Chinese inequality

Davey Meelker

There is an immense division between rich and poor in the Chinese metropolises and economic powerhouses located in the East, but this gap grows even bigger when you travel through China’s interior. We traveled from the east coast to border with Kazakhstan and saw China slowly change from a rich developed country to a developing country.

Our journey started in one of China’s most extraordinary cities: Shenzhen. This city grew from being a small fishermen’s town to one of China’s biggest cities in less than a few decades. It was China’s first city that opened up to capitalism. This youngest megacity in the world is characterised by modern skyscrapers, Starbucks-like coffee shops and technology. It doesn’t get much more modern than Shenzhen.

In Guangzhou we were caught by the same surprise. We admired the modern architecture that you rarely see in this scale in other cities. After our visit to other coastal places as Shanghai, Beijing and Tianjin we were convinced: China will be the next economic world power. Although we did see poverty, we were overwhelmed by richness and modernity of the cities.

Then our trip land inwards started. We saw that the wealth already spread to places as Chengdu and Chongqing, around 2000 km land inwards. Still, the latter, built on the hills was typical for the change we started seeing. On the top of the hills the modern fast life took place that was connected with a brand new monorail system, but as soon you descended down to the river it all changed. There we saw the bustling markets with toothless old men and women selling few products in a desperate attempt to earn a few RMB. It was definitely more authentic, but we couldn’t help but think how tough it must be for them to make ends meet.

We took the high-speed train further and arrived in Shanxi province to experience a culture shock. There we saw cave dwellers. Millions of Chinese still live in caves! (Read more here). Their caves typically consist out of a bed and a fireplace. That’s it. They live from harvest of fruits and vegetables earning not more than few dollars a day.

Life not only became simpler, the people started to change as well. The more we went westward the more Tibetans we saw. They are still discriminated and are doomed to end up in working low-end jobs. The same is true for the Uyghur’s we saw in Urumqi. Even though the Western provinces were developing, poverty was never far away: people living in mudbrick huts, transporting their merchandise in rickety carts and boiling their tea water on parabolic solar devices (green, yes).

China is booming. It is a matter of time before it will have the world’s biggest economy. Still, for a long time to come it will be a developed and a developing country in one. The coastal provinces have an average GDP per capita that is ten times as much as that of the western provinces.

The country transformed from one of the most egalitarian countries in the world to one of the most unequal in recent decades. China’s Gini coefficient, which measures inequality, raised from 0.3 in 1978 to 0.5 in 2009 (1 is reflecting the most unequal society possible). Some estimations even show that 1 percent of the households own 41 percent of the country privately held wealth, mostly consisting of (ex)party members. Although the amount of people living in poverty dropped extremely as we saw in the coastal provinces, the inequality between rich and poor only grew. Chinese economist Yu Yongding said: “With the contrast of opulent lifestyles of the rich and slow improvement of basic living conditions for the poor fomenting social tension, a serious backlash is brewing.” The great inequality will be major concern and China’s future relies on how the government will handle this.

Click here for more visual examples of China’s inequality

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