While the debate on income inequality rages on in the US, do you ever wonder how the rest of the world feels about this issue, or what this hand wringing says about us in particular?
Though I can’t speak for the rest of the world, I certainly want to share the sentiment from the country I left behind.
When Los Angeles pulled out the red carpet and closed down a section of the Grand Avenue in downtown to celebrate the Walt Disney Concert Hall’s inauguration in September 2003, protesters were angry that some of the homeless people had to be “displaced.” I was for the most part happy that I could attend without limping – three weeks prior, I was in an automobile accident that landed me in an emergency room and had to wear crutches for two weeks – and shared a dinner table with four obviously very wealthy individuals. In the backdrop of gourmet Patina catering, free flowing champagne and designer gowns, I brought up the plight of the homeless, and lamented the stark contrast of the haves vs. the have-nots. To my surprise, one brooding guest shared my sentiment and predicted that there was going to be a revolution if the gulf failed to narrow.
In October 2011, I visited Washington D. C. en-route to a family wedding in Virginia, and found myself in the midst of the Occupy D. C. crowd. Passionate demonstrators included students and union workers, and their leaders gave stirring speeches. It was peaceful and exciting, and certainly brought back memory of the two epic pro-democracy movements I experienced as a high school and college student in 1980s in China.
When Mao was in power, there was no perceived income inequality in China. Everybody worked for the state, and there was not much salary difference between a doctor and a blue-collar worker. When Deng ushered in the reform policy, it allowed private enterprises to flourish. While this limited form of capitalism raised most people’s standard of living, an income gap inevitably emerged. What infuriated people the most was how widespread it was for government officials to abuse their power for personal gains. In 1989, when the idealistic students converged at the Tiananmen Square to demand political freedom and pleaded to the central government to eradicate corruption, they singled out the unfair practice of communist cadres who obtained raw materials’ prices at below cost thanks to their connections and flipped them at market prices.
Even though the government eventually eliminated the loophole – though not before sending troops and tanks to crush the movement and killing thousands – new forms of graft became rampant. In recent years, officials in rural areas routinely grab farm lands and sell them to real estate developers, pocketing huge sums. Farmers who lose their lands have no voices, no recourse, thus nothing to lose. Human rights groups estimate hundreds of violent confrontations occur on a daily basis, and some turn deadly. Things are no better in the cities either. Pollution, unsafe food and water supplies, escalating housing prices, soaring health care costs, crackdown on dissenting voices, declining morals are driving up crimes and pushing people to the edge. Ordinary citizens don’t see their way out of this misery, and resent bitterly those who use their political clout to amass fortunes while sending their family members overseas to gain foreign citizenships and live in luxury.
The communist government is keenly aware that such deep resentment is brewing and will reach boiling point if unchecked. The Chinese history is full of populists who rose up and succeeded in regime changes when capitalizing on people’s hatred towards those in power. The one thing the leaders fear the most is that if history repeats itself, they will be ousted and lose their monopoly on privileges and wealth. Therefore, they implore that “stability supersedes everything,” and have started a crusade to prosecute corrupt officials to try to convince people that they are serious about fighting corruption, though most citizens believe it’s just a show and the campaign is merely a tool to eliminate political rivals.
Even the US has its own share of problems, to most Chinese, it is paradise (the words United States of America mean “beautiful country” in Mandarin). They believe ordinary Americans have access to clean air and reliable drinking water, generally safe food sources, affordable housing, the best health care system in the world, elected officials who actually answer to their constituents, and above all, a just and moral society. They wildly admire luminaries like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett not only for their hard work, innovative spirits and sound investment strategies, but also for their philanthropic pledges to leave most of their wealth to charity, and they scoff at their own nouveau riche for flaunting their flamboyant life styles without engaging in civic-minded matters. Whereas in China, examining the roots of social and economic injustice can be labeled as inciting discord and land you in jail, the fact that in the US, politicians, academia and average citizens participate in a spirited and data-driven debate about the so-called “income inequality”, and the fact that there are open forums for everyone to voice their opinions without fearing being shot at or run over by tanks, shows that there is a genuine commitment from all to addressing this issue and it says a lot about the character of this country and its people. Contrary to some people may want us to believe, in most Chinese people’s eyes, the US still has not lost its moral authority.