How rich and how poor is China
theme - wealth
But the gold rush also produced a socially divided country. Today China has 1.6 million millionaires - and more billionaires than the US. A quarter of the population has to share one percent of China's wealth - while one percent of the population has a third of China's wealth. It is true that an increasingly affluent, consumer-oriented middle class is forming at a rapid pace between these extremes. But it does not seem to have a real buffer function: According to a study by Beijing University, social inequality has reached a dangerous level - there is more social tension, which is reflected, for example, in the increasing number of labor disputes and demonstrations.
But also: 800 million people lifted above the poverty line
Fighting poverty is one of the most important tasks of the Communist Party, demands President Xi Jinping: There should be no more poverty in China by 2020, according to the government's current five-year plan. Indeed, the country has achieved a lot. The World Bank certified the rulers in Beijing that they have lifted around 800 million people over the poverty line since 1978. They have achieved this primarily with an uncompromising policy geared towards economic growth, financial grants to poor communities and large-scale resettlement programs. More and more villages are being abandoned or neglected due to a lack of infrastructure. The impoverished residents are assigned new accommodations on the outskirts of metropolises - outside the glittering city centers with their always the same shopping malls, the high-gloss office towers and high-end restaurants. The people there are easier and cheaper to care for.
For example, if you hike in the area around the Great Wall, not far from Beijing, you will come across decaying settlements that were once functioning villages. The holey streets have been swept empty, only a few gardens still grow maize and cabbage. On sunny days you can see old people sitting outside. They play cards or look after their grandchildren. Stray dogs scare away the few strangers, some chickens peck in the dust for something to eat. On cold winter days, the residents spend most of their time in the community room, the only halfway warm place in the village.
Parents who move to major cities as migrant workers often have to leave their children behind
Miserable living conditions prevail especially in the areas inhabited by ethnic minorities such as Xinjiang, Qinghai or Ningxia. 55 million people live in the rural regions of China and still have less than 2,300 yuan to live on - a year. Above all, many old and sick people have not yet been reached by the government programs.
According to a report by the British broadcaster BBC, many millions of Chinese children live in precarious conditions. A control system from the 1950s is to blame: every Chinese person is registered in his home town and only has access to social services, medical care and education there with the registration known as "Hukou". Anyone who moves to another city is not entitled to these benefits there. Deng Xiaoping loosened the hukou system a little at the end of the 1970s so that temporary housing permits for cities can be obtained, but these are expensive.
Parents who move to the metropolises on the east coast or in the south of China as migrant workers often leave their children with their grandparents in the country. In the worst case, they are on their own: the children grow their own vegetables and grain, collect wood for the stove, cook, wash, and keep the house in order. Very few have material goods, at most an old cell phone to talk to their parents from time to time. The schooling of many children is minimal.
The Chinese government is currently working on loosening the hukou system. Migrant workers who have been registered in a city for more than six months could then bring their children to school and send them there.
Normal: drive up in a Lamborghini and throw a spontaneous party for thousands of euros
The offspring of China's nouveau riche millionaires live in the elite spheres of empires that their parents created from nothing after China's economic opening, especially in designated special economic zones in the 1980s and 1990s. Whether in the real estate industry, in the computer business or in the energy sector - within two decades people like Wang Jianlin (he founded the real estate and entertainment company Wanda) or Jack Ma (founder of the online mail order giant Alibaba) have made enormous sums of money. “The rate at which wealth was built up in China is quite unique in human history,” says American politics professor Jeffrey Winters.
But dealing with money has to be learned - and many super-rich offspring don't have that. In China they are called "Fuerdai": the "rich second generation". In contrast to their parents, the Fuerdai never had to work, because money was simply there. And enough to pull up a Lamborghini in front of the bar and throw a spontaneous party there for thousands of euros. Or to decorate your dog with two gold watches and proudly post the photos. This action by Wang Sicong, the son of real estate billionaire Wang Jianlin, had consequences: In state media, the billionaire's son was accused of glorifying and careless display of wealth.
In 2013, Xi Jinping became president and general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, and since his anti-corruption campaign, the lavish banquets that used to be common have been taboo for party cadres and business giants. Xi was publicly angry about the Fuerdai: "The descendants of private business people have to understand where their money comes from and that they should lead a positive life." According to the state newspaper "Beijing Youth Daily", the government cited 70 children of super rich parents to crash courses last year in terms of Chinese values and social responsibility.
Children of super-rich parents were condemned to crash courses in Chinese values
But the newly rich kids are not only noticed at home. Many are drawn to study abroad at the latest, especially to the USA and Canada. The Chinese have bought real estate there on a large scale - the housing market has in places become almost unaffordable for locals. The best example is, as the “Guardian” reported in 2016, the Canadian city of Vancouver, which is particularly popular because of its relaxed lifestyle and good leisure opportunities. The lifestyle of wealthy Chinese has even become part of the entertainment industry's productions here. The reality show "Ultra Rich Asian Girls of Vancouver" promises an insight into the life of some Fuerdai who have never learned not to spend money with both hands.
Only a few Fuerdai want to return home, which is often quite fine with their parents. Because wealth does not protect against arbitrary acts in China. Those who do not have the best connections to the Communist Party or gamble them away cannot be sure of their wealth. A corruption allegation is easily staged when one has fallen from grace. So some self-made millionaires prefer to get their money and their offspring out of the country, even if that limits their business opportunities. A Chinese proverb says: "Wealth does not last longer than three generations." After that, the ghost of the nouveau riche with the next generation, the Fusandai, would be over.
Cover picture: Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images
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