Why Many in China Sympathize With Occupy Wall Street

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Income inequality, a feeling of disenfranchisement, and a sense of injustice are fueling popular curiosity about the movement, in which a number of Chinese see parallels with their own complaints against their government

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A man watches the skyline of Shanghai from the Shanghai Financial Center building / Reuters

Back in the land of Internet freedom. One thing that struck me on this last trip to China was the repeated questions I received about how to interpret the "Occupy Wall Street" movement in the U.S. The Chinese interlocutors weren't asking out of a sense of schadenfreude. Well, only the Chinese version of the Global Times gleefully emblazoned its front page with the predictable headline "Anti-Capitalism Shakes the World". No, they seemed to be inquiring out of a sense of concern for their own lot.

"The terrifying thing isn't that justice is relative. The terrifying thing is to witness injustice and to act as if one sees nothing."

That's because unlike the "Arab Spring," the "We are the 99 percent" movement isn't about revolution or regime change, but about contesting a system that seems less fair than imagined and less equal than ought to be. It doesn't take much for many Chinese to see parallels in their own socioeconomic conditions, where vast and unsustainable inequality is probably the leading potential destabilizing factor facing the country. Everyone from those in the middle-class to cab drivers feel viscerally this sense of inequality or unfairness. I had a highly educated government think tanker ask me if I thought it was fair that someone like herself, who would be considered an "elite" in any society, can't foresee how she can afford an apartment -- a common question these days. And it's not simply the existing gap in wealth and equality, it's that large swathes of the population -- migrant workers for example -- literally cannot see a path by which they can plausibly join the ranks of elite urban society. This will be the crux of the challenge in absorbing another 300 million or so people -- equivalent to the entire United States -- into Chinese cities over the coming decades.   

An illustration of the plight of the rural Chinese bumpkin/semi-migrant is captured in this essay that is apparently circulating the Chinese blogosphere (h/t to China Hush; Chinese version here). It is from someone who has "made it" into the elite world to which she/he aspired. The account is highly effective, and resembles the personalized stories that proliferate the "we are the 99 percent" website -- it is titled "I fought for 18 years to have a cup of coffee with you":

Here's a question I pose for my white collar friends: what if I never graduated from middle school, and had become a migrant worker? Would you sit down for a cup of coffee with me at Starbucks? The answer, unequivocally, is that you wouldn't. That is simply not a possibility. If we compared our experiences growing up, you will find that for the things that you take for granted, I have sacrificed and exerted huge amounts of efforts to acquire.

From the moment I was born, our life's path swerved away from each other. I was given a rural resident card while you got a city one. If I grew up keeping my rural residence, I wouldn't be able to work in the city today. I would also be denied social security, and proper medical care. You might ask: "Why must you come to the city? Isn't the country good enough? The air is fresh, and it's never crowded." But the country has no proper healthcare system. During the SARs scare our country seemed to "suddenly" realize that its rural healthcare was completely defunct. Plus, we have a very small consumer market. Because farmers make very little money and can't afford much, companies refuse to distribute products in our areas. During the New Year only a tiny percent of families can afford the color T.V to watch the New Year's broadcast. The majority of families are still fighting for their basic survival. This is why I want to be in the city. For the object you were simply born with, this city resident card, I have had to fight and struggle.

College was the only way out of rural China. I needed to work very hard to graduate from elementary school, to be accepted into a middle and high school. I was a lone traveler on a narrow and precarious bridge above a deep valley, and while I was on it, I watched my friends and classmates fall one by one. Meanwhile, the road ahead of me became increasingly narrow. Should I have been happy or worried? Because of fierce competition, I was terrified that any misstep might drag me off course. Apart from studying, I was never able to have a hobby or partake in extra-curriculars, not that the school ever offered any opportunities. On the first day in high school, our principal told us that we had only one goal during those three years- Gao Kao.(college entrance exam) So, during that time, I woke up at 5:30 every morning, and went to bed at 11:00 PM. During holidays, I was memorizing test questions.

For you, there is no question that you'll graduate elementary school and go onward to middle and high school. The competition isn't that fierce, and your homework load isn't that heavy. You can take the time to develop a hobby, to read the books you want, to play basketball, to take excursions to the countryside to enjoy its blue skies. If you don't want to work so hard for Gao Kao, and your grades aren't atrocious, you can opt for a school who's willing to recruit you without test scores. And even if your scores are indeed atrocious, a third tier university will still accept you. Meanwhile, I have to earn exceptionally high marks to get into that same third tier university, since universities demand more from out-of-state students.

We take the same test. The minimum score requirements for you and me are not the same. But once we're accepted, our tuition fees are again the same. Every person pays 6000RMB per year - that's for tuition only, which comes out as 24,000 RMB for all four years. Housing (1500RMB), and books (1000RMB) add up to around 4000RMB - and I'm only talking about eating cafeteria food the entire time. Four years of college comes down to 50,000 RMB. In 2003, a university in Shanghai announced that it was raising its annual tuition to 10,000 RMB due to the "campus renovation" That means 40,000 RMB for four years of tuition alone. Count in living and text book costs and a university education adds up to 66,000 RMB. For families who live in the city, 66,000 RMB isn't much. For a rural family, 66,000 RMB is a life time's worth of savings. I come from a coastal province that has been getting steady foreign investment. We were better off compared to some inner provinces, but still, after a year of hard labor, we were hard pressed to save much. A family of four who consume only the very basics can save 3000 RMB each year. That means to send one child to a four year college at 66,000 RMB a family needs to save for 22 years. That's assuming that no one gets sick. It also means that no matter how talented the second child is the family must still deprive him or her from attending college since they can only afford to send one.

I was lucky compared to others. By throwing together all the funds we had, and by taking out student loans, I was finally able to pay my first year of tuition. Meanwhile, I watched those students who'd been accepted and the heartbreak their families experienced for being unable to send them to school. I felt a pervasive sense of wrongness. Our education industry nowadays don't only recruit the best students, they recruit the students with the richest parents.

But, finally I found myself on a University campus! I worked hard and earned a scholarship. During the holidays, I worked to save spending money. I couldn't bear asking my parents for money. Every cent they made was an exchange of their sweat. That money was sweat money, blood money.

Upon coming to Shanghai, I realized that compared to my classmates, I was green beyond belief. I couldn't draw, couldn't play an instrument, didn't know who the hottest pop stars were, had never read a best selling novel, didn't know what an MP3 was, didn't even know what a Walkman was. To understand what our management professor was lecturing about during his class on "Warehouse style supermarkets" like Wal-Mart and Sam's Club, I spent a day at "McDonalds" watching with astonishment. I'd never seen so much stuff.

I'd never touched a computer, so I spent half a year sitting in a computer lab learning the skills you'd learned in high school. My English is the English spoken by a deaf or a mute person. Neither westerners nor Chinese people can understand what I'm saying. But that wasn't my fault. There were never any foreign teachers in my village. When teachers don't even know the language, how can they possibly teach students to speak? With a poor foundation, I spent an entire year correcting my pronunciation. I admired city students for how talented they were, how much they knew. I only knew how to study. I'd only known studying, test taking, graduating, because only by getting into college could I study amongst you and become a part of you. Everything had to be geared and pointed towards this goal.

I could bear the mockery of my classmates, could go weeks without eating any meat, could spend my entire weekend cooped up in a library, could come back from studying on the weekend to see boys and girls dancing, could go running at the deep of the night out of loneliness and boredom. I dreamt that one day I would graduate, and find a job in the city. I wanted to work with the city-dwellers of my generation, and like them, to become a city resident. I wanted my parents to be proud because they had a son working in Shanghai!

Finally, I graduated. Finding a job in Shanghai was hard, but going back to the village was not an option. The average salary for our class was 2000RMB per month. Perhaps you think that 2000RMB is an adequate salary, but I still needed to pay for rent, to pay for utilities, to pay back my student loans, and to send money home to put my brother and sister through school. What was left, I used for food. After all of this, I still couldn't join you for a coffee at Starbucks!

Since that time I've earned a master's degree, and currently live in Shanghai where my annual salary is 80,000 RMB. I fought for eighteen years, and can finally sit down with you for a cup of coffee. I'm now a resident in this big, international city, and I'm no different from the white collar workers here. However, I can never forget the struggles my family and I went through. I can never forget my classmates who will never see their dreams come true. For this reason, I've written this in the first person. What I've written is nothing special. It's the typical tale of those who come from rural China. Every time I see a student who's been dealt same hand I got, I feel a heavy sense of responsibility.

I didn't write this to complain. The terrifying thing isn't that justice is relative. The terrifying thing is to witness injustice and to act as if one sees nothing. While I was getting my masters, I once had a conversation with a girl who at the time had 3 years of work experience under her belt. She is now the HR director of a joint stock company. We were talking about a marketing strategy for Weida's paper industry. Her idea was to carve out a new market by advertising Weida's high quality dinner napkins to China's nine hundred million farmers. Surprised by her cocksureness, I asked her if she knew how farmers wipe their mouths after each meal. She returned my question with a misgiving look. I raised my hand and wiped my mouth on my sleeve. She looked at my graceless action with contempt.

During a macro-economics class, a classmate attacked blue collar workers who'd been laid off, and unemployed high school dropouts: "80% of them are where they are because they don't work hard. They chose not to specialize in something when they were young, so they can't get jobs now! Those kids are perfectly capable of studying and working. I've heard that a lot of students use their holidays to make thousands to pay their tuition." You can't find a person who knows less about the struggles of rural China than this classmate of mine.

I was born during the 70s. People my age are starting to become leaders and our actions affect the social and economic development. I wrote this essay for the young people who grew up in well-heeled communities, and for those who grew up struggling but have since forgotten. Pay attention to the classes beneath you. For this world to be fairer, we need to do what we can for others, to be aware that social responsibility warrants a permanent place in our thoughts and actions.

This is a reality that Chinese from all walks of life recognize and live with. The government has taken due notice as well. And so it comes as no surprise that the major theme in their economic plan de-emphasizes economic growth (growing the pie) and trumpets income (redistributing the existing pie). However, the jury is still out on just how extensively they will be able to address the clear and present dangers of inequality.

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Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute, where he focuses on investment and policy programs, and on the Institute's research and think-tank activities. Previously, he was a lead China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.

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