China is one of the countries most on the minds of people these days. As a rising power in the modern world, it commands a certain amount of respect and attention due to its status as a very rapidly developing nation. Many Westerners see China as a mighty new engine of industrial might and technological advancement, a strong and fresh new player on the stage of global politics.
China has spent years of effort combined with billions and billions of dollars to give itself a very polished, modern appearance to the rest of the world. Events like the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai cost billions of dollars to put on (40 billion and 48 billion, respectively), a huge (and actually record-breaking) and grandiose expenditure of epic proportions, especially considering the economic state of the rest of the country.
You see, while China may portray itself as a gleaming new world power and a rising giant in the global market, the truth is that much of this economic strength is held up by people in devastating poverty, economically and socially. In a way, China has two sides. One side is the urban, modern, rapidly developing side that China shows to the rest of the world, the side that funnels billions into the development of elaborate new ways to show the world how great China is. The other side is the rural, impoverished, beleaguered side, the one made up of farmers with no upward mobility, marked by discontent, corruption, and graft.
I know many Chinese international students at my university, and I’ve spoken to a number of them about the state that China is in right now. Many see their own country as a corrupt place, where the prime force behind most people’s actions (particularly those of the government) is money and most people act selfishly out of a survivalist streak going back hundreds of years. I’m not saying that China is a universally corrupt country, and neither are my Chinese friends. I would, however, be so bold as to say that China is a country full of terrible class divisions and outright oppressive government tactics.
A perfect picture of the stark dichotomy between rich and poor, privileged and powerless, is that of the Chinese farmer and his boss. There is a substantial wealth gap in China, particularly between those who work on farms in rural areas and those who work in an urban setting. In fact, workers in cities earn about three times as much as those in the country. A report published in 2006 by the World Bank found that about 8% of China’s population lived on less than a dollar day, and most of these people lived in the countryside.
To make matters worse, the Chinese government has done little to address these issues. While they recently lifted ancient taxes on farmers, the benefit has not been enough to promise farmers security. Almost all farmers in China find themselves at the mercy of fluctuating markets and environmental disasters, with no income buffer to protect them from hard times. In fact, few farmers have any power over the value of their crop. Farmers typically sell their goods through a “boss,” who will buy the goods from them and resell them; a middle man, so to speak. The problem here is that these bosses are usually unconcerned about the wellbeing of the farmers, and often give them almost no money for their crop relative to the amount they sell the crops for.
(Most of these stats were gathered from here)
Naturally, there’s a lot of resentment and inequality here. Many of the Chinese people would like something to change, and most Chinese farmers would love for the government to make their lives a little easier. But rather than subsidize farmers, order a scrutiny of farmers’ “bosses,” or simply provide farmers with more advanced equipment, the government has chosen to build colossal monuments to Chinese dominance with their money. And due to China’s repression of free speech, and the lack of a legal safety net to rely on for protection from embezzlement by bosses, it seems the Chinese farmers will be trapped in poverty and silence for years to come.