Over the past week, 44-year-old migrant worker Yue Zongxian suddenly became one of the best-known figures in China.
Authorities in Beijing publicized Yue’s itinerary this month after he tested positive for covid, a routine practice by officials to alert the public to possible exposure to the virus. But Yue’s movements in the city quickly stirred sympathy and sadness for the grueling work hours he endured, earning him the title of “the hardest-working Chinese citizen based on contact-tracing records.”
Yue tested positive on Jan. 18, when he was waiting to board a train bound for Weihai, a coastal city in Shandong province where his home is. Originally a fisherman, Yue told Chinese media China News Weekly (link in Chinese) that he came to Beijing to look for his older son, in his early 20s, who had been working in restaurants in the city but was out of touch with the family since August 2020. His wife takes care of their younger son back in Weihai, where she earns roughly 10,000 yuan ($1,560) a year drying seaweed.
To someone familiar with China’s economy, Yue’s life might not appear that shocking. Many of China’s nearly 300 million migrant workers endure harsh working conditions and lives, often barely tolerated by city authorities who see them as “low-end population.” But Yue’s circumstances happened to be juxtaposed against another recent contract-tracing record of a clearly much more affluent Beijing citizen. For China’s well-off middle classes, the two records were a reminder of the deep wealth gap between themselves and people like Yue, and of the two very different Chinas in which they they live: one a well-developed and comfortable bubble, the other a grim existence of little hope.
Between Jan. 1 to Jan. 17, Yue, whose main job is to haul construction materials, worked often till midnight or even overnight, according to his contact-tracing record. Overall, he transferred between around 20 locations during the period, doing more than a dozen gigs. On Jan. 10, he worked from around midnight till 4am in an industrial site, then after five hours Yue went to work in a Beijing suburb full of villas at 9am, suggesting very few hours of rest in between, as the two places are about 60 km (37 miles) apart. “It is no exaggeration to describe this record as extremely shocking. All we can see from it is working, working, and working. No entertainment and socialization but only working, day and night,” wrote an opinion piece (link in Chinese).
In contrast, the citizen in Beijing, whose gender was not revealed by authorities, shopped at a Christian Dior shop, a branch of ritzy Hong Kong department store Lane Crawford, and visited a high-end jewelry chain. The person also attended a stand-up show, went to a ski resort with friends, kept an appointment with a hairdresser, ate a meal out, and went to a cafe. While the person’s activities may not seem dissimilar to those of well-off white-collar professionals in other countries, the regular work hours and seeming abundance of leisure time led many to compare the situation of the two covid patients with the plot of renowned Chinese sci-fi novel, Folding Beijing(北京折叠), in which Beijing is a city divided into three spaces, each of which has a different allocation of time and land based on the social classes of the residents in the space, with the rich having the most resources and the poor living on collecting trash.
“Beijing is folded, both urban villages and fancy shopping malls represent Beijing…Romantic pastime is Beijing, making a living day and night is also Beijing,” wrote columnist Gu Yan on the two contract-tracing records.
After Yue’s story made headlines, police in Weihai issued a statement on Jan. 21, saying they had in 2020 notified Yue that they found the corpse of his older son in a pond in Rongcheng county, with no foul play suspected. But Yue has rejected the conclusion, saying the body is not his son. Yue told China News Weekly, before the police statement was issued, that he was determined to find his older son, even if that “comes at the cost of my life.”
Calls to Yue’s wife went unanswered, while Weihai police didn’t reply to a request for comment.
China’s wealth gap
China’s GDP per capita reached around $12,000 in nominal terms in 2021, after decades of robust economic growth that has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, and brought China closer to becoming a rich country. But despite the overall rise in income, China has moved from being a moderately unequal country in 1990 to being one of the most unequal countries globally, according to a working paper released by the International Monetary Fund in 2018, which attributed this in part to uneven distribution of educational services.
“Income distribution in China is highly unequal, and greater redistribution through social transfers is needed. This means China needs to improve its weak social safety net,” said Tianlei Huang, a research analyst at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “The unemployment insurance program, for example, covers less than half of the urban work force, and does not include the majority of the migrant workers and those living in rural China.”
China’s Gini coefficient, a measure of wealth inequality, stood at around 0.47 between 2016 to 2020 after the figure fell from a peak of 0.49 in 2008, according to the government. A reading of above 0.4 indicates a large income gap, while below 0.4 means it is a more equal society. Chinese premier Li Keqiang famously said in 2020 that nearly half of China’s population, or 600 million people, were earning barely 1,000 yuan ($150) a month. Also in 2020, China had more than 1,000 dollar billionaires compared to nearly 700 for the US, according to the 2021 Hurun Global Rich List.
In response to China’s wealth gap, Chinese president Xi Jinping rolled out his ambitious plan of achieving “common prosperity” last year, with the campaign aiming to “adjust the incomes” of high earners and prosperous companies, and develop low-income rural areas.
According to Huang, “serious tax reforms are needed if China wants to reach its common prosperity goals. However, little has been done so far to push for major tax reforms. Instead there has been much emphasis on the so-called ‘tertiary distribution,’ which essentially means private donations and givings from high-income individuals.”
Update: The story was updated with comments from Tianlei Huang of the Peterson Institute for International Economics.