Chinese people are increasingly worried about growing income inequality and official corruption, according to a Pew Research Center survey released weeks before a once-a-decade leadership transition.
Forty-eight percent of 3,177 adults surveyed said the gap between rich and poor in China is a “very big problem,” up seven percentage points from a 2008 survey, the Pew Global Attitudes Project found. Fifty percent said official corruption was a very big problem, compared with 39 percent four years ago. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.
The poll results reflect growing public disenchantment with a rich-poor divide that has widened as growth accelerated, averaging 10.1 percent since 1981. Even as China has succeeded in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, high-profile corruption cases among business and government leaders have exacerbated social tensions ahead of the leadership change.
“While the Chinese have consistently rated their national and personal economic situations positively over the last few years, they are now grappling with the concerns of a modern, increasingly wealthy society,” the survey said. “As China prepares for its once-in-a-decade change of leadership, their country faces serious and growing challenges.”
The survey was conducted as the biggest political scandal in a generation was unfolding in China, the sacking of Bo Xilai from his post as a regional party boss and removal from the ruling Politburo. Chinese authorities allege that he was involved in the murder of a British businessman, accepted bribes and maintained improper sexual relations with other women.
Public documents show that Bo’s family and that of his wife, convicted in August of murder, had assets of at least $136 million. Some Communist Party cadres have been criticized on Chinese social media websites and even in state news outlets for wearing expensive watches and clothes, and attending extravagant banquets.
The survey found that even though people overwhelmingly said their financial situation had improved in recent years and that they were better off than their parents, many were concerned that economic gains were increasingly going to those with the most means.
Rich Get Richer
Forty-five percent said they “completely agree” with the statement that “today, it’s really true that the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer.” Another 36 percent mostly agreed with that statement.
In a press conference on March 9, Bo said China’s Gini coefficient, an index of the income gap, exceeded 0.46. The index ranges from 0 to 1 and the 0.4 mark is used as a predictor for social disturbances. The reading for China was below 0.3 in 1981 and 0.39 in 1999, the World Bank says.
“The big question mark is what are the implications,” Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of the department of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, said in a telephone interview. “Is it going to create more resentment that leads to more unrest and more pressure on the government to reform?”
Cabestan said Chinese people were angrier at unfairness in opportunities, which can stem from corruption, than they were with inequality, which he said was a “fact of life.”
Still, 70 percent of Chinese adults surveyed said they were better off financially than five years ago, a number only topped by Brazilians. Twenty-seven percent of Americans said they were better off than five years ago. Ninety-two percent of Chinese surveyed also said they were better off than their parents at a comparable age. China’s economy expanded at an average annual 10.6 percent rate from 2007 through 2011.
Survey respondents in the officially Marxist country were slightly more supportive of capitalism than people polled in the U.S. Seventy-four percent of Chinese surveyed said they either completely or mostly agreed with the statement that most people are better off in a free-market economy, compared with 67 percent of Americans.
Chinese people consider the U.S. to be the world’s preeminent economic power, in contrast to attitudes held in other countries, including the U.S., Germany and the U.K., where people consider China to have the world’s most powerful economy, the survey found.
Forty-eight percent of Chinese people surveyed said the U.S. was the world’s top economy, with 29 percent naming China. When Americans were asked the same question, 41 percent said China had the top economy, and 40 percent named the U.S. The U.S. gross domestic product, at $15.1 trillion in 2011, was more than twice the size of China’s $7.3 trillion economy.
A majority of Chinese surveyed -- 52 percent -- said they like the idea of American democracy, an increase of four percentage points from a 2007 poll. Support for U.S.-style democracy was highest among young people and those with higher incomes, the Pew survey found.
At the same time, Chinese people said that relations between China and the U.S., the world’s two biggest economies, are deteriorating. Thirty-nine percent of respondents described the relationship as one of cooperation, down from 68 percent in 2010. Another 26 percent said the relationship was “one of hostility,” up from 8 percent two years ago.
The biggest change in attitudes from a 2008 survey was in food safety, with 41 percent of Chinese polled saying it was a very big problem in their country, compared with 12 percent four years ago. The change comes after a series of highly publicized incidents of tainted baby formula and pork.
The poll, conducted from March 18 through April 15, surveyed people in every region of China except Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Macau. The survey was conducted by Beijing-based Horizon Research Consultancy Group.
— With assistance by Michael Forsythe