China's Income Gap: The Brother Who Fell Behind

This is the second in a two-part series.

Gong Wenbiao i i

hide captionGong Wenbiao, shown here in 2002, didn't succeed in China's new economy. He died in 2003, after suffering a stroke. He did not have health insurance.

Frank Langfitt, NPR
Gong Wenbiao

Gong Wenbiao, shown here in 2002, didn't succeed in China's new economy. He died in 2003, after suffering a stroke. He did not have health insurance.

Frank Langfitt, NPR
Qian Lihua, wife of Gong Wenbiao i i

hide captionQian Lihua, Wenbiao's wife, lived in the same house with her husband and his two brothers for more than 30 years. As the income gap between the brothers grew, their relationships deteriorated.

Qian Lihua, wife of Gong Wenbiao

Qian Lihua, Wenbiao's wife, lived in the same house with her husband and his two brothers for more than 30 years. As the income gap between the brothers grew, their relationships deteriorated.

The three Gong brothers grew up in an old neighborhood amid Beijing's alleyways during the 1950s and '60s. It was the era of the "iron rice bowl," when the government provided everything: housing, health care and education.

The regime began smashing that rice bowl in the 1990s, turning communism on its head and creating a new, competitive economy with winners and losers.

The two younger Gong brothers — Wencong and Wenju — adapted to the new economy in their own ways. But the third one, Wenbiao, didn't make it.

I met the Gongs back in 2002, when I was working as a reporter in Beijing. The government was knocking down their old neighborhood as part of a huge redevelopment project.

Life Lived Looking Backwards

In January, I returned to China to see Wenbiao's wife to find out how things unraveled.

Sitting in her cramped kitchen, Qian Lihua, 57, explained what happened after the family home was demolished. Wenbiao's brothers took their compensation from the government and bought homes on the outskirts of town.

But instead of looking forward — as his brothers did — Wenbiao and his wife went backwards.

They couldn't afford housing prices in Beijing, so they moved to Inner Mongolia, where they had spent the Cultural Revolution during the 1960s and '70s.

The Cultural Revolution was a catastrophe that cost at least 1 million lives. But it was also a time when people were equal and the couple missed those days.

They bought a big home and lived off the land, tending cabbage, potatoes and tomatoes. They opened a dumpling restaurant, but soon Wenbiao fell ill and began losing motor skills.

"He couldn't use chopsticks or a spoon," Qian recalls. "He was unable to write."

Worried about his health, the couple returned to Beijing.

Lack of Health Care Compounds Problems

Wenbiao was scraping by on a tiny pension of $28 a month. The state-owned factory where he had worked had gone bankrupt years before and he was left without health care.

In April 2003, he suffered a stroke and was admitted to a hospital. Under communism, his factory would have paid for everything. But in China's new economy, there was no government program to help someone like him.

"He stayed half a month; the problem was financial," Qian says. "Afterwards, he left the hospital and died in July."

Qian says without treatment, he just slipped away. She thinks if he had had insurance, he might have lived.

Qian has her own health problems these days. She worked at the same factory where her husband had, so she lost her health care, too. She broke her foot years ago, but could never afford to have it set.

She rolls back her sock to reveal a swollen ankle. The skin is purple, black and orange.

"In these last few years, while my husband was sick, it especially hurt," she says. "Still, I had to push him in a wheelchair to see doctors. After he died, I couldn't walk."

In New China, Family Ties Frayed

The Chinese have always relied on family for help. But the country's economic boom has broken up many ancestral homes and some people have drifted apart.

During my trip, I talked to Wenbiao's two brothers.

Wencong — the middle brother — has done the best since leaving the old family home. He has a nice apartment in the suburbs and a new BMW.

He says the brothers got on well as kids.

"When we were young, everything was quite good," he recalls. "We took care of each other. The older took care of the younger."

But later there were strains.

Wencong, 57, succeeded in China's emerging market economy, working as a food wholesaler. He bought the latest and best home appliances. Wenbiao, the eldest brother, became jealous and refused to let his son watch Wencong's new TV.

When Wenbiao became ill, Wencong did not lend him money, but their younger brother, Wenju, did.

"I'd just built a house," recalls Wenju, 49. "I didn't have much money. I gave him about $700."

Wenbiao's widow, Qian, still owes Wenju $500.

"Sometimes he says, 'You don't have to pay it back,'" she recalls. "I feel really embarrassed. I have nothing to say when I see him."

Qian lived for more than three decades under the same roof with her brothers-in-law. After her husband's death, she celebrated just one Chinese New Year with them.

"The first year, his little brother called and invited us to come," she says. "But after that, he never called again."

Nostalgia for the Old, Communal Way of Life

One day, I met Qian in the old neighborhood. The house she shared with the three Gong brothers was leveled more than five years ago. Today, the area is a high-rise apartment complex.

She says the transformation is so dramatic, the only thing she recognizes is an old tree.

"When I came in, if it weren't for the tree, I wouldn't know I had ever lived here," she says.

Qian says the new apartments are an improvement over the old family home. For instance, there are flush toilets. But Qian misses the days when several generations lived together.

"The living conditions weren't very good," she says. "But affection between family members was especially warm."

I ask Qian who is responsible for her husband's death. I wonder if she'll blame the Chinese government or her brothers-in-law, but she doesn't.

Last year, the government began providing some health insurance to older, unemployed people — the people left behind in China's sprint towards a capitalist-style economy.

Qian is grateful for this and says it shows officials do care.

She just wishes her husband had lived long enough to benefit from it.

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