China's middle class is on the up and the state aims to eradicate poverty by 2012. But a third of the country's wealth is held by 1 per cent of the populationby Nick Holdstock / October 30, 2017 / Leave a comment
Last week’s Chinese Communist Party Congress was a series of interminable, triumphant speeches glorifying the achievements of the Party and Xi Jinping, its increasingly dominant leader. While it’s tempting to dismiss the Congress as an exercise in authoritarian artifice, it’s hard to deny that the Party has managed to steer the country through a profound transformation over the last four decades. The economic reforms introduced in the late 1970s have certainly led to improvements in many people’s material circumstances, in some cases dramatically.
On a recent trip to China I met Peimeng, a middle-aged man with a plump, satisfied face and all the trappings of low-level wealth. He wears expensive suits, drives a new Audi, has the latest iPhone, and sends his two daughters to private school. He’d come a long way from his childhood in a fishing village on China’s south coast in the 1970s. He recalled that at night the small houses in his village were completely engulfed by the dark. If the villagers needed to buy salt or sugar, they had to walk 10km to a small market town. They didn’t go more than two or three times a year; when they did they bought fabric to make new clothes. When Peimeng was 15 he left school and started working for the village production unit. “My main jobs were separating wheat, planting yams, and extracting peanut oil,” he recalled 40 years later. He did not remember the work as being especially hard. “It was no problem. It’s Chinese culture,” he said and nodded in approval.
But Peimeng acknowledged that luck, more than hard work, had made him and the other villagers wealthy. Their land now forms part of the city of Shenzhen, a shiny, modern city of 11 million. Shenzhen was where China broke decisively with Maoist ideology and embraced capitalism in order to develop an export economy. Over the next three decades the combination of cheap migrant labour, easy access to raw materials, and investment from Hong Kong made the city flourish. Though the villagers didn’t own the land, they had the right to control how it was used. By building, then renting out accommodation for workers, they were able to get rich. As Peimeng said, “After 1995 the opportunities…