Home page > Writing and publishing in Africa > In China, a Vast Chasm Between the Rich and the Rest
| More

In China, a Vast Chasm Between the Rich and the Rest

Saturday 16 February 2013

By SIM CHI YIN

The Great Divide is a series about inequality.

BEIJING — The passing coal miners in remote Shaanxi Province took one look at our marooned Audi and walked on, leaving us stuck on the sleet-covered mountain road.

As dusk fell, I managed to mingle with some young migrant workers, and trek with them through a snowy mountain pass and onto the last bus for the day. “We thought you were rich city people, coming out here in an Audi,” one worker told me. “That’s why no one helped you.”

Behind him is the Shanghai Tower, which is slated to be China’s tallest building, with 121 stories. He had become chatty only after I assured him that I had taken a ride in a friend’s Audi — the car make of choice for Chinese government officials — only because I was rushing out to the mountains to visit a dying villager I had been photographing over for a year.

The disdain that working-class Chinese have for the rich did not surprise me; it was a timely reminder of the sentiments surrounding the growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots in China.

This gulf, between the prosperous and booming cities and the poor rural areas, has been expanding since the 1990s. Along with official corruption, inequality is a major source of social unrest. In Chinese cybercommunities, where sentiments are aired honestly and anonymously, cynical and celebratory comments abound over any spectacular fall of the wealthy, corrupt or privileged. Often, anger erupts over the arrogant misbehavior of the “fu er dai” — the children of wealthy families, who often have powerful political connections. On Tuesday, the government announced a vague plan to address “stark problems in income distribution.”

A couple finds a spot of privacy in the yard outside a Beijing hostel for members of the “ant tribe” — out-of-town college graduates working in low-paying jobs.

Xu Bo, 24, shares a room in the hostel with eight others. Though he has a nursing degree, he is now learning to be a computer repairman.

Last month, China reported that income inequality peaked in 2008 and has narrowed since then, though many economists believe the problem is understated. For the first time in 12 years, the government reported figures for the Gini coefficient — an indicator of inequality. It said the coefficient was 0.474 last year, down from a high of 0.491 in 2008. (Zero would represent perfect equality, and 1 would represent complete inequality.) The Gini coefficient for the United States, after taxes and transfers, is 0.378 through the late 2000s, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

China has 2.7 million millionaires and 251 billionaires (in United States dollars). But 13 percent of its people live on less than $1.25 per day, according to United Nations data. Meanwhile, average annual disposable income in the cities is about $3,500.

A cleaner mops the floor near a Chanel store in the luxury IFC Mall in Shanghai’s Lujiazui financial district.

Over the past year or so, the income gap in China has been one focus of my work.

In Shanghai, I followed around a trash collector, Zhang Chunying, 47, riding on the back of her cardboard- and plastic-laden tricycle past Gucci and Ermenegildo Zegna stores at the Xintiandi shopping and entertainment district. By collecting and selling cardboard and other recyclables, Ms. Zhang and her husband make about $15 a day, which they are using to put their son through college.

I also photographed migrant workers on a street in downtown Shanghai that turns into a flea market at night. They stand around picking out used clothes and shoes to buy for a few dollars. Some got upset with me for documenting what they see as their embarrassing existence.

In downtown Shanghai, Zhang Chunying, 47, a migrant worker, stacks discarded cardboard on her tricycle. She resells it for 80 cents per kilo.

In Beijing, I photographed a curbside cobbler, Gao Minghe, 48, just across the street from five-star hotels and an alley behind stores selling Aston Martins and Maseratis. He repairs the shoes of migrant and office workers from dawn till dusk, rain, shine or snow.

Beneath the skyscrapers and apartment blocks in the capital, a parallel universe of inhabitants lives in cramped, boxy, windowless rooms partitioned out of basements. These subterranean dwellers — which the local press unkindly calls the “rat tribe” — are migrant workers in the service industry. Over two years, I made portraits of these women and men, trying to show their dignity and aspirations.

A 10-minute drive west of downtown Shanghai, migrant workers rummage through used clothes, shoes and other household items for sale.

I have also shot the so-called “ant tribe,” which comprises graduates from provincial and unprestigious universities who flock to the capital in search of their Beijing Dream, only to find themselves working low-paying jobs and living in dorm-style hostels on the outskirts of the city. Years after graduating, they still live like students and cuddle in dark parking lots for lack of a space to call their own. Most were happy to chat and share their stories.

A retired port worker faces eviction from his lifelong home in the Zhabei district of Shanghai to make way for new apartment towers.

Hours after photographing this tribe, I was with another. I hung out with the young and wealthy members of a sports car club who did practice rounds in their McLarens, Lamborghinis, Ferraris and Porsches at a racetrack in Beijing. Decked out in Prada shoes, holding Louis Vuitton bags and escorted by their trophy girlfriends, who never stepped out of their air-conditioned cars, they seemed proud to be photographed by a foreign photographer, but were not forthcoming when asked any personal questions — including the nature of their jobs or the source of their wealth.

Zhang Kuan, 32, founder of the Beijing Sports Car Club, in front of his new $870,000 sports car, a McLaren MP4-12C.

With the “rats” and “ants,” the trash collectors, cobblers and couriers, it took time to build rapport and trust. But it was even harder to get wealthy Chinese — perhaps like rich people everywhere — to open up. Most live in gated, guarded communities on the outskirts of the city, and socialize behind closed doors. A few months ago, I was granted rare permission to photograph inside an exclusive club in Beijing for high rollers, and only at a party where some members were in costume.

The migrant workers and the poor mostly accept that life is unfair, at least for now.

“There is no difference between me and the people who live in the posh condominium above,” Zhuang Qiuli, 27, a “rat tribe” pedicurist who lived in a basement apartment, told me in Beijing. “We wear the same clothes and have the same hairstyles. The only difference is we cannot see the sun. In a few years, when I have money, I will also live upstairs.”


Sim Chi Yin, a photojournalist, is a member of the VII Mentor Program and a former reporter for The Straits Times in her native Singapore.

See online: In China, a Vast Chasm Between the Rich and the Rest