Income inequality on the rise in China

Although statistics are sketchy, the chasm between rich and poor seems to have widened in China.

Shanghai street scene
China's GDP has increased, but so has the gap between its wealthiest and poorest people [Jenni Duggan/Al Jazeera]

Shanghai, China – This country’s economic boom has lifted millions of its citizens out of poverty and led to predictions it will become the world’s largest economic power by 2030. However, while China’s GDP has increased, so has the gap between its wealthiest and poorest citizens, placing the country among the most unequal nations in the world, according to a study by a Chinese institute.

China’s Gini coefficient, a widely accepted measure of income distribution, reached 0.61 in 2010, according to findings by the Survey and Research Centre for China Household Finance. A score of zero represents perfect equality while a score of one represents total inequality, with one individual possessing 100 percent of a country’s income.

Inequality is starkly visible in large cities such as Shanghai, where Lamborghinis and Porsches are a regular sight outside expensive restaurants, while beggars sit on the pavement with plastic cups looking for change. In the shadow of looming skyscrapers lie cramped dormitories for migrant labourers who work on some of the world’s most expensive properties.

“There is a huge gap between rich people and ordinary people in China,” said Yang Zhang Yi, a retired worker, as he was waiting for a subway train in Shanghai. “Maybe the government should pay more attention on … how to tax the rich people and reduce the taxes for the poor people.”

“Maybe the government should pay more attention on … how to tax the rich people and reduce the taxes for the poor people.”

– Yang Zhang Yi, retired worker

The Chinese government has not released official Gini coefficient figures since 2000, when they put the figure at 0.412. In 2012, the National Bureau of Statistics said it was “slightly higher than 0.412” in 2010, but didn’t give an exact figure, reported Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency. In March, Bo Xilai, the now ousted former Communist Party secretary of Chongqing, said that the figure had exceeded 0.46.

The World Bank, in a report published in February, cited income inequality as one of the main challenges facing China. The report stated that “the sustained increase in income inequality places China at the high end of income inequality among Asian countries”. The World Bank hasn’t issued Gini coefficient figures for China since 2005, when it estimated it to be 0.425.

Chinese estimates of the country’s Gini coefficient have varied considerably. For example, in September, the International Institute for Urban Development in Beijing calculated China’s Gini coefficient to be 0.438 in 2010, much lower than the Survey and Research Centre’s result. Professor Gan Li, the centre’s director, said he could not explain the differing figures but added that their study, which surveyed 8,400 households, was the first to publicly release all its data.

In an interview with the Communist Party-owned Global Times newspaper, Zheng Xinye, a professor at Renmin University, said the real figure may be even higher than 0.61 – as it is difficult to survey the super-rich in China. He blamed the widening income gap on “restrictions that kept small and medium-sized companies from entering high-profit sectors, as well as by employment discrimination”.

However, Professor Martin Whyte, a sociologist at Harvard University who has carried out research on attitudes towards inequality in China, said he found the figure of 0.61 hard to believe. “The best survey research on income gaps leads to the same conclusion that the figure [Gini coefficient] is rising but is nowhere near these sort of figures,” he said.

Regional differences

Inequality may also have increased between the country’s wealthy east coast, where the major cities of Shanghai and Beijing are located, and the rural interior. Earlier this year, the gap between urban and rural areas was highlighted with the news that students in an area of Hubei Province had to provide their own desks for school, in stark contrast with the air-conditioned schools in the country’s largest cities. The gap between urban and rural incomes is about 26 percent higher than in 1997 and 68 percent higher than in 1985, according to a report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

More than half of China’s workers now live in urban areas, as rural migrants move to cities for better employment options. According to official figures, there are now 252 million migrant workers, many of whom now live in the country’s cities. They usually are not entitled to healthcare, a pension or free education for their children under China’s household registration system or hukou, which divides citizens into urban and rural residents and allocates public services accordingly.

There is lots of research saying that it is not income inequality per se that affects social instability, it is unequal opportunities.

– Sun Liping, Tsinghua University professor

Whyte said one of the reasons for inequality in China is the divide between rural and urban Chinese. “Other countries don’t have a system like the hukou and the caste-like system it produces,” he said.

The Chinese authorities have made pledges to reduce the gap between rich and poor and to address corruption. In his opening address during the Communist Party Congress in November, President Hu Jintao made an ambitious target for 2020 to double per capita income from 2010 levels for both urban and rural dwellers. And in October, the State Council said it would draft a plan to reform the current income distribution system.

The level of income inequality is “largely because China has very little income transfer. The government used resources to build investment infrastructure,” Gan said. “It is time for the Chinese government to change its spending priority from infrastructure to income transfer and social welfare programmes.”

In an article for the Economic Observer, Sun Liping, a professor at Tsinghua University, reffered to research estimating that there were 180,000 protests, riots and other mass incidents in China in 2010. However, it is not known if any were directly related to income inequality, and Gan said he had found no evidence that the figure of 0.4 was a warning line for social unrest. But he added: “There is lots of research saying that it is not income inequality per se that affects social instability, it is unequal opportunities. If there [are] vastly unequal opportunities, people will feel unsatisfied.”

He believes that while there is room to improve, there “is a lot of social infrastructure in China that still works … It is getting worse but the situation is not at the tipping point”.

Income inequality will be one of the main challenges facing the country’s new leaders, who will formally take power in March. The wealth of China’s elite is controversial, and has recently been the subject of several foreign media investigations.

In December, Bloomberg exposed the vast fortunes of the offspring of China’s founding fathers, while earlier last year it also published an investigation on the business interests of the extended family of Xi Jinping, the soon-to-be president of China. The New York Times also published an investigation into the wealth of the family of prime minister Wen Jiabao.

While income inequality is a major issue for Chinese citizens, commuters in Shanghai had confidence in the Chinese government’s ability to solve the problem. “There is now a limitation of the top salary,” said Sun Xue Hong “For the poor, the government is trying to increase their salary at the same time. So this way the gap can become smaller and smaller.”

And one young professional who gave her name as Alice said that, while the chasm between rich and poor has grown, she believed “the new government will take measures to narrow this gap”.

“I am not sure about all Chinese people,” she said. “But I am more confident now and I get more confident that these problems can be sorted out.”

Follow Jennifer Duggan on Twitter: @jenniduggan

Source: Al Jazeera