“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

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