Rich China, Poor China

The day we all knew would arrive is here, and according to Evan Osnos of the New Yorker, China doesn’t know quite how to respond.

How did China respond to the exhilarating news that it has sprinted past Japan to become the world’s second largest economy? Here’s what the Global Times newspaper says today, “The world ranking has brought China jealousy and vigilance…. Despite growth in G.D.P, which is only a number, natural disasters will continue to hit China, and American warships and Congress will continue to be aggressive towards China.”

Um—so you’re saying there won’t be cake? While the story has rated front-page treatment in the U.S., it has sent China into a frenzy of self-flagellation, in the hope of reminding people that it is still home to a lot of very poor people.

Obviously China’s new No. 2 status puts the country in a bind and reinforces the conundrum that China is an unbelievably rich and a desperately poor country. It’s awkward for the propagandists who on the one hand want to gloat about China’s ascending status, but who must also make sure the people understand that China doesn’t have the resources to end poverty.

Of course, real poverty (the kind that leaves people morbidly malnourished or even starving) has been all but eradicated in China, but, to put it in the words of a former Washington Post bureau chief, much of China remains “a third-, fourth- and fifth-world country” with a majority of its population living below the poverty line. On the other side of the spectrum we have examples everywhere of those with money to burn. China is so rich, and so poor.

Of course, this is in some ways the oldest story on earth, and we have an increasing and inexcusable divide between the haves and the have-nots here in America, an open wound that’s only going to deepen and fester as unemployment continues to rise in what seems to be direct correlation with the salaries and bonuses dished out on Wall Street. The contrast in China, however, is a bit more dramatic, and the middle class a far smaller segment of China’s demographic. Osnos illustrates this point:

[E]very full-time China observer has had the experience of greeting a giddy visitor for dinner, after he or she has done the Shanghai-Beijing loop or visited a top university. You inevitably end up playing the role of the local grump, trying to talk your glassy-eyed guest down from the chandelier. Standing outside the bus station in Xining earlier this month, watching the migrants stream in and out, I made a note to bring guests who want a fuller picture of China. It’s only a couple of hours by plane from Beijing, and it’s not a red herring. To reverse the roles for a moment, a visit to the Port Authority bus terminal might not showcase America’s best angle, but if I were a Chinese investor trying to understand how America lives beneath the top-line measures of its strength, I would probably want to make the visit.

China’s spin doctors are going to face an even tougher balancing act now as they send out the message that the country has reached a new economic milestone, yet remains in many ways poor and helpless. I like the way James Kynge expressed this contradiction in China Shakes the World back in 2006,

Although China is poised to overtake the UK to become the world’s fourth largest economy, on a per capita basis it ranks just above the world’s poorest nations, with an average income of just over $1,000 a year. Even if the country’s gross domestic product one day becomes as large as that of the US, simple mathematics ordains that its people at that time will on average be only one-sixth as wealthy as Americans.

Look at how far China has come even since then. And none of this is to take away from China’s huge successes and unparalleled growth trajectory. It’s just an important reminder that there’s more than one China, and that as China’s GDP grows, the higher the tightrope will be strung for China’s propagandists who need to convey two distinctly discordant messages. I don’t envy them their jobs.

The Discussion: 42 Comments

@Richard – Disappointing man: I mean, haven’t you been reading Forbes lately? Don’t you know that “real poverty is pretty much gone” (“real poverty” of course being defined as “a humanitarian disaster” rather than, y’know, “real poverty”) in China nowadays?

August 18, 2010 @ 6:42 am | Comment

I’m glad somebody caught my little insider’s joke.

August 18, 2010 @ 6:49 am | Comment

China’s spin doctors are going to face an even tougher balancing act

Who is the spin doctor? The Chinese media has always taken the stance that China is a large developing country. It’s the West that wants to make China simultaneously look like both a menace and a pauper.

This is the third or fourth time I’ve posted this but I’m sure none of you will read it as usual:

The truth is, wealth inequality in China isn’t nearly as bad as it should be. Another study also found that much of the inequality was due to labor diversification and regional inequality, not so much within province inequality due to poor policy.

August 18, 2010 @ 7:06 am | Comment

Today’s post is about the responsibility of a Chinese living in America. I think all Chinese living in America have the responsibility of helping and enlightening foreigners.

Last year I taught English as a favor to a friend, in a school in Zhuhai, China. And I met a few of the English teachers there, some are from America, some are from Canada. From my observation of them, I find that at first glance, they are very polite, very moral, very courteous, very attentive to others, very loving.

But after a longer and closer observation, I find that they are only that way when in front of Chinese people. That is, when they know there are many Chinese people around, they’ll “act” to behave very moraly, very civilized, very loving. All those foreign teachers always tell some very touching stories, moral lectures, etc to their students, and most of those stories always lead to some lessons about God, about Love.

The reason those teachers do this, is because deep down, they firmly believe that the Caucasian race is of a superior one, a more civilized one, a more courteous one, a more cultured one, a more accomplished one. And the Chinese race, is an inferior once, a less developed, less courteous, less cultured one, and less accomplished one. Therefore, they think they have a moral responsibility to help and improve and englighten the Chinese, and oftentimes they are moved and touched by what they consider to be own selfless acts.

This is of course not new. Every citizen of every third world country can tell you similar stories and feelings. Historically, the steps of a cultural invasion by an emperialist power is first sending missionaries based on the belief that the barbarians need to be enlightened, need to be shown the love of God, the love of modernity. And of course, during their acts of enlightenment, they have done some objectively charitable things. But those charitable acts were with the intention of letting the Chinese people “wake up” and realize: “Oh, look how wonderful and benign and loving those Westerners are, compared to them, we are really just an inferior group of people!”. And those Chinese will start to do a lot of “self-reflections” on why they are not as wonderful as those loving and cultured Westerners. And slowly over many many years and centuries, the idea that Chinese people are simply of a lower class are firmly rooted even in the minds of many “elite” Chinese. And those elite Chinese will want to separate themselves from the regular Chinese, and help the Westerner englighten China further. And of course that led to the first Opium War, the second Opium War, the invasion and looting of the Qing Dynasty by the Western allied forces (otherwise known as the Boxer Rebellion in Western terms).

The reality is of course, the Chinese have a longer civilization, a higher level of development, more courteous, more civilized, more cultured, more loving, more moral, and more enlightened. The West simply utilized some forms of non-renewable energy in the last few hundred years, and is only strong temporarily, from a material point of view. Or, as the famous Western scholar Samuel Huntington said:

[quote] “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion, but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do.” [/quote]

Now, you may say, “Where is your evidence!?!?”. Well let’s look at the military. Look at the number of scandals left by the American military everywhere they are based – frequentg rapes against Japan civilians, hitting Italian cable car in the mountain, crushing Korean girl to death in Seoul, and everytime an American ship docks in Hongkong, there’s bound to be at least one incident of sexual harassment by American sailors in a bar.

Overseas Chinese should have the responsibility in educating and enlightening the Whites, not the other way around. I propose a mental exercise when interacting with a white man. When you see him/her, do not feel like you are talking to a superior thing, instead remind yourself that you are talking to a lower class being, an ape. I often teach this mental exercise to my son, and he now appears to be a fully confident and assertive and handsome young man.

You must often suggest to the Whites they are the wrong ones, the inferior ones, the ones needing enlightenment. No no no, this is not how to be polite, THIS is how to be polite. No no no, God does not exist, believing in God is a sign of backwardness. No no no , this is not good music, THIS is good music. No no no, this is not appropriate familial relations, THIS is appropriate familial relations. No no no, this is not delicious food, THIS is delicious food. No no no, this is not advanced level math, THIS is advanced level math. The more such examples you can point out in front of them, the better it is for you and for them.

Now, you say. Don’t Chinese also need to learn from the Westerners? Of course we do. But I think the best way to learn is through teaching others. In college, I often was asked to tutor students. And I find that when I tutor them, I go through a thorough re-discovery and review of my knowledge and skills, and it makes me understand certain things better. It is a journey of self-discovery and strengthening self-confidence. Therefore, to learn, it is better to teach than to follow, better to correcting others’ mistakes than pretending you are wrong. This is the best way to improve yourself.

Same thing with reading. When you read a book written by a foreigner, just remind yourself that this is a book written by someone with questionable knowledge and skills.

All in all, Chinese living overseas need to constantly remind themselves of this. Without understanding this, we risk lowering ourselves to the same level as the Westerners, and risk being on the receiving end of a missionary, risk being morally debased and losing one’s self-dignity.

August 18, 2010 @ 7:49 am | Comment

Wow, the random agit-prop generator returns . . . .

August 18, 2010 @ 7:53 am | Comment

Oh dear. Math has truly outdone himself this time.

August 18, 2010 @ 8:15 am | Comment

Maths – One of your better ones – keep up the good work

August 18, 2010 @ 9:53 am | Comment

Math needs to have a talk show of himself. China’s answer to Glenn B

August 18, 2010 @ 10:23 am | Comment

“God does not exist, believing in God is a sign of backwardness.”
Not 100% garbage for once 😉

“Same thing with reading. When you read a book written by a foreigner, just remind yourself that this is a book written by someone with questionable knowledge and skills.”
True, true….though I have to say your ecxample is a tad wordy. Try to be more pithy and concise, Math – too many words is a sure sign of a foreigner 😀 Don’t be too hard on yourself re your knowledge and I have to say your skills might be getting better.

And finally
“And of course that led to the first Opium War, the second Opium War, the invasion and looting of the Qing Dynasty by the Western allied forces (otherwise known as the Boxer Rebellion in Western terms). ”
Thank you, thank you, thank you! Opium War bingo, a game for all the family 😀

August 18, 2010 @ 10:38 am | Comment

Math is Chinese now? I thought he was a Bloody Australian! Must have been a previous incarnation. Glad to see the thought process hasn’t changed. Oh, Math, that was crushing two Korean girls to death, in an accident up near the DMZ, so it was not in Seoul. You should really check your facts before posting.

August 18, 2010 @ 10:39 am | Comment

As the man wrote….”written by someone with questionable knowledge”.

August 18, 2010 @ 10:41 am | Comment

Math actually managed to outmerp merp in that diatribe. Bad organisation on the part of Party HQ – two agents assigned to the same cyber-post! Very inefficient.

August 18, 2010 @ 11:37 am | Comment

Math is one of mankind’s greatest mysteries.

August 18, 2010 @ 11:44 am | Comment

Wait. Stop what you’re doing. Go read this incredible column by Shaun Rein right now. I think he’s finally popped a gasket.

August 18, 2010 @ 12:04 pm | Comment

Please Thomas, I think we’ve heard enough about Shaun Rein. I’d much rather talk about Math.

August 18, 2010 @ 12:25 pm | Comment

You guys mustered the patience to read Math’s comment? Wow, just wow.

Shaun’s column is crap and self-centered, as usual.

August 18, 2010 @ 5:50 pm | Comment

Returning to the original subject of Richard’s post: I don’t see what the difficulty is for the Chinese spin doctors, frankly. If I were one, I think my message would be pretty simple: “China is a big, developing country.” All developing countries have a very few rich people and a lot of poor people and a lot of income inequality. If Philippines were the size of China, but still retaining its current Gini coefficient, it would be a pretty damn big economy and it would still be very very very poor.

August 18, 2010 @ 6:45 pm | Comment

Charlie Rose interview with J.Fallows and Stephen Roach on the subject of China’s economy at

August 18, 2010 @ 7:59 pm | Comment

“The world ranking has brought China jealousy and vigilance…. Despite growth in G.D.P, which is only a number, natural disasters will continue to hit China, and American warships and Congress will continue to be aggressive towards China.”

Is China ever going to drop its victim mentality? The Economist (as usual) had a great article on renewed American diplomacy in Asia, saying that China should be less worried about American military drills/visits and consider more why so many of its neighbours are happy that the US is getting involved in the region again.

August 19, 2010 @ 6:02 am | Comment

The Economist is decidedly anti-Chinese- they just do a better job at pretending not to be ridiculously biased.

The reason why Southeast Asian countries welcome American interference, despite decades of rape, bombing and poisonings, is because they (wrongfully) want the Spratlys and other islands that both Taiwan and the PRC claim.

It’s simple greed, which is the underlying ethos of the Economist.

August 19, 2010 @ 6:13 am | Comment

I’m guessing Math, Merp et al haven’t read the articles linked in this piece…

One extract…
“Zhang Yiwu, a professor in Chinese language and literature with Peking University, wrote that the Chinese nation must no longer indulge in grief and indignation over the sufferings of the 20th century.

“Today, we seem to have adopted a contradictory attitude toward discussions of China’s circumstances. One the one hand, we often feel puzzled with and criticize many things in our country, with reference to circumstances in the West … On the other hand, we are extremely sensitive to outside criticism, easily taking them as “humiliating China”.

What we must do is to say goodbye to our obsession with [our nation’s sufferings in] the 20th century and strive to regain a cultural confidence and consciousness … The Chinese nation has extremely deep sorrowful feelings about the 20th century. China’s weakness and poverty … naturally resulted in a contradictory mentality of Chinese people to both “look up to” and “look down upon” the West. Such a mentality still has a far-reaching influence among us today.

But today, China has already bid farewell to the 20th century and stood on a new platform … We must strive to understand the world and ourselves with a more peaceful and open mentality.” “

August 19, 2010 @ 6:14 am | Comment

Mike, that’s some radical stuff you’re quoting. It’ll go right over the heads of M & M (Merp and Math). Great quote.

August 19, 2010 @ 7:07 am | Comment

The Rein article was perhaps a trace bizarre and self-centred, but I do not think there was anything objectionable about it.

August 19, 2010 @ 7:53 am | Comment

One man’s brave transcendence over evil, with some serious name-dropping on the way up. But I really don’t want to go there.

August 19, 2010 @ 9:03 am | Comment

Kind of related to the topic
Good Opium War bingo in the comments section….

August 19, 2010 @ 9:12 am | Comment

Speaking of victim mentality, I agree with the atime article in some way. It is a good idea to speak softly, especially for the top leaders and diplomats. Sometimes it is better to ignore than respond to Western criticisms. It is also counter-productive to censor Internet, or restrict Western journalists’ movement.

On the other hand it is also wise for China to carry a stick. For example if the Dalai Lama or his followers start another race riot, China should seriously consider a military incursion into Nepal or a missile attack on Dharamsala to root out the separatists.

August 19, 2010 @ 10:02 am | Comment

Serve, some say China is already doing that

One has to think too – is the Dalai Lama instigating (despite stringent censorship, his word can still get in?) or is he being used? Related topic…’s-plans-behind-the-Xinjiang-tragedy-15889.html

What happens if the Han start a race riot? Is that permissible?

August 19, 2010 @ 10:36 am | Comment

Math, if those teachers were proselytizing in class why didn’t you report them for violating the terms of their visas?

Unless, of course, it didn’t happen and you’re just making shit up… hmmm….

August 19, 2010 @ 11:21 am | Comment

@Jenny Chu: You may recall that China has something of a history with pissed off poor people. So, yes, the spin doctors do have their work cut out for them.

August 19, 2010 @ 11:28 am | Comment

All explained here
“Originating in the West, it is a concept based on Western economic structures and systems. Non-Western styled countries often find the statistic does not tell the real picture.”

“China needs to come up with its own version of GDP – one that can be accepted both domestically and internationally.”

August 19, 2010 @ 11:46 am | Comment

@Twisted_Colour You’re absolutely right, because the spin doctors are not having to spin *China*, they’re having to spin *China’s current regime*.

August 19, 2010 @ 1:48 pm | Comment

@Mike, thanks for providing me with the incentive to check out the ATimes article. A tip of the chapeau to you!

The subject of the NewYorker blog by Osnos left me feeling rather ambivalent.

Then Merp did his boring double talk routine, whereas Professor Irwin Corey would have made it really funny. He was trumped by the false bravado of Math.

In reading the ATimes article which Mike linked, I noted the lead-in to this article:

Certainly, China has done well in this regard, economically speaking. However, political, cultural, social and ideological differences still loom large, which often results in China running into quarrels or conflicts with other countries, particularly Western countries.

When this happens, Chinese officials and media often blame other parties for misreading or misunderstanding or distorting

China’s position. In recent years, with growing nationalistic sentiments, ordinary Chinese are even joining the official chorus. Seldom, if ever, have they raised the question: is it possible that we Chinese are on the wrong side, misreading others?

Now, some enlightened Chinese intellectuals are beginning self-reflection on whether China could possibly be misunderstanding the outside world. The International Herald Leader, a publication under the state-run Xinhua News Agency, recently published a series of critical articles. [1]

That is refreshing to read. It is good to see discussion like this in China. Reading further, I was intrigued by this paragraph, “written by Ye Hailin, a specialist in international issues with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).”

There is little fact to support our “uniqueness”. But we have indeed developed a self-confidence that is probably unique in the whole world. Such self-confidence is swelling into self-importance and arrogance which are originally alien to our nation, which like drugs are poisoning our rationality and polluting our internal and external environments. Many “drugs” in today’s Chinese society are produced by our thinking ourselves as “unique”.

Now those are pretty strong words.

I look at this a little differently. When people are repressed or believe that they are repressed, and finally the psychological lid comes off, the reactions can vary. In my life, I can remember the many race riots during the 1960’s, in places like Watts, DC, Philly and Newark. I remember how violent and scary that time was.

I also remember the Civil Rights movement and the self-control exhibited by Martin Luther King and the SCLC. I remember the Black Panther Party and its leaders, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. The Black Panthers were all about “Black Power”. I remember the dedicated attorney and civil rights activist Medgar Evers. He was murdered in Mississippi by Byron De La Beckwith in the summer of 1963. White supremacists had tried a number of times before to kill Evers. And I remember Malcolm X.

I remember the anxiety in our household during the lead-in to the 1967 6 Day War in Israel. I remember our jubilation after Israel triumphed.

I remember the nascent Feminist Movement in the US with Andrea Dworkin and Betty Friedan. I remember Aussie Helen Reddy’s song, “I am Woman, Hear Me Roar”, in which she belted out, “If I have to I can do anything. I am strong! I am invincible! I am woman!” I remember the American Indian Movement, with the strident Russell Means and Dennis Banks.

So, looking at Merp and Math, their reactions and their writings are nothing new! And the self-reflection of the Chinese intellectuals mentioned in the article follow in the great footsteps of Ghandi, Jefferson, MLK and other reflective intellectuals of the past. I am not worried! In the case of Merp and Math, I will continue to have my fun while they let loose with their venom. It is all ok. They are just blowing off steam and letting go of the poison inside. Hopefully, it is just a phase!

August 19, 2010 @ 3:18 pm | Comment

“Last year I taught English as a favor to a friend, in a school in Zhuhai, China.”

Bleedin’ old, repeat post by Math…as a ten-year resident of Zhuhai I called him out a couple of years ago to reveal exactly where it was that he “taught English.” Not a peep…years later. What a coward.

August 19, 2010 @ 5:46 pm | Comment

Chinese netizens don’t give a &hit to the ranking. Read sina commentary section. Nor do Chinese pundits

As a result, becoming the second-largest economy “isn’t something to add to national pride,” said Zhang Bin, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank.

“I care more about GDP per capita,” Zhang said. “People in small countries like Switzerland lead a much wealthier life.”

August 19, 2010 @ 10:57 pm | Comment

“No no no, God does not exist, believing in God is a sign of backwardness. No no no , this is not good music, THIS is good music. No no no, this is not appropriate familial relations, THIS is appropriate familial relations. No no no, this is not delicious food, THIS is delicious food. No no no, this is not advanced level math, THIS is advanced level math. The more such examples you can point out in front of them, the better it is for you and for them.”

I’m crying from laughing so hard. Has anyone ever done a “top ten” list of quotes uttered by CPC shills? This is one of the best I’ve ever seen

Is there a list of personalities? Maths, Merp, Pug_ster…who else?

Can we rank them in order of skill?

Since China is rapidly getting pulled into two competing realities, and the tight rope these shills need to walk is getting tighter, as Richard said, we might have some fun by giving that rope a good tug or two.

August 20, 2010 @ 4:01 am | Comment

Going back to the issue of GDP (second biggest economy) and average income (pretty low) in China, I would rather like to know how income is distributed across the country.

Which regions in China, income wise, can be are closer to richer countries and which ones are closer to poorer countries. How is the average income inside each regions distributed and why are the reasons of significant incomve differences between regions?

Any color map showing average income throught China available?

August 20, 2010 @ 4:17 am | Comment

Eco, that would be a pretty lopsided color map, with lots of rich people showing up in the coastal cities, Chengdu and Chongqing and a few other scattered areas.

August 20, 2010 @ 5:45 am | Comment

Here’s a GDP map
Scroll down a tad.

Of course, I don’t know if this is a Chinese GDP or a Western GDP map…

August 20, 2010 @ 6:29 am | Comment

I would rather like to know how income is distributed across the country.

As Richard said. GDP is the lowest in inland areas with little arable land and no coastline.

GDP however, does not count government subsidies nor artificially deflated commodities prices.


Venom? Well that’s certainly cute. You think it’s “venomous” for nations to stand up to their legitimate territorial claims?

I think it’s amusing how everyone here is ignoring Taiwan and the ROC in this discussion. Because as we all know, Taiwan supports China’s (ROC) legitimate claim to various islands in the South China sea.

It wouldn’t be unfair however, to give the islands to Vietnam- in a perfect world that is. But if they cozy up to the US, China (and Taiwan) should be diplomatic. They should start a program to clear UXO in Laos and treat Agent Orange victims in Vietnam.

August 21, 2010 @ 2:46 am | Comment

Whats the tax rate on the wealthiest in china?

August 23, 2010 @ 2:09 am | Comment

And a rebuttla to that other article about China using all the malarial money (alluded to in the article above)

August 24, 2010 @ 6:23 am | Comment

Whats the tax rate on the wealthiest in china?

As far as I know it’s not too different from any other country with a progressive tax, but there are high capital gains taxes.

August 24, 2010 @ 1:31 pm | Comment

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