Communist China Turns 70. Who Shares Its Economic Growth?
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
I'm Ailsa Chang in Beijing, where China is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. I'm sitting on a sidewalk here with a group of men who are all gathered around an iPhone, watching President Xi Jinping give his speech today.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
XI JINPING: (Foreign language spoken).
CHANG: People are watching on their phones because most couldn't get up close to see the procession of tanks and soldiers. It was a show of military might on the same day as violent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Here, though, less than a mile away from Tiananmen Square, the atmosphere is joyous.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language).
CHANG: We've spent the last week listening to people reflect on the promises the Chinese Communist Party made decades ago and whether it's lived up to those promises. First stop, a worksite on the outskirts of Beijing. It's a temple first built more than a thousand years ago called Hongluo Si.
(SOUNDBITE OF GONG)
CHANG: As you walk the grounds, you'll notice a group of bricklayers restoring one of the temple's walls. Cao Shuhao is 53. He arrived in Beijing from a rural town in Hebei province 30 years ago. He's part of a wave of hundreds of millions of migrant workers who have gushed into China's cities from the countryside.
CAO SHUHAO: (Through interpreter) What I did wasn't unusual. Most people in my generation traveled to Beijing or somewhere else to work and feed their families.
CHANG: When Cao was growing up, his parents couldn't even afford rice. Today he has a steady paycheck, enough money to send home to his family in Hebei. And migration to the cities has lifted hundreds of millions like Cao out of poverty. But at the same time, inequality has sharpened in China.
CAO: (Foreign language spoken).
CHANG: Oh, this is your bedroom?
Cao takes me inside a tiny makeshift room just off the construction site. It has corrugated metal walls, a dirt floor and some bunk beds. Forty years ago, economic inequality was really low in China because most of the country was equally poor. Today China has more billionaires than anywhere except the U.S.
When you look at the amount of wealth that China has amassed over the past decades, do you feel that you have gained from that wealth?
CAO: (Through interpreter) Yes, of course I've gained. I've gained a lot. I feel that China has developed very quickly over these last years, and now China's national power is very strong.
CHANG: One of the goals of the Chinese Communist Party was to create an equal society. Do you feel you have an equal chance to get ahead just as everyone else has?
CAO: (Through interpreter) How should I say this? There are opportunities, but it all depends on whether you as an individual have seized those opportunities.
CHANG: But no amount of individual initiative can eradicate certain inequities.
LI MING-GUO: (Through interpreter) Twenty years ago, when we first came here, people looked at us as if we were beggars.
CHANG: Li Ming-guo (ph) also came to Beijing from Hebei. He's 52 and has risen to team leader here. But he says a deep inequality persists. You see, there's a system here. It's called hukou, and it determines your access to all kinds of public benefits, like education, based entirely on where you were born. So most migrant workers in one of China's biggest, shiniest cities can't even send their kids to the good public schools here.
LI: (Through interpreter) We're still not the same as real Beijingers.
CHANG: Still, both Cao and Li believe they're living dramatically different lives than the ones they would have had in Hebei - even though they are working seven days a week, 10 hours a day.
LI: (Through interpreter) If I compare my life to my parents' life, there's a huge difference. My quality of life now is much better than theirs. I'd say it's hundreds or even thousands of times better.
CHANG: What do you want for your children? How do you want their future to be different from your own life now?
LI: (Through interpreter) I hope they won't have just one option for work because of the pressures of life. I hope they can actually choose what they want to do in life.
GRACE JIN: Right now I'm an architect.
DELICIA KUANG: Film producer.
KEVIN LEE: Consulting firm.
WENDY WANG: Educational company.
CHANG: We're now in a trendy neighborhood near the financial district of Beijing meeting with four young professionals at Meow Coffee.
How do you get a cat to meow?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Imitating meow).
(SOUNDBITE OF CATS MEOWING)
CHANG: We are inside a cat cafe. It's close to where Grace Jin lives. She's 28, an architect - a profession she chose because it combined engineering with the painting classes she took as a child. Jin says this was a choice her mom never had.
JIN: She wanted to learn dance, and she wanted to learn the piano. But these lessons are very expensive, and they cannot afford it. So when I was young, she used to think, what I cannot get, I can give it to my daughter. So I think I'm very grateful and thankful for the economic progress in China.
CHANG: That economic progress accelerated when China's economy opened up in the late '70s. Party leaders said it would be OK for some people to achieve wealth before others, and now that wealth has sent many of the next generation to prestigious American universities, like Grace Jin and the three others with us - Wendy Wang (ph), Kevin Lee (ph) and Delicia Kuang. They all got graduate degrees from Columbia University. They represent what upward mobility looks like in China today for those who've had access to higher education. And access to education in America has meant access to new ideas.
JIN: I don't care who is the leader in China.
CHANG: Do you really not care, or you just know you can't choose anyway?
JIN: Maybe both. But just in China, maybe we know the leader can make wise choice.
CHANG: You have trust in the government here in China to make the correct wise decisions...
CHANG: ...To ensure stability...
CHANG: ...In a way that you saw was missing in the U.S.?
JIN: Yeah (laughter). Every fourth year, there would change the leader. It makes me feel unstable. I think the political theater in the U.S. is more like Frank Gehry, the form of the architecture. You don't know which choice they will make in next stage or next step. But in China, it's like classical building. It forms a logic that you would suspect they will make the wise choice.
CHANG: I love these distinctions you are making by drawing on architectural metaphors.
When you look back on the time you had in the U.S., where there was a lot of room to access information, there was the freedom to criticize the government - would you want to see that kind of society develop in China one day?
In the U.S., we talk a lot about freedoms. You know, we talk about individual rights, individual liberties. It's what our government was formed to protect. Can you tell me what you think the Chinese government is set up to protect?
WANG: Yeah. I think it's definitely like prosperity and also stability because I think we Chinese like harmony. That is a very, very core value. Like, Chinese people really appreciate, like, stabilities so that we can, you know, do business. We can, like, pursue academics - being a very stable society.
CHANG: That was Wendy Wang, 29 years old. And on this anniversary, President Xi Jinping is talking about those same ideas. China today, he said, is created by hundreds of millions of hardworking Chinese, and China tomorrow will be even more prosperous.
(SOUNDBITE OF MILITARY BAND PLAYING)
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
That was our co-host Ailsa Chang in Beijing.
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