Seventy years ago, Mao Zedong appeared on a balcony overlooking Tiananmen Square and conjured a new country into being. On Tuesday, Xi Jinping, arguably the strongest leader since Mao, appeared on that same balcony to reaffirm his vision of modern China.
That vision includes what Xi has repeatedly referred to as the “Chinese Dream,” one pillar of which is the idea that all Chinese should have access to the shared prosperity of the nation.
Hundreds of millions of citizens have climbed out of poverty in the past few decades, but a chasm of inequality has opened up in the country at the same time. Researchers place China within the ranks of the 20 least equal nations in the world.
And as the nation marks 70 years of communist rule, many Chinese people are reflecting on their own stories of struggle and mobility.
“At the start of China’s post-Mao period 40 years ago, China had one of the lowest levels of economic inequality in the world,” says Bruce Dickson, a China expert at George Washington University. “But that was because everyone was equally poor.” When China’s economy opened up to the world starting in the late 1970s, wealth poured in. But that wealth has not trickled down equally to all parts of society.
“There are opportunities, [but it’s up to the] individual to seize them,” says Cao Shuhao, a 53-year-old migrant worker from rural Hebei province. He came to Beijing when he was in his early 20s to find work. And he’s sent the money he’s made as a construction worker back to his family in Hebei for nearly 30 years.
As a child, Cao often went hungry. Rice and flour were luxuries that his parents, both farmers, couldn’t afford.
There was no future at home with his family, he said. So he made the trek to Beijing to find a better life. “What I did wasn’t unusual,” Cao says. “Most people in my generation traveled to Beijing or somewhere else to work, and feed their families.”
A better life in this case is a corrugated metal shanty at the bottom of a hill in the northern reaches of Beijing’s suburbs.
By day, he and a team of construction workers, all migrants, make repairs to a Buddhist temple complex at the top of the hill. Then at night, they troop to the bottom of the hill to their temporary homes. There are about a dozen shanties set up in a long row, and each one sleeps two to three men.
China’s decades of economic development have relied partly on the movement of hundreds of millions of laborers from their home provinces to wherever the job market pulls them. Although some have returned home, many continue to travel and set up temporary, often precarious, dwellings where they land.
The floors are a dusty mix of dirt and concrete tiles, there are swarms of ravenous mosquitoes, and in the summer, the heat is nearly unbearable. But the shared kitchen is painted a cheerful blue and a communal table out front has room for a slew of stools to be pulled up to the action.
When his crew finishes the work on the temple, they’ll move on to another site and set up their temporary digs once again.
Had he stayed in Hebei, Cao says, there’s no way he’d be able to put food on his family’s table. In Beijing, that’s exactly what he has been able to achieve.
By any measure, Cao is better off than his parents, the definition of economic mobility. But not everyone has access to the same rate of mobility.
“In both China and the U.S., the position one is born into has a big effect on life outcomes,” says David Dollar, a China expert at the Brookings Institution. In China, a system called hukou means that children must attend school where they were born, no matter where their parents end up living. Dollar says educational opportunities are vastly inferior in rural areas when compared with cities in China.
“Most children born in the countryside with rural hukou do not go to college, while most urban children do,” Dollar says. And a large portion of the income gap is the result of the education gap, he added.
Cao says his two grown children are doing better than him. His daughter is now a kindergarten teacher and his son works on stage management for government events — working-class jobs that offer much more comfort than Cao’s ever experienced. “I hope my children won’t be like me; that they won’t have just one option for work,” he says.
Grace Jin’s parents wanted options for her as well. The 28-year-old architect studied dance, music and art as a child. “My mother, when she was young, she didn’t have access to the arts. She wanted to learn dance and she wanted to learn piano,” she recalls. “But when she was growing up, the lessons were very expensive, and they couldn’t afford it. So when I was young, she thought, ‘What I couldn’t have, I can give to my daughter.’”
Jin grew up in Zhejiang, an affluent eastern coastal province. Her father was an agricultural researcher and her mother was an accountant. Jin went to college after high school — a forgone conclusion for her middle-class upbringing. She then studied architecture at Columbia University in the U.S.
Over passion fruit cucumber sodas at a cat cafe in Beijing, Jin says that the Chinese Dream, for her, is about freedom. “Freedom to choose love, freedom to choose what I do for a living. I also want that for my children. I want them to grow up and have access to what they like — music, art, science, whatever. I want them to live their own lives,” she says.
Seventy years ago, freedom of choice was not high on the priority list for the government of the brand-new nation. After centuries of imperial rule, Mao set up a Marxist system that abolished private property and exulted in the equality of all workers. Dickson, of George Washington University, says that when the government decided to rely on the private sector to achieve unprecedented growth after the late 1970s, it effectively abandoned Marxist ideals. But that evolution has been a successful survival strategy for the modern Chinese Communist Party.
“One reason that inequality has not been a politically explosive issue is that most people have benefited from economic growth, even though some have benefited more than others,” Dickson says.
Jin, for her part, isn’t interested in politics. As she studied in the U.S., she became familiar with the political system in the U.S. Ever the architect, she compares the U.S. practice of electing a president every four years to a Frank Gehry creation — you don’t know what you’re going to get. She says she much prefers the stability of the Chinese system, where she doesn’t have to worry about instability at the top. She can focus on her own life, career and success.
Jin has never known a China without rapid economic growth. But the national economy is slowing down. The percentage of GDP growth has been falling over the past decade, from 14.2% in 2007 to 6.6% in 2018.
“If there is such a thing as a social contract in China, it is based on the presumption of continued prosperity under Chinese Communist Party rule,” Dickson says.
As long as people believe the government will continue to make their lives better, hope will pacify them. But if growth and wages stagnate, that hope could turn to resentment, he says. And resentment could turn into action.
Then again, he adds, the U.S. has often underestimated the Chinese government’s ability to survive over the 70 years of its existence.