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China Struggles to Bridge Gap Between Rich, Poor

  • Shannon Sant

A family walks out of a Dior store in Beijing, China, in this 2007 file photo.

A family walks out of a Dior store in Beijing, China, in this 2007 file photo.

China’s National People’s Congress is wrapping up 10 days of meetings in Beijing, where officials are laying out policy priorities. Among the biggest concerns is addressing the growing gap between rich and poor.

At this year's annual legislative session, some 3,000 delegates discussed China’s economy, ethnic unrest and reform of the country’s legal system.

But for many, the growing gap between rich and poor is the most pressing issue, especially in Beijing's slums, where the country's most affluent and the least can live in close proximity.


Chinese woman walks past beggars on pedestrian bridge in Guangzhou, China (AP 2007 file photo)

In a network of alleys behind one of the city’s luxury shopping malls, dozens of shacks are a block away from a Bentley dealership.

In one of these tiny rooms, constructed from a patchwork of aluminum and metal siding held down by rocks and bricks, Li Yulan, 78, runs a small shop that sells snacks and soft drinks.

She says the rich are too rich. The poor are too poor. Of eight people in her family, just two have income, she says. Li says the family needs the income from her little store.

For Li Yulan, the biggest worry is the rising cost of living. Her income has grown in recent years, but she says it is not enough to offset the rising cost of goods. She says she and many others in this small neighborhood, sandwiched between the city’s skyscrapers, hope the legislators understand their struggle.

Li says the NPC is good so long as the problems are solved, but she says just vain talk is useless. She says people in her community are most concerned about rising food prices.

Domestic inflation has long been a by-product of the country's rapid economic growth and the rising value of its currency. However, the latest figures indicate the government is succeeding somewhat in reducing the increasing costs. Year on year price inflation was 3.2 percent in February, the smallest rise since June 2010.

In his opening speech to the NPC, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao announced plans to slow the economy to help curb inflation - which China wants to keep below four percent. Wen also said the government will take measures to restrain rising property prices.

Classless society

At Xin Kong Place, one of China’s many shopping malls, wealthy Chinese peruse the latest fashions at Chanel, Gucci and Ferragamo. Here, inflationary prices seem to be far from shoppers minds. For the city’s affluent, the concerns of the middle class are more important than government measures to diminish the gap between rich and poor.

Xia Xia, 26, did not have much of an opinion on the NPC meeting.

She says she is not from political circles and doesn't know much about economic problems.
Other shoppers said the gap in incomes is not as important as ensuring all Chinese benefit from the country's economic growth. Wang, 33, works in IT and says it is impossible for a country as big as China to have a classless society.

He says China has 1.3 billion people and that it is unavoidable to have such an income gap. Wang says the government should focus on how to raise the middle and lower classes living standards, but that an income gap is unavoidable.

Back in the slums, Li Yulan seems resigned to her economic situation. She says China's class divide has persisted across generations and will likely continue in the future.

Li says the wealthy will always be wealthy. The poor people will stay poor. She says the children of officials are likely to be officials and her children are likely to live life as she does.

Li’s neighborhood has been slated for demolition, as real estate developers hungry to cash in on China’s property boom have tried to force residents like her off their property. Amidst the rubble and rundown shacks, Li says she and her friends have refused to leave for one reason: they cannot afford the cost of a new home.

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