Wealth And Poverty in China And What My Travels Taught Me About Both

Over the past few years, the Chinese economy has greatly developed. Even though they are currently experiencing a recession; the number of wealthy households still remains high. But sadly, a large percentage of the population does not have this type of financial certainty. Many live in financial strain. Unlike in North America, China doesn’t seem to have much of a middle working class. Most are either very rich or have a low annual income. I was very fortunate to have been able to witness, experience and observe each of these situations during my time in this country. It was an incredibly eye opening experience. This article will be all about wealth, social class, status and financial difficulties faced in China as well as my experiences.

Over the course of my stay in China, I got the chance to meet all types of people. Some were wealthy while others faced poverty. Many were in their 20’s and were attending university or already had a job. I later found out that most were not actually locals to the large cities that they now call home. A large percentage of young people from smaller cities or rural villages end up moving to big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, and so on, to pursue  their post-secondary education or to find a job. A friend of mine told me that there were no jobs or opportunities in his city; so he packed up his bags and moved to Beijing to pursue a modeling and acting career.

Small rural village outside of Xi'an
Small rural village outside of Xi’an

To get a better paying job, a university degree is essential. Since the job market is over saturated due to the large population, studying abroad is seen as a very good way to distinguish yourself from the crowd. It’s also a sign of prestige since it’s so expensive to be a foreign student. For those who don’t have these opportunities, working minimum wage jobs is unavoidable. I had a very interesting conversation with a 28 year old man in Beijing; he was a receptionist at the hotel I was staying in. He said that he was from Beijing and that he went to university. He received his diploma but couldn’t find a job so he ended up working at the hotel for minimum wage. I was informed that this is only 10 yuan per hour. It was shockingly low! A cup of coffee at a café costs at least 30 yuan!

Hotel in Beijing
Hotel in Beijing

Real-estate in China is incredibly expensive. According to numbeo.com, the average monthly income in January of 2016 was 9177.88 yuan and the average price of buying an apartment in downtown Beijing per square meter is 86 202.97 yuan. The cost of one square meter costs more than 78% of the average yearly salary. This forces many people to live in incredibly unsafe and unimaginable situations.

Average apartment complex, Xi'an
Average apartment complex, Xi’an

In 2014, BBC conducted a study. They estimated that the number of people whose net worth is more than 10 million yuan will rise from 800 000 to 1 million  within that year. The Chinese tend to have no reservations about flaunting their wealth. Many invest in luxury cars such as Mercedes and BMW as well as designer fashion and bags.

A great friend of mine introduced me to the wealthy side of China; I experienced many things with her that I definitely wouldn’t have on my own. We went on many shopping trips; she was incredibly elegant and would only wear the best brands. I was very shocked when she purchased a beautiful pair of red Prada heels without thinking twice. Luxury brands are at least twice the price in Asia than they are in Canada; thus making them even more exclusive.  I had the opportunity to travel to Beijing twice and to Kunming once with her. Each time we would arrive, her boyfriend’s private driver would be waiting at the airport in a shiny black Mercedes. This definitely took some getting used to. She as was so generous and kind, she invited me to stay with her in the most beautiful hotels and resorts as well as brought me to some amazing award winning restaurants. She insisted that she wanted to pay for it all; she would not take no for an answer.

Hotel in Kunming
Hotel in Kunming

I can clearly remember one meal I had with her and a male friend. We met up at Made in China in the Grand Hyatt for Peking duck. They had a very long and serious conversation in Mandarin over the course of the meal. She later told me about what he had said. Apparently, he is quite wealthy and had a girlfriend for a few months. He loved her very much and wanted to treat her often. She was given almost 330 000 yuan worth of jewelry, clothing and bags. She broke up with him shortly after and declared that she didn’t love him; only his money. This left him heartbroken for several years and now has major trust issues. I was horrified that someone could do this to another person. She explained that of course this happens all over the world; but it’s even more common in China.

Made in China Restaurant, Grand Hyatt Beijing (photo from beijing.grand.hyatt.com)
Made in China Restaurant, Grand Hyatt Beijing (photo from beijing.grand.hyatt.com)

The next evening, we were in our hotel room and she told me that her friend wanted to have dinner together. We agreed to go. Once in the car, she informed me that her friend was actually a very famous novelist in China. I was of course very surprised! We sat down in the beautifully decorated Sichuan style restaurant and waited for her to arrive. A few minutes later, she strolled in with an armful of shopping bags. Many of which were the gorgeous orange Hermes bags. She politely introduced herself and proceeded to give me a gift bag. It was filled with luxurious pastries and sheet masks. I was stunned at her generosity towards a complete stranger! After finishing our delicious meal, we drove her back to her upscale condo and said our goodbyes. This is definitely a very memorable experience.

Delicious Sichuan food, Beijing
Delicious Sichuan food, Beijing

There were times when I questioned whether I should be accepting my friend’s kindness; it was just unimaginable to me. No one at home has ever done anything like this for me nor will in the future. I expressed my concerns to her. She explained to me that this is the Chinese way; rich or poor. She said that I am a guest in her country so she wants to take good care of me. If she were to come to my home, I would do the same for her.

Hot Spring Resort, Kunming
Hot Spring Resort, Kunming

There are definitely clearly defined social classes in China and they never really come together like they do in North America. In Canada, the social classes are not as clear; they are blurred and do have contact with each other. I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to experience both worlds in China. It was a huge learning experience and I received insight into both sides of a major cultural issue. I’ve had lots of time to reflect on this subject and the one outstanding lesson that I’ve learned is: Be grateful for what you have; whether you are wealthy or not. The grass is not always greener on the other side. TC mark

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