a reflection of what society has done to them first, the official China Youth Daily reports.

Other instances of naked begging have also been seen of late: migrant workers, who have relocated from rural areas to the country’s cities in search of work, going naked to beg for their pay or asking others to beg naked on their behalf. In Chinese culture, nudity is considered the ultimate disgrace, therefore to beg naked is perhaps the strongest expression of degradation. This controversy has therefore served to highlight the hardship of these workers’ lives and the problems that have caused them to shed any vestige of self-respect.

One migrant worker surnamed Han reportedly paid a man to stand naked in public with a sign to protest that he had not been paid by his employer. When asked the reason for the manner of his protest, the man told the China Youth Daily reporter, “I am not afraid of losing face. I am afraid of starving and dying with no one caring about me.”

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Filed under inequality, migrant workers, protest