|Widening inequality has sparked fears of social unrest by senior members of China's Communist Party [GALLO/GETTY]
In late October, a speeding Volkswagen struck two students as they rollerskated on the grounds of Hebei University, leaving them motionless in a pool of blood. Security guards intercepted the driver as he attempted to flee, but he refused to leave the car. "Sue me if you dare," he warned, "my father is Li Gang!"
One victim, a poor farm girl named Chen Xiaofeng, later died. The driver was Li Qiming, the son of the district's deputy police chief. Alarmed Communist Party censors tried to prevent state media from covering the story, but an online community of furious netizens turned the incident into a national discussion about abuse of privilege.
Today, "my father is Li Gang" has become a catchphrase for skirting responsibility and has come to symbolise the growing divide between China's powerful and its poor.
Across China, talk of the "rich second generation," "official second generation" and "poor second generation" fills blogs, chatrooms and editorial pages. Angry citizens say the wealthy sons and daughters of party cadres and rich businesspeople have unfair advantages in life, while experts warn of social instability as the gap between rich and poor widens.
'Hardening of the hierarchy'
In two separate online surveys in 2010 by People's Daily, the Communist Party's official mouthpiece, respondents ranked the growing divide between rich and poor as one of the most pressing issues facing the country.
They said that despite China's tremendous economic growth, they barely registered any improvement in their own lives. Forty-four per cent of respondents said the widening income gap and "social classes division" required the most attention from the government.
"Is China wealthy? It might be. But after the financial crisis, the rich people in China are even richer, while the poor are poorer. Only the rich live a happy life, not the poor," one respondent said.
People's Daily reported that China's gini coefficient, an index that measures inequality, sits at 0.47, not far from the 0.5 marker that is seen as a risk of social instability. The paper noted that decades of economic growth have resulted in major wage gaps between rich and poor, urban and rural. By 2009, the richest 10 per cent of Chinese controlled 45 per cent of the wealth, while the poorest 10 per cent has just 1.4 per cent.
Critics argue that for many young people today, avenues toward upward mobility are cut off, while the rich and powerful are not only able to afford the best schools, but also use their parents' connections and relationships - or 'guanxi' - to obtain the best jobs as well.
"In education, recruitment, employment and various other sectors, the pattern of power-retention by the powerful is solidifying, yet the rights of the lower classes often suffer encroachment. The hardening of the hierarchy is right before our eyes. The channel of upward mobility for the lower classes is narrowing by the day," wrote Dai Zhiyong, a columnist for Southern Weekend newspaper.
Rise of rampant materialism
State media has reported a growing number of netizens who consider themselves part of the "poor second generation" say they do not want to burden their children with the same fate they inherited, so they are choosing to not have children at all. "I am a poor second generation, and I don't want to give birth to the poor third generation," Wang Xiaolei, a 28-year-old web editor in Beijing, told China Youth Daily newspaper.
The central government has shown signs of concern. Last summer, it ordered television stations to start promoting traditional values after a female dating show contestant, Ma Nuo, said on air: "I would rather cry in a BMW than smile on the back of my boyfriend's bicycle." The statement sparked outrage on the Chinese blogosphere and Ma was seen as representing the rise of rampant materialism.
The government has also proposed policy measures to narrow the rich-poor gap, including implementing a wage increase mechanism, improving the minimum wage system and ensuring that wages are paid in a timely manner. It hopes to increase farmers' salaries and improve social insurance in both the cities and countryside.
In March, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao addressed the issue during a speech at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, saying that the benefits of China's rapidly growing economy need to be distributed more fairly. As part of the plan, the government is working to reform the household registration system - or hukou - so that migrant workers living in urban areas are able to receive more government benefits.
"We will not only make the 'pie' of social wealth bigger by developing the economy, but also distribute it well," Wen said. "[We will] resolutely reverse the widening income gap."
But Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, says the "fundamental solution" to improving the plight of the poor is to allow workers the right to organise their own unions - "to let them speak out what they really want to say in order to enhance their social positions".
Meanwhile, the internet is increasingly being used by citizens as a tool to monitor the behaviour of high officials, says Shao Jian, a professor at Nanjing Xiaozhuang University's School of Humanities. In the Li Gang case, pressure from netizens resulted in apologies from both father and son, broadcast on CCTV, the state broadcaster. State media later reported that Li Qiming had been arrested.
Shao says: "Without the internet, we wouldn't know anything [about the case]."
A version of this article first appeared on Inter Press Service news agency.