Wealth Gap on Display at China’s Parliament

Outside its scripted meetings, China’s annual parliament gives rise to two activities that expose opposite ends of the country’s growth story: a boom in luxury shopping matched only by a surge in public complaints about corruption.

A man walks past a billboard outside a shopping mall housing luxury brands in Shanghai.
Phillippe Lopez | AFP | Getty Images
A man walks past a billboard outside a shopping mall housing luxury brands in Shanghai.

The contrast between the opulence and the anger underlines one of the more negative legacies of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, who presided over the final parliamentary session of the National People’s Congress, on Wednesday.

They have pledged to build a fairer, “more harmonious” society, but the wealth gap has steadily widened during their time in office even as economic growth has averaged 10 per cent.

The richest and the poorest have at least one habit in common – both flock to China’s rubber stamp parliament, which came to an end on Wednesday.

Malls in Beijing benefit from a flurry of gift-buying for the thousands of officials who have congregated in the Chinese capital for the ten days of meetings.

But just a few miles from their red-carpet conclave in the Great Hall of the People, another group that numbers well into the thousands descend on the grimier streets of Beijing. Ordinary citizens who have lost their land or their jobs, or have any number of other complaints, have over the past 10 days come to seek help from a central government that they hope is on their side.

From all over the nation, they voice complaints against local officials at designated “petition offices”. In the absence of democracy, this ancient system is supposed to act as a social safety valve, allowing subjects to complain directly to the emperor about despotic Mandarins in the provinces.

By 10am on a weekday morning, hundreds of petitioners were already lining up at the Yongdingmen State Council petition office, waiting for the 1pm opening.

“This is the peak time for petitioners,” said a security guard hired to keep petitioners from blocking the boulevard outside the office. “Normally we only accept petitions on Mondays, Wednesdays and Friday but during the parliament sessions we take them every day.”

Minutes later a new SUV with license plates from Henan Province pulled up and a stocky man tried to manhandle an elderly woman into the back seat. She resisted and a crowd formed before she broke free.

Han Guiqin, 67, identified the people trying to abduct her as officials from her home town in Qingfeng County, Henan. Local officials often use force to stop petitioners from pressing their complaints, fearful the petitions might damage their career prospects.

Others waiting to submit petitions carried documents with proof, they said, of illegal land seizures and unpaid wages. Protests about such incidents have multiplied in recent years as China’s wealth gap has exploded.

Urban incomes rose 50 per cent more quickly than rural incomes over the past two decades, according to the national statistics bureau. Although there is little hard data on the ultra-rich, evidence from soaring sales of sports cars, designer clothes and expensive wines leaves little doubt about how well they have done.

And in an odd parallel with the increase in petitioning, such luxury consumption spikes every month of March in Beijing, fuelled by the parliamentary gathering.

Assistants at a series of high-end stores – watchmaker Piaget, menswear store Ermenegildo Zegna and Gucci – all said they were busier than normal.