Communist China Turns 70. Who Shares Its Economic Growth?

Originally published on October 4, 2019 11:48 am

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 has sent the money he has 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.

Cao Shuhao, 53, came to Beijing for work in his early 20s. He grew up "extremely poor," he says, which forced him to leave home in order to provide for his family. He now works construction jobs and sends most of his paycheck back home to rural Hebei province.
Jolie Myers / NPR

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 would have been 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.

Laundry hangs near where migrant workers — all men — sleep two to three deep in corrugated metal shanties.
Jolie Myers / NPR

"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 has 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.' "

Migrant workers repair and restore a Buddhist temple in the far reaches of northern Beijing. The workers live together in a row of shanties at the bottom of the hill on which the temple rests.
Jolie Myers / NPR

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.

Banners, signs and giant floral arrangements have gone up all over Beijing to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of modern China.
Jolie Myers / NPR

Jin, for her part, isn't interested in politics. When 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.

Affluence means free time for many members of Beijing's professional class. Wendy Wang (left), 29, and Delicia Kuang, 32, kick back after work at a cat cafe in a trendy neighborhood in China's capital.
Jolie Myers / NPR

"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 says, the U.S. has often underestimated the Chinese government's ability to survive over the 70 years of its existence.

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I'm Ailsa Chang in Beijing, where China is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. I'm sitting on a sidewalk here with a group of men who are all gathered around an iPhone, watching President Xi Jinping give his speech today.


XI JINPING: (Foreign language spoken).

CHANG: People are watching on their phones because most couldn't get up close to see the procession of tanks and soldiers. It was a show of military might on the same day as violent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Here, though, less than a mile away from Tiananmen Square, the atmosphere is joyous.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language).

CHANG: We've spent the last week listening to people reflect on the promises the Chinese Communist Party made decades ago and whether it's lived up to those promises. First stop, a worksite on the outskirts of Beijing. It's a temple first built more than a thousand years ago called Hongluo Si.


CHANG: As you walk the grounds, you'll notice a group of bricklayers restoring one of the temple's walls. Cao Shuhao is 53. He arrived in Beijing from a rural town in Hebei province 30 years ago. He's part of a wave of hundreds of millions of migrant workers who have gushed into China's cities from the countryside.

CAO SHUHAO: (Through interpreter) What I did wasn't unusual. Most people in my generation traveled to Beijing or somewhere else to work and feed their families.

CHANG: When Cao was growing up, his parents couldn't even afford rice. Today he has a steady paycheck, enough money to send home to his family in Hebei. And migration to the cities has lifted hundreds of millions like Cao out of poverty. But at the same time, inequality has sharpened in China.

CAO: (Foreign language spoken).

CHANG: Oh, this is your bedroom?

Cao takes me inside a tiny makeshift room just off the construction site. It has corrugated metal walls, a dirt floor and some bunk beds. Forty years ago, economic inequality was really low in China because most of the country was equally poor. Today China has more billionaires than anywhere except the U.S.

When you look at the amount of wealth that China has amassed over the past decades, do you feel that you have gained from that wealth?

CAO: (Through interpreter) Yes, of course I've gained. I've gained a lot. I feel that China has developed very quickly over these last years, and now China's national power is very strong.

CHANG: One of the goals of the Chinese Communist Party was to create an equal society. Do you feel you have an equal chance to get ahead just as everyone else has?

CAO: (Through interpreter) How should I say this? There are opportunities, but it all depends on whether you as an individual have seized those opportunities.

CHANG: But no amount of individual initiative can eradicate certain inequities.

LI MING-GUO: (Through interpreter) Twenty years ago, when we first came here, people looked at us as if we were beggars.

CHANG: Li Ming-guo (ph) also came to Beijing from Hebei. He's 52 and has risen to team leader here. But he says a deep inequality persists. You see, there's a system here. It's called hukou, and it determines your access to all kinds of public benefits, like education, based entirely on where you were born. So most migrant workers in one of China's biggest, shiniest cities can't even send their kids to the good public schools here.

LI: (Through interpreter) We're still not the same as real Beijingers.

CHANG: Still, both Cao and Li believe they're living dramatically different lives than the ones they would have had in Hebei - even though they are working seven days a week, 10 hours a day.

LI: (Through interpreter) If I compare my life to my parents' life, there's a huge difference. My quality of life now is much better than theirs. I'd say it's hundreds or even thousands of times better.

CHANG: What do you want for your children? How do you want their future to be different from your own life now?

LI: (Through interpreter) I hope they won't have just one option for work because of the pressures of life. I hope they can actually choose what they want to do in life.

GRACE JIN: Right now I'm an architect.

DELICIA KUANG: Film producer.

KEVIN LEE: Consulting firm.

WENDY WANG: Educational company.

CHANG: We're now in a trendy neighborhood near the financial district of Beijing meeting with four young professionals at Meow Coffee.

How do you get a cat to meow?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Imitating meow).


CHANG: We are inside a cat cafe. It's close to where Grace Jin lives. She's 28, an architect - a profession she chose because it combined engineering with the painting classes she took as a child. Jin says this was a choice her mom never had.

JIN: She wanted to learn dance, and she wanted to learn the piano. But these lessons are very expensive, and they cannot afford it. So when I was young, she used to think, what I cannot get, I can give it to my daughter. So I think I'm very grateful and thankful for the economic progress in China.

CHANG: That economic progress accelerated when China's economy opened up in the late '70s. Party leaders said it would be OK for some people to achieve wealth before others, and now that wealth has sent many of the next generation to prestigious American universities, like Grace Jin and the three others with us - Wendy Wang (ph), Kevin Lee (ph) and Delicia Kuang. They all got graduate degrees from Columbia University. They represent what upward mobility looks like in China today for those who've had access to higher education. And access to education in America has meant access to new ideas.

JIN: I don't care who is the leader in China.

CHANG: Do you really not care, or you just know you can't choose anyway?

JIN: Maybe both. But just in China, maybe we know the leader can make wise choice.

CHANG: You have trust in the government here in China to make the correct wise decisions...

JIN: Yeah.

CHANG: ...To ensure stability...

JIN: Yeah.

CHANG: ...In a way that you saw was missing in the U.S.?

JIN: Yeah (laughter). Every fourth year, there would change the leader. It makes me feel unstable. I think the political theater in the U.S. is more like Frank Gehry, the form of the architecture. You don't know which choice they will make in next stage or next step. But in China, it's like classical building. It forms a logic that you would suspect they will make the wise choice.

CHANG: I love these distinctions you are making by drawing on architectural metaphors.

When you look back on the time you had in the U.S., where there was a lot of room to access information, there was the freedom to criticize the government - would you want to see that kind of society develop in China one day?



In the U.S., we talk a lot about freedoms. You know, we talk about individual rights, individual liberties. It's what our government was formed to protect. Can you tell me what you think the Chinese government is set up to protect?

WANG: Yeah. I think it's definitely like prosperity and also stability because I think we Chinese like harmony. That is a very, very core value. Like, Chinese people really appreciate, like, stabilities so that we can, you know, do business. We can, like, pursue academics - being a very stable society.

CHANG: That was Wendy Wang, 29 years old. And on this anniversary, President Xi Jinping is talking about those same ideas. China today, he said, is created by hundreds of millions of hardworking Chinese, and China tomorrow will be even more prosperous.



That was our co-host Ailsa Chang in Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.