China’s rich and poor

In his book about modern China, Yua Hua tells a story about a China TV show where, on children’s day they interviewed kids from across the nation and asked them the gift they’d most like to receive. The boy from Beijing wanted a Boeing Jet. The girl from the northwest wanted a pair of shoes.

Okay so the boy from Beijing is pretty awesome, though less so than if he’d wanted an Airbus. But that’s not the point. “Unequal lives give rise to unequal dreams” says Hua. And lives are certainly unequal in different parts of China.

As I did for Colombia, I’ve taken a look at the per capita purchasing power for Chinese in different administrative districts. The differences are massive. Tianjin, adjacent to Beijing, is the richest province. Its citizens manage $23,000 USD per year. That’s on par with Portugal, just short of Greece and richer than anywhere we went in Latin America. If Tianjin were a country its citizens would be the forty sixth richest in the world.

Guizhou is the poorest province. Its citizens get by on less than $6,000 USD a year. That’s around a quarter of their comrades in Tianjin. It’s about as much as people in Bolivia, or Ghana. I’ve put the whole table over the break if anyone is interested.

We’re in Yunnan province now. Staying on the tourist trail will probably broadly insulate us from the poverty here. Kunming, Yunnan’s largest city, feels rich and modern. There are malls with multiple Starbucks, the streets are clean, and no one looks hungry. But Yunnan is the third poorest of China’s administrative regions. Most of its population is rural, and the urban-rural divide is what really defines disparity here, more so than administrative region.

Sadly I can’t find purchasing power statistics to make the comparison but there’s a commonly cited ratio that says urban Chinese earn about three times more than their rural counterparts. There’s also evidence that the government’s policies favour the urbanites, and are likely to increase the disparity over time. Addressing, rather than exacerbating, the inequality is one of the massive policy challenges on China’s horizon.

Chinese administrative regions’ per capita PPP and country equivalents

Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 10.09.00 AMData by administrative region from Wikipedia. Country PPPs from International Monetary Fund.

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