Social Inequalities in China, or, Crisis for Europe?

Readers in the West have for some time now associated the economic ascendancy of China with a proliferation of social conflicts and ongoing abuse of human rights. For those on both the Left and Right there is a logic of affirmation about such tensions: state-capitalism is at its authoritarian worst in China.

For the Left, social conflict registers as the condition or symptom of intense economic transformation. This grafts nicely with well-rehearsed humanist, if not Marxian formulations, on the inequalities inherent to capitalism. The Right, meanwhile, cannot quite reconcile the fact that increasingly open markets do not equate with the emergence of liberal democracy.

Conveniently, the spectacle of villagers protesting over land expropriation and corrupt officials segues forgettably into the next news item. We bask in numbness before the gentle glow of our cheap plasma TVs, made in China, distracted by thoughts of the new dishwashers on sale at the local electrical superstore. For the middle classes in Beijing — where the intelligentsia are firmly ensconced — life is not so different. Trips to IKEA on the weekend serve as an exercise in resplendent indifference to the dinner of fifteen Swedish meatballs before deliberations over which bathmat to purchase. As products are both made and consumed in China, the international division of labour is far from clear, with the price of a Billy Bookcase equivalent to one purchased in Europe.

But step outside the chains of Western convenience stores, and the social disparities become highly visible, most particularly with the abundance of rural migrant workers fuelling the construction boom and restaurant and hotel service industries. These workers are spatially distributed, with greater densities of un- or under-employed migrants living on the city’s outskirts or in temporary accommodation on building sites.

Accompanying the recent passing of the Chinese New Year and Spring Festival busloads of migrants are returning back to work. The city starts to function again. Catching a taxi last night on the way to the opening of yet another art gallery geared to the international art market, my driver explained the economic circumstances of his life. In three years of driving a taxi, he had not had a holiday. ‘Why?’, I asked. ‘Because if I take a day off work, it costs me money — I have to pay 100RMB ($15) a day to rent the car.’ This may seem insignificant, but not when your cleared weekly wage is 700RMB ($105). But the taxi driver thought his situation was better than that of construction workers, whose accident prone 24-hour shift earns them around $65 a week.

Such low wages make rental accommodation unaffordable for many, especially in an Olympic city like Beijing. Wild property speculation has led to massive increases in the cost of rental and owner properties. The result? Younger people are living with their parents because they can’t afford anything else — a phenomenon reproduced in the United Kingdom and Europe. This was my taxi driver’s situation, and he couldn’t foresee a way out of it. ‘All I can do is drive cars, and I can’t handle office work’.

The uncertainties of labour and life have other challenges for those working in Beijing’s spanking new offices. With high staff turnovers, low company loyalty and far from stable business ventures, the comparison of China’s economy to nineteenth-century industrialism in the West resonates less than similarities with the dot-com era of the mid- to late-nineties.

The contradictions of transnational knowledge economies or creative industries and their hierarchies of labour are embodied particularly well in the architectural and construction industry. For now, architectural firms based in the United States, Europe and Australia retain some security in exporting ideas and skilled personnel to China while benefiting from high levels of investment, cheap labour and construction times around 10 to 20 per cent of what they are in the West.

It’s not unusual for staff in Chinese architectural offices to be working sixteen hours a day to meet the crazy construction schedules of local clients and the office back in New York, Frankfurt or Amsterdam. Unable to find interesting or stable work in Europe, a steady flow of young architects move to China where they obtain experiences and accumulate skills normally reserved for forty and fifty year olds. Whether these young architects ever get a chance to repatriate this knowledge is, however, an open question.

European policy makers consider Italian design, Dutch urban planning and German engineering the panacea for Europe’s economic future. In the United States, management techniques are considered a key export commodity. And the market? China, of course, which is perceived to be incapable of innovation and destined to remain a copy/paste culture and manufacturing base whose source of ideas is always derived from the West.

But the combined arrogance, ignorance and racism that underscores such views is missing the breadth of change. As Australian creative industries researcher Michael Keane notes, ‘Local technology brands like Bird and Lenovo compete with international players such as Nokia and Microsoft. More money was spent in 2004 on fibre-optic information highways than bitumen highways’. Adaptation and invention in the creative industries has accompanied the growth of China’s IT industry. Brands play on consumer desires in the first instance, and the capacity of Chinese advertisers and product designers to tap into the sensorial realm of the unconscious signals an engagment with local customs and subjectivities that cannot simply be explained in terms of marketing models imported from the West. And the expansion of Internet infrastructures has been accompanied by a rise in new service and distribution models, digital commodities and design economies. With a domestic market that ensures relative protection against economic recession in the US, much of the world has every reason to rethink their modes of engagement with this rising economic hegemon.

None of this is to say that social inequalities won’t persist or even intensify in coming years in China. But it is to recognise that such tensions are hardly special to China. As Europe continues to pump graduates out of its education factories, there is the very real likelihood that unemployment levels will rise as China’s dependency on European skilled labour and importation of ideas is scaled back. This is the crisis awaiting Europe.