China's ever-widening wealth gap

Paddy fields in Zhaoxing in China's Guizhou province Farmers in Guizhou earn little from their hard work

In China's poorest province paddy fields stretch down the mountainsides. Here and there farmers squat, working in the mud.

Men thread their way through the patchwork of fields, balancing heavy sheaves of rice just harvested from poles slung across their shoulders.

Over generations Guizhou's hillsides have been shaped and sculpted by hand. It's work that continues today. There's no sign of any mechanisation in these remote hills.

Tiny villages with creaky, old wooden houses dot the valleys. It's picturesque but it's also a place of poverty.

Lu Jikuan's bare feet squelch through the mud. High on a hillside the 70-year-old is bent double, cutting grass along the edge of his rice paddy with a scythe.

"I've seen rich people, on TV, living in nice houses, driving fancy cars," he says, a grin exposing his missing teeth. "I dream about having that kind of life. But I know it's just a dream."

Instead he makes do with a government pension of 55 yuan ($8, £5) a month and what little more he can earn from selling the occasional calf or pig.

The economic boom in China's cities and along its coast is happening far from here.

In China's richest places, like Tianjin, Shanghai and Beijing, average incomes at over $10,000 a year are now on a par with some European countries.

Here in Guizhou average incomes are a bit more than $2,000, more akin to Sudan or Nigeria. In the province's remote districts even that level of income is way beyond many.

'Not fair'

The little hamlet of Xiage echoes to the sound of firecrackers. Guests file up the wooden steps that lead to Lu Dayi's house. He has recently got married and all his relatives are here to celebrate the arrival of his first child.

The men make toasts with bowls full of wine, then use their fingers to scoop lumps of sticky rice into their mouths.

Women and children at Lu Dayi's banquet Many people in Guizhou live below the poverty line

They are all farmers, thin and wiry, dressed in ill-fitting blue jackets and caps that are grimy and stained from their work in the fields. Cigarette smoke fills the air. Bushels of harvested rice are piled all around.

Gifts arrive, including a refrigerator and a new bed.

Lu Dayi could never afford these himself. He says he has earned nothing from his land this year and cannot grow enough to feed his family.

"I've seen, in the city, people living in big houses, in such nice skyscrapers," he says, "but if you look around here, the houses are just wood and bricks."

"It's not fair. I've been to the cities and seen bosses eating in fancy restaurants every day. They're rich. My life doesn't compare."

"If I had a lot of money I wouldn't mind spending it on an expensive meal too. But I don't. My heart aches when I spend money because I have so little of it."

Lu Dayi is one of over 150 million Chinese in the countryside still living below the poverty line - officially set at around $1.5 a day.

China's economic growth has been deeply uneven. Most have seen their lives improve in the past two decades, and 400 million Chinese have lifted themselves out of poverty.

But those in the right places with the right connections, usually in the cities, have gained incredible riches. So China today is among the most unequal countries in the world.

The serious and growing inequalities are a problem China's next leaders know they must tackle as the gap between the rich and the rest grows wider.

'Elite' lifestyle

Beijing is three hours by plane from Guizhou. It feels like a different country.

China's capital is now a megacity of almost 20 million, its streets hectic and clogged. The world's most expensive brands have huge outlets targeting China's new urban elites.

At a recent polo tournament, sponsored by Cartier, they arrived in their Rolls Royce limousines and Porsche SUVs.

One and a half million Chinese are now dollar millionaires. And the country has an estimated 250 billionaires, up from just 15 in 2006.

This part of China's society has joined the global rich league. They dress in designer outfits that cost more money than Lu Dayi in his village has had in his lifetime.

"People want better things in their life now," says Guo Pei, a fashion designer who came to watch the polo.

"In the West polo is part of the lifestyle of the elite. We too are rich now so we want what's fashionable and sophisticated. It's natural."

So those with money aspire to Western-style leisure and luxury. On the edge of Beijing stands a replica French chateau, complete with turrets and towers, and even its own vineyard and cellars.

Guests at the vineyard China's middle class is picking up new habits, such as appreciating wine

It was built at a cost of $300m. Families can have a go at treading the grapes, then they sample the wines.

The most expensive vintage, grown at the chateau, sells for $1,500 a bottle.

The place also attracts China's new middle classes too. In front of the chateau Jia Zhiyao and Cao Pengfang pose while a professional photographer snaps pictures for their wedding album. She's in her wedding dress. He's in the outfit of a European dandy.

The couple, who both work for a Beijing real estate agency, are paying $1,500 for the album.

The cost is almost their combined monthly income. But they hope the pictures will impress their relatives who live in the provinces and have never left China.

And although their income makes them middle class, in China today they don't feel particularly well off.

Life in the cities is becoming increasingly expensive and, as inequalities rise, even the middle classes are being squeezed.

"Well, our lives are better than the poorest. But we're far worse off than the rich. It's not great, we're stuck in the middle," says Cao Pengfang.

The biggest problem they face is buying a flat to live in. Property prices have risen so fast that Cao Pengfang and Jia Zhiyao cannot afford anywhere in Beijing.

They say they will probably move back to their hometown.

'Urgent task'

Back in Guizhou 70-year-old Lu Jikuan is making rice wine at home.

The poorest feel stuck too, in the countryside.

Money is being poured into Guizhou. New roads carve through the hillsides, mile after mile of tunnels have been bored through the mountains. A new airport terminal is being built in Guiyang, the capital.

Village houses in Zhaoxing, Guizhou Chinese leaders say closing the wealth gap is a priority

The province is pushing itself as a tourist destination and its economy is now among the fastest growing in China.

But the problem for China's leaders is that while the country's economic success has been extraordinary, the divisions are becoming starker.

Premier Wen Jiabao, who's soon to retire, has said narrowing the income gap is an "urgent task".

His decade in power, which is now drawing to a close, was meant to create a more "harmonious" society. Instead inequalities have risen.

So the job of making China a fairer place will now fall to the Communist Party's next generation of leaders, who will rule the country for the next 10 years.

The fear is that China's growing inequities could undermine the legitimacy of their one-party rule, and the more unequal China becomes, the more unstable it may be.

Damian Grammaticas Article written by Damian Grammaticas Damian Grammaticas China correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    As No 8 observes : The antecedents of the Tibet Government in Exile and the Dalai Lama need to be more closely and honestly examined and appraised by critics. By what mandate do they legitimise their self proclaimed status as a “government in exile”? Its an obvious question

    What democratic rights freedoms did the vast majority of Tibetans enjoy prior to the exit of the aristocrats from Tibet? Another obvious question.

    Was it the Dalai Lama or the Chinese who freed the serfs and slaves in Tibet ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    How many poor farmers in China?
    How many super rich?
    Need i say more!

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    I think people are unaware of the true reality.

    China knows it cannot maintain itself on low paid employment & is largely abandoning low paid jobs, which is why textiles and other low paid manufacturing have been moving to Brazil/Chile/Bangladesh etc.

    The number of people in education & university in China is huge, soon, they will be competing with the best/highest paid jobs in the world. The growth in higher paid chinese employment is massive. The disparity of earnings is enevitable due to such a low wage starting point of agricultural & other pre-industrialisation workers

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Yes, I'm with No.9 there!
    Come on BBC and let's hear about the shennanigans in Brussels/Strasburg.
    You the great newsgatherers!

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Having read through all other comments I would highlight No.20 as the crux of the matter! People move from the land where one has a moderate but satisfying life to chase the MONEY GOD in the cities and life becomes a rat race

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    I wanted to tell the Chinese not to go the way we and America have because I reckon we have reached a hideous stage in our living standards where there needs to be curtailment of wealth since there has to be a point ( long passed by many) at which money has a noticeable value. It is just numbers on a piece of paper!!!!! It is the people at the bottom of the ladder who know the value of money by having to count every penny

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    The one thing that all communist run countries feared more than most was another revolution like the one which brought them to power. A resentment may be building now that the peasants have seen their elite's conspicuous consumption. They may wish that Napoleon's words about the whole of China still apply to their deprived regions. "Let China sleep for when they awaken they will shake the earth."

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Its a problem the world over & is a considerable social bubble danger, the wealthy elite may wish to refer to 1789–1799 France & then dispose of as many sharp blades as possible. History, so we are reminded, has a tendency to repeat.

    This issue is a world issue, and will ultimately rear its head in violent ways. At the moment, the wealthy elite of the world constantly threaten to move their wealth abroad to avoid taxation. There will come a time when there will be no-where to run to or hide because the mass majority of nations populations will combine to defeat vile imoral excessiveness

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Ask most what would they prefer, ruled under some divine whatever and dominated by whatever warlord.....Exploitation takes many forms, even in the so-called democracy of the west! You'll always find POWER,MONEY & CORRUPTION in varying order no matter where you are!

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Don't judge China too early. Corruptions happened in rural areas or away from Beijing. The central government is doing whatever they can to reduce the corruption level. Do you think it's that easy to govern such a big county? Get the fact right, China will never want to trigger any war. Their military spending is solely for defensive. Go and study the opium war and understand what you guys have done to us in the past?? Look at here, utility bills increased and the government can't do anything. Still paying for the infrastructure maintenance but privatise all the firms. Well done capitalism!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    China is a nation unsure of its direction or its identity. On one hand Communist, on the other a growing capitalist market. The crunch will come when costs of capitalist living become impossible for the poor. Why do you think they have such a massive military?, to suppress the masses, and possibly seize resources from other states in the future. China are going to be the greatest threat to world peace for years to come.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Hold on, wasn't there another story about the gap or wealth within britain this week?

    I appears that this is happening in every country and am unsure why China has been singled out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    The Chinese Communist Party is rapidly running out of reasons to exist. One day, it will be no more. Communism has utterly failed as a system, despite its ideals of a fairer society for all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    The present Chinese industrial revolution would never be anywhere near the same scale had China not introduced its one child policy resulting in 400 million fewer Chinese.

    The demographic growth & prosperity that characterized the High Middle Ages in west gave way to plague, famine, social upheaval, & rampant warfare.

    Nature has a way of repeatedly causing catastrophy, even now the world is experiencing increased food production damage as a result of climate & climate was the reason behind great famine/plague. Changes to climate are the REAL impending danger, not wealth distribution

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Its a fact, China to Chile life is just not fair. Twas ever thus and for the record ever will be and getting worse as resources run out with over population.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Wealth buys power & power maintains control over wealth so China government have growing competition from its new millionaires/billionaires.

    The bigger issue, is whether the new age of Chinese politicians are suceptable to political/financial corruptable self-profit self-interest above interests of whole nation as is common in western politics.

    Without a nationwide democratic electoral outlet for change, frustrations will build & build among poorer people, especially seeing the growing excesses of the new rich.

    Chinas new model economy is flawed, just as unjust world economy is flawed

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    On my third visit in China in 2006 first heard open discussion about social divide. It was not thought about before or not openly discussed.Good that Chinese Govt. is thinking about this now, to do more to poorer section of the country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    11. legasud 

    Perhaps Mr Grammaticas might want to make his next article on the ever-growing income divide in Britain, As shown on the town hall that shrunk.. where benefit depended with 8 kids who never work get the Hugh council house free ,, don't you think it irresponsible to have all these kids while other have to pay '' no'' said the man. mean while the sure start centres are kept open '' for venerable benefit claimers while the old folks home is closed, and the people kicked out '' tax payers all their lives .. don't talk about fair Benefits for breeders and idle nowt for the payers

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Wealth distribution is just one of many serious economic/financial/social problems mounting in China.

    Seldom before in history has a strong growing prosperous nation with endemic beliefs in racial superiority stopped at its own borders to achieve its ends.

    At some point, China will display its military capability, maybe some years away, but not until it can take a fight away from its own borders thus protecting itself/people/economy, just as west has done since WWII.

    China internal problems is I think the next threat to world economy especially as dictators control the accounts

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Perhaps Mr Grammaticas might want to make his next article on the ever-growing income divide in Britain, where the poor have their hospitals closed and benefits cut while the better sort enjoy large tax cuts. Our betters only real work is ensuring the media remains firmly pro-tory ahead of what they are pleased to call democratic elections.
    I could say something here about the deliberate downgrading of the BBC to further Rupert Murdoch's 'information' empire... but everybody knows that story already.


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