China Needs Justice, Not Equality

How to Calm the Middle Kingdom

In March, China completed its transition to a new leadership team. The usual fanfare -- masses of black limousines bringing nearly 3000 delegates to the Great Hall of the People to hear proud speeches about the country’s three decades of economic growth and waxing international influence -- was dampened by a sense that, by the next time the party comes to town, there might not be as much to celebrate. Xi Jinping, the new leader of the Chinese Communist Party, and his colleagues have repeatedly expressed alarm at increasing social protests. According to confidential but widely circulated Chinese police estimates, there are now about 180,000 mass protest incidents each year, roughly 20 times more than there were in the mid-1990s. China’s leaders portray the surge of protests as fueled by popular outrage over the yawning gap between rich and poor -- a chasm that the leaders have spent a decade trying to close. In reality, though, Chinese citizens are angry about a different gap: the one between the powerful and the powerless. The CCP has turned a blind eye toward this problem. Unless the situation changes and China’s new leaders start finding ways to temper popular outrage over procedural injustices and official corruption, the prospect that they will maintain political order until the next leadership transition is bleak.

In the wake of evidence that the gap between China’s rich and poor has grown despite reform efforts over the last decade, China’s new leaders have pledged to try harder. They have raised the idea of increasing the urban minimum wage and requiring state-owned corporations to pay higher taxes to support social welfare programs. In some ways their plans make sense. China’s level of income inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, has increased sharply, from .28 in the early 1980s to .49 in 2007. By this measure, China is more unequal than Japan (.31), India (.34), the United States (.36), and Russia (.44). Estimates vary, but it is likely that around 100 million Chinese still live in absolute poverty. Meanwhile, more than one million Chinese are millionaires (even measured in dollars), flaunting their palatial mansions, private jets, and foreign luxury cars.

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