The filthy rich

Breakneck GDP growth comes at a price: the breakdown of the nation’s social cohesion

The filthy rich

Franz Kafka’s novel The Metamorphosis tells the story of Gregor Samsa, a low-paid salesman struggling on the fringes of society to support his family. In a metaphor for the social problems that come with modern economies, Samsa wakes up one morning to find that he’s turned into something literally less than human – a giant insect.

The book may have been set in early twentieth-century Europe but it carries a potent message for present-day China. In Kafka-esque style, the country already has an ‘ant tribe’ of its own (see WiC58). The name was coined for an unlikely social group: graduates living together in cramped conditions in expensive cities like Shanghai, demoralised and dissatisfied as they struggle to get by on low pay.

China’s leaders may have managed to build one of the world’s most formidable industrial economies – but the gleaming new factories, roads and skyscrapers have come at a steep social cost. New income has brought plenty of positives (higher literacy rates, lower malnutrition and infant mortality). But it also brings a feeling that the benefits aren’t being shared fairly.

Almost overnight, it seems, China has gone from one of the most equal countries in the world (with a Gini coefficient of 0.29 in 1981) to one of the most unequal (0.48 today). The ostentatious wealth of a privileged few has provoked resentment amongst those struggling to make ends meet, contributing to a sense of social dislocation for many of those failing to adjust to the new realities.

Similar sentiment is partly to blame, it is said, for a series of tragedies that shocked the nation earlier this year. On at least eight separate occasions, knife-wielding men went after the most vulnerable section of the population: kindergarten children (see WiC61). The attacks claimed 17 lives, and injured 50 more children. One of the surviving assailants would later admit that he was “venting his anger against society.”

At the time, Reuters interviewed a worried mother outside a kindergarten in Beijing. She was in no doubt of what the school attacks represented: “The deep social conflict is being reflected in these events… the gap between rich and poor is too wide so there may be people who have developed an anti-social personality. These types of people cannot be controlled by security measures.”

Thankfully, crimes of that sort seem to have waned for the moment, but the underlying problems remain unresolved. The rising cost of housing is one of the touchstone issues, with many now feeling that they’ve been priced out of the market. The plight of families struggling to pay rents and mortgages resonated so strongly that a popular TV show based on that premise (called Dwelling Narrowness) was ordered off the air late last year.

High house prices (generated in part by speculation and low interest rates) have fuelled the building boom, with social tensions often stoked by the perception that corrupt government officials are in league with property developers to force residents from their homes so they can be profitably demolished. The dispossessed are usually paid a fraction of the land’s true worth.

Cases in which residents resist frequently gain publicity. One Chengdu woman burned herself alive in protest, another defended his residence with a homemade cannon. Others hold out in what are termed ‘nail houses’ – dwellings that perch on a nail-like foundation because venal developers have excavated all the surrounding land. In fact, one reason why James Cameron’s Avatar broke Chinese box office records this year was because audiences were said to empathise with the Na’vi’s plight.

Even the industrial system has shown signs of psychological stress. Most notoriously, Foxconn’s electronics factories experienced 14 suicides this year.

China’s leaders are keenly aware of the problems, which is perhaps why they make regular appeals for a ‘harmonious society’. Others blame the pace of change since Deng Xiaoping began his reforms. Like Hamlet, they wonder whether it hasn’t created something very “rotten” in their country. Both the environment and social cohesion are paying a heavy price for all that breakneck GDP growth.

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