Since 1978, when its market reforms began, China has clocked an average annual growth rate of 8.9 percent–the longest and most sustained growth of any country in modern history and one that has propelled it ahead of Britain to become, this year, the fourth-largest economy in the world.
As the country’s economy surges forward, however, so does the pileup of social contradictions. China is the second-biggest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world. Seventy percent of the water in the country’s lakes and rivers is undrinkable because of pollution. Environmental ills annually cause 300,000 deaths and cost $200 billion–equivalent to 10 percent of the gross domestic product–due to loss of work, medical expenses and government outlays.
More important, unimaginable problems have emerged from the migration of 150 million peasants who are victims of a decision to focus economic growth on urban expansion at the expense of rural development. In the cities the peasants live in shantytowns and work under conditions of extreme exploitation. Meanwhile, an estimated 20 million children have been left behind to fend for themselves, and rural authorities have noted a marked increase in robbery, petty crime, suicide and rape involving these unsupervised children. In cases where only the husbands depart for the cities, the wives are left to care for children and in-laws and to till the family farm. Many are so overburdened that they choose to end their lives, most commonly by swallowing pesticides. China has the highest rate of female suicide in the world, and its rural rate is three times that of the cities.
Call it China’s Gilded Age of inequality. In 2003 average peasant yearly income was $317; the monthly wages of factory workers ranged between $62 and $100, which was only marginally higher than in 1993, although the economy grew by 10 percent annually during the same period. At roughly the same time, market research by Seventeen magazine found that many daughters of the wealthy in China’s major cities got a monthly allowance of more than $100–the monthly salary for an experienced laborer. This year the city of Shanghai held a “millionaire fair,” featuring displays of luxury sedans, yachts, a piece of jewelry priced at $25 million and a diamond-studded dog leash valued at $61,000.
According to a report by the China Rights Forum, the class that can afford such indulgences was not created through exceptional skill or merit; rather, 90 percent of China’s 20,000 richest people are related to senior government or Communist Party officials at the center of political power and have benefited corruptly from these connections. Rural officials have found their own way to get rich by seizing land from peasants with minimal compensation and selling it at high prices to developers who build highrise apartments, factories and shopping malls. If discovered, corrupt officials evade punishment by escaping with their loot to foreign countries such as the United States, Canada and Thailand. The Chinese government has tried to repatriate some 800 of them, who have collectively made off with some $9 billion, but the extradition proceedings have been stalled because of China’s refusal to cede the right of capital punishment against those convicted. Understandably, several editorials in Chinese publications critical of the government have wondered if this was not a ploy to prevent the return of individuals who could, if brought to trial, spill the beans about conspiring partners who still occupy high perches.