Monday, August 23, 2010

Wealth and Poverty

About a week ago, I read this article in the NY Times about China becoming the second largest economy. This occurrence was inevitable, sooner or later. However, what is more surprising is this line:

Its [China's] per capita income is more on a par with those of impoverished nations like Algeria, El Salvador and Albania — which, along with China, are close to $3,600 — than that of the United States, where it is about $46,000.

This had me reflecting back upon my own trip. When I met up with friends living in Beijing, living the ex-pat life in sheltered modern communities, I believed that they did not have the opportunity to experience the "real China." Metropolitan, wealthy cities like Beijing and Shanghai really can shield a person from the realities of the larger country. Living in high-rise apartments and top-ranked universities, shopping in mega-malls, visiting tourist attractions, using sparkling clean flush toilets, sipping Starbucks coffee, and hopping swanky bars is a far cry from the typical experience of Chinese citizen. Even outside of the ex-pat community, Beijing's average standard of living towers over that of other areas.

I thought I knew the real China. After all, I had ridden in a motorbike in the streets of Changsha, used dirty public restrooms, slept four to a room, gone without air conditioning, lacked internet access at times, eaten fresh greens just picked from the garden, hand-washed clothes, visited public schools and daycares, bought produce from a street market, browsed in tiny street-side shops, and suffered the suffocating humidity of the summer.

However, even my experience cannot be thought of as the life of an average citizen. All my relatives and acquaintance were members of the upper-middle class. My uncle is the chief editor of a university journal. My other uncle is a golf course designer. My grandparents were university professors. One uncle is a prosecutor. Most of the people I have met are academics, the students and professors of prestigious universities. These are not average people - they are the cultural, if not economic, elite.

The cultural elite may not be able to afford houses (rarely anyone can!). They may have to live in apartments for the rest of the lives. However, they do not have to worry about putting food on the table. Their kids are well-provided for and go to good schools. TVs, cell phones, and computers are within their price range. They will have enough to live on comfortably after they retire. They definitely make over the per capita income of $3,600 cited above. They are a part of the "real China," but they are in no way representative of the average citizen.

What is the face of the average citizen? Maybe the lady carrying the large woven baskets of bokchoy to the market down the street. The salesgirl in the tiny shop, her eyes eager as you walk in. The construction worker, dusty and sweaty from toiling under the midday sun. The little boy in the country, his bare feet muddy from helping on the farm. His older brother, eyes bright with opportunity as he enters the city to find a job and begin a new life. The old nanny, who left her family behind in the village in order to take care of another household.

I'm glad I got to see more of China this summer, but I cannot fool myself into believing that I lived the life of the average Chinese. But won't the nation's fast economic growth aid its citizens? China is changing. The expanding economy has improved the lives of millions of citizens while simultaneously crushing the dreams of others. A large city sucks in migrant workers with its demand for construction of new high-rises, while ejecting long-time residents with the demolition of old neighborhoods. Electricity and modern conveniences are now more available to farmers, while the the land and rivers that support their livelihood become more and more polluted everyday.

Development is a paradox. I can only hope it will be for the best in the end.


  1. I don't mean to spam, but this is why I didn't like Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina".

    Try chapters 4-5. It's sadly misdirected, in my opinion, like Marie Antoinette's peasant world.

  2. I've read Anna Karenina before, but I'm afraid I don't understand what you are trying to say.

  3. Oh, cool. I haven't met many people who have read Tolstoy. And sorry, I forgot to cite the part. It's part three, chapters four through five.

    What I am referring to is when Levin works as a field laborer and feels like an average person, even though he is the field laborers' boss and owns the land - and was treating field labor, some people's livelihood, as therapeutic exercise. Sorry for not elaborating. But the part about the ex-pat/tourists reminded me of that.

    I read the article and the part in your note elaborating about the life of the vast majority of the citizens, and, while I think one could only know their experience through the experience, I think looking into this issue as you have done is very important.

  4. Oh, that's right, now I remember. It really does apply well in this situation - just like how this whole trip to China for me was "fun," even the more grueling parts, while it is just the reality of many people's lives - and even better than other people's lives.