On a bright, cold winter morning, the heavy smog of China's capital has lifted for a spell and the sun glimmers off the rows of new high-rises that line Jinbao Jie.
This is Beijing's showpiece lane of wealth, lined with extravagant hotels, top-end international luxury brands and flashy displays designed to draw in the very richest of China's moneyed elite. On this single street, you can buy an Aston Martin or a Lamborghini, shop for Gucci suits and bags or duck into a business meeting at the exclusive Beijing clubhouse of the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
Around the corner from the Aston Martin dealership, where the British automaker offers a model made just for the Chinese market (with a price tag the company does not reveal publicly), 39-year-old Wang Youjun is sweeping the street of trash. He moves slowly on his heavily laden bicycle cart, dodging Audis and BMWs that honk their way up a narrow alley. Working where the super-rich can buy $800,000 cars, Wang makes $180 a month as a garbage collector assigned to keep Jinbao Jie free of debris.
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This juxtaposition of prosperity and relative poverty is illustrative of China's striking income inequality, which has expanded alongside its breakneck economic growth and has become a particular sore spot for the country's central leadership. This month the central government released official Gini coefficient scores — the standard measure of inequality — for the first time since 2005, (presumably it stopped giving out the number because it was too troubling), stirring cynicism and critical comments across the board.
There is virtually no transparency on what data China uses to calculate the number, which it estimated at .474 for 2012, roughly equivalent to the city of Los Angeles, and whether the country's vast "grey income" of corruption is accounted for. The CIA World Factbook pegs China's Gini score at .480 while some estimates put the country's inequality at a far higher ranking.
On Weibo, Chinese economist Xu Xiaonian joked wryly about being asked by a reporter for comment on the numbers when they were released.
"How can I comment on fake numbers?" he wrote.
Wang Youjin is but one of the millions of internal migrant workers who has built modern China, toiling long hours for little pay in the shadow of the country's soaring rise to wealth, building the skyscrapers and subway lines and sweeping away the trash.
These migrants, restricted by an outdated household registration system called the hukou that ties most Chinese people to their place of birth for government benefits, have come to China's cities in droves but rarely realize the same rights as those born here. Effectively second-class citizens in their own country, they are at the bottom of the income gap in Beijing.
Wang moved to Beijing from a farm in central China's Anhui province five years ago, looking for a better life for his two young children. Rent eats up half of his monthly salary, and after school fees for his kids plus food and heating bills, there is nothing left to save.
"I came here because my hometown is very poor," he says. "But my life here is not good. I can't earn much through this work and it's very difficult."