The New York Times is running a series of articles, The Great Divide, on the widening gap between the affluent urban residents and the rural poor who increasingly are unable to have any part of the wealth and opportunity. The first lengthy article focusses on the suicide of a student too poor to afford to continue his education, and the failure of the government to care for the most disadvantaged in society.
China has the world’s fastest-growing economy but is one of its most unequal societies. The benefits of growth have been bestowed mainly on urban residents and government and party officials. In the past five years, the income divide between the urban rich and the rural poor has widened so sharply that some studies now compare China’s social cleavage unfavorably with Africa’s poorest nations.
For the Communist leaders whose main claim to legitimacy is creating prosperity, the skewed distribution of wealth has already begun to alienate the country’s 750 million peasants, historically a bellwether of stability.
The countryside simmers with unrest. Farmers flock to the cities to find work. The poor demand social, economic and political benefits that the Communist Party has been reluctant to deliver.
To its credit, the Chinese government invigorated the economy and lifted hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty over the past quarter century. Few would argue that Chinese lived better when officials still adhered to a rigid idea of socialist equality.
But in recent years, officials have devoted the nation’s wealth to building urban manufacturing and financial centers, often ignoring peasants. Farmers cannot own the land they work and are often left with nothing when the government seizes their fields for factories or malls. Many cannot afford basic services, like high school.