Documenting the wealth gap in China
By Kim Kyung-hoon
Showing the great contrast between China’s rich and poor in photos should be simple. After all, both exist just a few blocks away from each other or sometimes in the same place in any city. A poor family rides a rusty tricycle as a shiny Ferrari passes by. Just around the corner from an expensive restaurant, poor migrant workers eat cheap meals and take naps on the street.
But trying to get people to agree to be photographed was much more difficult than I expected. In six months of roaming around Beijing, visiting places where the rich congregate, such as luxury brand fashion boutiques and cocktail parties at fashion shows and even a luxury car maker’s promotional event, I tried all sorts of things, hoping that someone would open up their lifestyle to my lens.
But no rich person welcomed me and my camera. No one invited me to record this growing reality in China. Perhaps some were afraid that news of their wealthy lifestyle might go viral. Rich Chinese have reason to be shy of the cameras and interviews. The country’s new leader, Xi Jinping, has told people to cut out displays of ostentation. Moreover, the spending habits of wealthy Chinese have often sparked the ire of China’s microbloggers.
One rich family considered my proposal seriously for a couple of days. I met them at a party for the opening of a fashion boutique. They were dressed like celebrities. The daughter had been studying abroad, first in Britain and then in the United States. She spoke perfect English and displayed perfect ‘Western’ manners. The family talked of their plans to visit a resort in Thailand soon. They did agree to me shooting photos, but with unacceptable conditions. They would allow me to photograph the guest room of their luxurious house but ruled out anything that might associate them with the terms “wealthy lifestyle” or “rich lifestyle”. They also wanted to review my picture story before it was published.
The poor did not welcome my camera either but for different reasons. Many felt ashamed of their life and had anxieties about being reported on by the news media. Nonetheless, I spent a lot of time in wealthy and poor districts located in the eastern part of Beijing. The distance between the areas was just a 30-40 minute bicycle ride but the wealth gap I could see through my camera was much wider.
In the wealthy district, the upper levels of Chinese society have already joined the global league of the rich. They drive Lamborghinis, Ferraris and Porsches and dress in designer outfits. The world’s most expensive brands have opened huge shops targeting their aspirations for expensive Western lifestyles. Food, free of the safety and hygiene problems that have made headlines in China in recent months, is sold at prices several times more than in the poor areas.
Life in the poor residential areas is a completely different world. Something many of the poor themselves are reminded of every day when they travel to the ‘rich areas’ of the city to work in construction, housekeeping and other jobs in the same category.
They may build the luxury homes, but the housing they can afford for themselves is cramped and lacking in so many ways. I met a family of migrant workers who had moved to the city to earn more money. They somehow managed to squeeze themselves into a small 5-square-meter room without a toilet or bathroom. The father of the family works in construction and arrives home every day covered in sweat and grime. Their room had no shower or bath and all he could do was wash his body with wet towels. This is an average size home for a migrant worker in the area and this family’s rent was about 400 yuan ($65) a month, less than the cost of a single dinner in some of Beijing’s fine restaurants.
This section of town is full of similar tiny, sub-divided rooms. Its alleys crowded with people cooking, eating, studying and washing outside due to a lack of space and utilities like running water. One migrant worker told me that he was not envious of the rich’s lavish lifestyle because he believes it will be impossible for him ever to reach that level of wealth in his life. Instead, for him, life is just a matter of surviving. It’s not an enjoyable thing.
According to a 2012 report, China has 2.7 million U.S. dollar millionaires and 251 billionaires. Meanwhile, United Nations data from this year shows 12 percent of its people live on less than $1.25 per day. Even though the Chinese government has plans to reform taxes, banking and the household registration system in a bid to reduce the increasing wealth gap, experts speculate that the road to narrowing this gap will be rocky.
A Chinese friend of mine, after seeing my pictures, pointed out something that still rings in my ears. “Hey, if you go outside of Beijing, you can see a wider and more obvious gap!”