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In Beijing, Migrants Remain in the Shadow of China's Rise to Wealth

Goh Chai Hin | AFP | Getty Images

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.

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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."

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"It is so hard to send my children to school. The hukou and other certificates are essential," he explains, talking about the household registration document that dictates the status every Chinese migrant's life. "I work for the local government district, so they give me a special certificate to send my children to school."

On that note, Wang is lucky. China has an estimated 230 million internal migrants, effectively undocumented workers fueling the boom in major cities. The latest official estimates say that one-third of Beijing's workforce is made of migrants, and though a good share of them are employed in white-collar jobs with benefits, the hukou is a constant concern.

Patrick Chovanec, a professor at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management in Beijing who writes a popular blog on China's economy, said the government's release of the Gini data was significant, but only tells a fraction of the story. Chovanec said he believes real problem in China is not income inequality but rather an "inequality of privilege."

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"What bothers people is that some are getting rich not because of what they do but because of who they know," he said. "That sense that there's a set of people who live according to a different set of rules, that power begets wealth and wealth begets power — that is what bothers people."

"Its important because inequality of income is the problem, that's a market outcome," said Chovanec.

Tang Yuanchao, 57, is another trash collector on Jinbao Jie who came here 10 years ago from Chongqing, Bo's former territory. A decade ago, Tang believed he could achieve a Chinese dream in Beijing, building a better future for his children and perhaps rising to a different segment of society. But in that decade, the wealth gap grew even wider. Today, Tang has a hard time making ends meet on a monthly salary of less than $200, with skyrocketing rents that force migrants like him to move on a regular basis.

"We are treated differently than the people who were born in Beijing," says Tang. As a migrant worker, even after 10 years in the city, "I earn less money than regular employees who do the same job."

So sensitive is the topic, China's super-rich are reluctant to speak publicly about their wealth, and even less inclined to reveal how wealthy they actually are.

At the intersection of these two worlds is 31-year-old Wang Yu, a young investment banker in Beijing who managed to beat the odds. Wang grew up on a farm in Chongqing, but through extreme hard work and what he describes as many strokes of luck like having great high-school teachers who wanted to help him, he was the only student in his county chosen to attend Peking University in Beijing — one of the country's most prestigious schools. An education there changes lives, and it did for Wang.

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He spends his days advising wealthy clients on how to invest their money; his wife works in marketing for Apple. If there is a Chinese equivalent to the American Dream, they might be the living example.

But Wang remains keenly aware of his beginnings, as well as how difficult it is for migrants to make it in China. Unlike the wealthy drivers who blare their horns at the trash collectors on Jinbao Jie, he sees them, and thinks about how his life easily might have gone in a very different direction.

"Not everybody in China has the equal rights to get this chance. I'm very lucky," he says over coffee in a cafe near his apartment. "I attended the best high school in my county. But my teachers went to work for schools in a larger city after I graduated, so even my younger fellow students didn't have the same opportunity."

China's new generation of leaders has pledged to address the country's growing income inequity. Where to begin is a massive challenge.

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Li Linhui, a sociologist at Peking University, said the government is looking at new strategies, but underlying social tension over the wealth gap is building. He is optimistic.

"I think it will improve because new generation of migrant workers are growing and they are unwilling to go back home," said Li. "Their voice will definitely be heard and their struggle will make a difference."

The investment banker Wang and his wife make a comfortable living, and he's been able to acquire the coveted Beijing residence permit. He wants to move his parents to the capital and is planning for a family of his own, yet he retains a unique perspective as someone who has achieved much from little.

"I meet a lot of wealthy people in my work. Compared with them, I don't think I'm wealthy," says Wang. "Most migrant workers don't have equal rights to get a chance and choose their lives. I think they need to make their voices be heard."

Comparing the Divide: In Los Angeles and Beijing alike, millions of workers who have left their homes and often their families in search of prosperity find themselves at the very bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. L.A. ranks among the most unequal American cities by income with a Gini coefficient of .485 while China's score is .480. In both places, the odds of making a better life are slim and look to be growing slimmer.