The Fraying of China’s Gilded Age
Image Credit: Gustavo Madico

The Fraying of China’s Gilded Age


Published in 1873, Mark Twain’s novel The Gilded Age describes a post-Reconstruction United States in which rapid economic growth generated tremendous wealth for the upper class, and technological innovations improved the quality of life for a burgeoning middle class. Twain also detailed how America’s workers worked long hours in dangerous conditions for low pay, and how corruption rendered the country’s politicians unresponsive to the needs of their constituents. While many of the Occupy Wall Street protesters on U.S. streets may draw parallels between the America of that time with that of today, Twain’s novel provides an evocative window on contemporary China.

The rate and duration of China’s economic growth have no historical precedent. In just over 30 years, China has been transformed from one of the poorest countries in the world, in which tens of millions died of starvation, into the world’s second-largest economy. Where communal farms once languished, one can find modern skyscrapers and Starbucks. Where people once wore Mao suits and rode bicycles, there are now Prada, BMW, and iPhones galore.

Remarkable economic growth has created a new Chinese wealthy elite, an ironic statement about a country still formally dedicated to communism and the teachings of Karl Marx. There are now almost a million millionaires in China, and more than 400 billionaires (second only to the United States). A nascent middle class is also growing, making China the world’s largest market for consumer items like cars and PCs. This growth is driving economists to predict China’s inevitable rise to become the world’s largest economic power, with experts only disagreeing on the exact year it will happen. Thomas Friedman, though admitting he’s “not a China expert,” has proclaimed his envy of China’s “Reaganism.”

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Yet several specters haunt China.

In order for these economic projections to come to fruition, China’s economic planners must navigate a set of structural and demographic challenges the scale of which has never been seen before. To continue economic growth, China’s economy will have to fundamentally shift away from its current orientation toward exports and grow based on its own consumption. Other structural challenges, from taxes and regulation to intellectual property and the rule of law, all must be reformed if China’s economic growth is to continue. China’s leaders will also have to manage an unprecedented level of urbanization, with an expected 400 million new urban residents (yes, that’s more than the entire U.S. population) by 2050. Just as daunting, China’s population is rapidly ageing, which will become a tremendous economic challenge given the effects of China’s One Child Policy and its Bachmann-beloved lack of a Social Security program.

Beyond economic and demographic challenges, China is roiling with discontent. As the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, 40 percent of Chinese are unhappy with their lives, 70 percent of farmers are dissatisfied, and 60 percent of China’s rich are emigrating or considering doing so. While each group has its own reasons – farmers resent abusive land seizures by local government officials, city dwellers are regularly victims of government abuse, and China’s wealthy would prefer to live where their children have better educational opportunities and their wealth is more secure – this translates to a roiling hotbed of popular discontent. Tens of millions of Chinese who have moved from the countryside to the cities in search of work receive little basic government support, such as medical care and education, because they are generally considered to be illegal immigrants by city officials.

Riots, often violent, are a daily occurrence. According to official statistics, there were 127,000 so-called “mass incidents” in 2010 alone – an average of over 340 per day.

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