Some 14,000 children in Beijing are without education after Chinese authorities closed their schools, says the BBC. The children’s predicament reveals the inequalities in Chinese society: The children are all from migrant families. Under China’s household registration (or Hukou) system, migrant families must still be registered in their hometowns even if they live miles away in cities where they have found, or are seeking, work. Without registration, families are without state-subsidized services, like health and education, and children must attend cheap, privately-run schools that are mostly unregulated by authorities.
At the end of 2009, China’s population of rural migrant workers numbered estimated 229.8 million, of which about 149 million are thought to work outside their registered home area.
According to China’s Xinhua news agency, 24 schools in Beijing’s Haidian, Chaoyang and Daxing districts were closed just before they were to start a new term. Chinese authorities said the schools did not meet standards for construction, sports facilities and other safety issues; the head teacher of one school said that it was “unrealistic to expect migrant schools to meet these standards.” Another teacher commented that her 1,400 students now had no place to go to school. Zhang Zhiqiang, the founder of the group Migrant Workers’ Friend, said that the shutdown of the migrant children’s schools “highlighted discrimination against migrant workers,” while Xinhua said the issue had led to “wide public concerns over inequality in education.”
China’s meteoric economic growth over the past three decades since Richard Nixon led a delegation of US officials (including Vice President Joe Biden, who is currently on a 5-day state visit in China) has occurred “with largely unquestioned assumptions that increasing affluence would lead to a happier, wealthier and more equitable society,” notes the BBC.
But while some have reaped staggering economic gains, in most cases the wealth has not trickled down, with a growing disparity between those living in urban vs. rural areas:
In 2010, China’s Gini-coefficient – a measure of how wealth is distributed in a society – stood at 0.47 (a value of 0 suggests total equality, a value of 1 extreme inequality).
In other words, inequality in China has now surpassed that in the United States, and surged through the 0.4 level in the mid-2000s.
A Gini-coefficient of 0.4 is generally regarded as the international warning level for dangerous levels of inequality.
Some 50.3% of China’s mainland population (or 674.15 million people) live in rural areas. In 2010, their average per capita disposable income was 5,900 yuan ($898) which is less than a third of that of urban residents, who average 19,100 yuan ($2,900). Migrant workers hold jobs primarily in manufacturing and assembly and make an average of 1,417 yuan ($222), with unofficial reports saying that many earn less that 1,000 yuan ($157) a month.
The growing inequality in Chinese society accounts for the fascination in China with a recent photo of newly appointed US Ambassador to China Gary Locke. The former commerce secretary and governor of Washington was photographed by a ZhaoHui Tang, a businessman from Bellevue, WA, while wearing a backpack and buying himself coffee at a Starbucks at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, says the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Tang uploaded the photo to Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter (which is banned in China) — and the photo (it’s here was reposted 40,000 times and generated thousands of comments:
“This is something unbelievable in China,” said Tang, a Chinese-American citizen. “Even for low-ranking officials, we don’t do things for ourselves. Someone goes to buy the coffee for them. Someone carries their bags for them.”
Locke tried to use a coupon or voucher for the coffee, but the barista rejected it, Tang said. The ambassador then paid with a credit card, he said….
The image drew favorable online commentary in China, where government bureaucrats and business leaders are notoriously officious and status conscious and even a low-level county executive travels in a chauffeur-driven car with a retinue of secretaries and security officers.
Mocking the arrogance and corruption of officials has become a favorite online pastime, leading in some cases to disciplinary action against government and Communist Party leaders whose behavior was seen as particularly outrageous.
“What a pity China is ‘unable to manufacture’ this sort of public official,” said one commentator on the 0534.com website.
Journalists at a Sunday meet-and-greet asked Locke about the airport image as well as the “safety of China’s massive U.S. government bond holdings.” Locke commented that the airport Starbucks hadn’t honored his coupon (I think that’s happened to more than a few of us before) so he used his credit card. He also commented,
“I love doing things on my own,” he said.
Locke also won more approval points from the Chinese by turning down a Cadillac sedan that only had seats for him and his wife for a minivan to drive him and his family (including his three children) to their official residence in Beijing. Locke, the first Chinese-American ambassador to China, also carried his own luggage. As China Daily noted, President Barack Obama caused a bit of a stir 20 months ago when, after landing in the rain at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport, he carried his own umbrella.
China Daily observed that “perhaps it is time for Chinese dignitaries to follow the example of humble Locke.”
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Photo of migrant children's school by ashengrove