Censors in China have suppressed a famed economist’s look at the country’s rising economic inequality, research that stands to undermine the official narrative of a ruling party on the cusp of declaring victory against extreme poverty.
Authorities have blocked the publication in China of Thomas Piketty’s latest book, Capital and Ideology, over demands that he erase its references to China, said Mr. Piketty, co-director of the World Inequality Lab at the Paris School of Economics. He has refused.
“They basically wanted to cut almost all parts referring to contemporary China, and in particular to inequality and opacity in China,” he said in an e-mail, after the censorship was first reported by the South China Morning Post.
“I guess this reflects the growing anxiety of the regime with respect to any kind of critique especially when it comes to inequality and opacity,” he said, adding: “It is sad that Xi Jinping’s ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ seems to refuse open discussion and to fear books.”
It’s a dramatic reversal of the warm reception in China for Mr. Piketty’s previous book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which was praised even by Mr. Xi.
Inequality has always been a delicate topic for the Chinese Communist Party – one that continues to espouse Marxist ideology – perhaps never more so than in 2020, the year in which Beijing has promised the eradication of extreme poverty.
“Because of this target, it becomes overwhelmingly sensitive for the Chinese authorities to keep out discussion” of inequality, said Feng Chongyi, a scholar at Australia’s University of Technology Sydney who studies contemporary Chinese history.
In late 2018, Chinese authorities conducted mass arrests of Marxist-Leninist students who sought to draw attention to the plight of underpaid workers in conditions they likened to indentured servitude.
China’s National Bureau of Statistics has not published data since 2017 on the Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, and the issue draws heated commentary in the country – including, most recently, a debate over taxes on women’s hygiene products, which has turned into a broader conversation about the unequal treatment of women, particularly those with limited incomes.
Mr. Piketty’s newest research, meanwhile, has shone an unflattering light on China. Using new analytical methods, he found that the country’s top 10 per cent earned 41 per cent of all income in 2015, compared with 27 per cent in 1978, and have accumulated almost 70 per cent of all private wealth. The bottom half dropped from 27 per cent of all earnings to 15 per cent over that time.
“The fact that China so quickly became so much more inegalitarian than Europe was by no means inevitable and clearly represents a failure for the regime,” Mr. Piketty writes in Capital and Ideology. “In the 1980s, the level of income inequality was close to that of the most egalitarian countries in Europe, such as Sweden.”
China’s inequality is on display in its largest cities, where Rolls-Royce and Lamborghini cars roam the roads. In 2018, Beijing was named the “Billionaire Capital of the World” by the Hurun Global Rich List. Last year, Credit Suisse calculated that China has more people in the top 10 per cent of the world’s wealthy than any other country.
They share the streets with vendors selling fruit from carts, some pulled by donkeys.
In late May, Premier Li Keqiang himself delivered a startling figure, saying that some 600 million people in China continue to live on a monthly income of 1,000 yuan ($190) or less. Although that number generated significant discussion, a hashtag related to his comment appears to have been censored on China’s Twitter-like Weibo service, with a search yielding only three results. A Chinese scholar who wrote a follow-up article explaining how 600 million people could live on such a low salary said it was not convenient to discuss his work.
Foreign and Chinese scholars have in recent years published a number of research papers about income inequality in international journals. Their findings illustrate both the expanding scale of the problem and its worsening trajectory, showing that the rural-urban income gap is growing; that levels of happiness are falling as inequality rises; that life expectancy could be higher if Chinese society were more equal; and that trust between people and between people and government decreases as inequality increases.
“The core of this issue, which is also the thing government fears the most, is the fact that in China, the Communist Party is much richer than its people,” said Hu Jia, a prominent dissident.
But research on inequality is made difficult in China at least partly by a paucity of reliable data.
“We don’t have any official statistics on family wealth and the inequality problem. Nor do we have any official evaluation of the state of family wealth in China,” said Lu Jingliang, a scholar at the Institute for Economic and Social Research at Jinan University.
To address inequality, he said, “the first step is to enable people to know it and understand it. But that’s not unique to China. Many countries share similar problems.”
In China, however, “we all know that inequality is often closely connected with issues like social stability,” he added. He said he believes the Chinese government’s focus will turn to addressing inequality once extreme poverty is vanquished.
Calls for change have grown louder. A debate about the taxation of tampons, for instance, has triggered angry comments on social media. “Tampons have never been luxury goods. They are a necessity,” said Li Sipan, a feminist and sociologist who founded a non-governmental organization in Guangzhou dedicated to women’s issues.
But the taxation issue is not a “one-dimensional problem,” she said, because it lies at the heart of interwoven problems linked to poverty and inadequate social supports.
At the same time, the economic damage wrought by the pandemic has added new impetus to questions about the winners and losers of China’s economic growth. Although the country has made a remarkable economic recovery from COVID-19, minimum wages have stagnated, and workers have reported salary cuts.
“This year, many people – and not just professional researchers – have gotten a stronger sense of the big problems that exist and their profound effects on today’s China in wealth inequality and low social mobility,” Ms. Li said. “It has become more and more obvious to us.”
With a report by Alexandra Li
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