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The China Diaries

Discovering the new China along the trail of the Long March

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Yang Bizhi, one of the many “bang-bang” in Chongqing who make their living as a porter. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Yang Bizhi, one of the many “bang-bang” in Chongqing who make their living as a porter. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

The China Diaries

Gap between China’s rich and poor can't be hidden in Chongqing Add to ...

Yang Bizhi screeches with delight as a beige van pulls around the corner. She sprints after the vehicle with her greying hair bouncing in a bun on the back of her head. Four other women join the race, but Ms. Yang gets to the van first as it slows to a stop.

Soon she would be five yuan richer.

When the back of the van opens, Ms. Yang yanks a green bag three times as wide as her tiny waist onto the road, and then rolls it onto a waiting blue trolley that she pushes – at a pace defying her 48 years – up one of Chongqing’s uncountable steep hills. At the top is a department store that pays her the five yuan (about 80 cents) for getting the bag of winter clothing onto shop shelves.

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“We have nothing else to do, so we have to find a way to make money,” Ms. Yang explained, referring to the 20 or so women and men waiting for similar work on the same street.

Twelve hours later, and a short walk away, dancers at Club TNT make way for a row of waitresses, each carrying a bucket stuffed with a lit sparkler and a $200 bottle of Moet & Chandon champagne. It costs almost $100 just to reserve a table at TNT, but the club is packed shoulder-to-shoulder for a floorshow including a Moulin Rouge-style dance performance and English pop songs belted out by a songstress whose name, “Suger,” was written on a video that played on the walls as she sang.

“In Chongqing’s club scene right now, more and more people like to buy champagne. They want to let others know ‘I’m rich, I can afford this,’” said Chen Qiming, a 26-year-old who sings and DJs in the club each weekend. “One time, I saw a laoban [a “boss”] buy 100 bottles of champagne at once for his table. When the laoban at the next table saw this, he ordered 200 bottles.”

The large and growing gap between China’s rich and poor is one of the most obvious challenges facing the country’s new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, who will take over as president from Hu Jintao in March. In a signal the new leadership at least wants to start discussing the problem, the National Bureau of Statistics last week revealed the country’s Gini coefficient – which measures income inequality – for the first time in more than a decade.

As the official Xinhua newswire put it, the number “paints a far-from-rosy picture of what the country needs to do to bridge the wealth gap and make more people included in its magnificent growth story.”

The official figure of 0.474 is a belated acknowledgment that China has a serious problem. On the Gini scale, 0 is perfect equality and 1 is total inequality – any rating above 0.4 is considered to be dangerous to social stability. But the country’s chief statistician, Ma Jiantang, also made an eyebrow-raising assertion: that Chinese society has been getting more equal each year since 2008, when the Gini coefficient peaked at 0.491.

That seems at odds with the realities on the streets of a place like Chongqing, where it’s increasingly common to see luxury sports cars swerving through streets clogged by three-wheeled taxis. Indeed, a study conducted last year by the Chengdu-based Survey and Research Centre for China Household Finance concluded the Gini coefficient ACTUALLY stood at 0.61 in 2010, which would put China among the most unequal societies in the world.

That’s no small matter for a nominally Communist country, albeit one that gave itself plenty of ideological wiggle room in recent decades by pursuing “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

“A reporter called and asked me to comment on today’s data, but wouldn’t I be crazy to comment on a fake figure?” Xu Xiaonian, a Shanghai-based economist at the China Europe International Business School wrote Friday on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service. “Speaking of our Gini coefficient, even in fairy tales they wouldn’t dare to write like that,” he added.

Chongqing, a vibrant Yangtze River metropolis, has found itself at the centre of the income equality debate in recent years. Until his sudden fall last year, Bo Xilai, the city’s former boss and the one-time rising star of the Communist Party, called for a return to Mao Zedong-era socialist values and better distribution of the country’s growing wealth.

However, he was ousted following revelations of his wife’s involvement in the murder of a British businessman. Mr. Bo himself is expected to soon face trial on charges of corruption and abuse of power.

But Mr. Bo is remembered well by porters like Ms. Yang, who say life for Chongqing’s poor was better under his rule.

Yang Xingcheng, one of Chongqing’s legendary “bang-bang” porters who carry goods up and down the city’s hills on a bamboo pole slung over their shoulders, didn’t want to talk politics, but also said business today is “not as good as last year or a few years ago.”

Mr. Yang (no relation to Ms. Yang) has been using the same bamboo pole since coming to Chongqing more than a decade ago, and his hands have deep calluses to prove it. Bang-bang men get paid 10 to 20 yuan per trip, depending on the weight of the goods, Mr. Yang said. He usually makes between $5 and $15 a day – barely enough to eat, pay rent and save a little for to travel home for the upcoming Chinese New Year holiday.

It’s nowhere near enough for him to contemplate buying a house or getting married, let alone mingle with the patrons of Club TNT.

“These houses cost about a million yuan ($160,000),” he said, waving his hand at the ramshackle working-class apartment blocks around him. “How dare I afford one? And all the girls want you to have a house before they’ll marry you.”

Even Mr. Liu, the performer at Club TNT, says that while he admires those who can afford the $100 tables and $300 bottles of champagne, he’s not among them. Most, he said, are either in the construction business or are officials in the local government.

Mr. Liu says he gets paid 600 yuan (about $95) for a night’s work, and often dines before the show at KFC. “Me and my friends, we’re poor people,” he laughed.

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

The China Diaries

Mark MacKinnon, The Globe and Mail’s China correspondent, and staff photojournalist John Lehmann are exploring China at a defining moment in its modern history. Travelling mainly by rail, they will roughly retrace the path of Mao Zedong’s Long March to look at the challenges facing Mao’s latest successor, Xi Jinping.

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