3 January 2008

Chinese whispers a siren song

Some surprise has been expressed by the discovery that the wealth that has been generated by Chinese workers making goods to sell to wealthy Westerners has become concentrated in a few hands. Even in an avowedly communist country, 'development' has led inevitably to inequality.

Or perhaps the surprise is rather that the government in China is concerned about this and is devising policies to deal with it. Because, aside from economists who create an increasingly unconvincing litany of metaphors involving water trickling down or raising boats, the reality is that inequality is an inherent part of capitalism.

Without the inspiration of the super-rich and the fear of joining the lumpenproles why would any of us reluctantly climb back onto the treadmill of work - so especially grim at this time of year and following the extended break most of us took with such alacrity (including this blogger!).

Unfortunately, it would appear that the Chinese are under pressure from the UN to follow entirely the wrong route. The problem is being framed in terms of inequality between the urban and rural areas. Urban incomes are three times as high as rural incomes, leading to suggestions from economists that farmers should become more efficient and China should abandon its policy of self-sufficiency in food.

The comparative figures are, of course, utterly misleading. Like all output figures they only measure what is bought and sold and innumerated in cash. Rural peasants in China do not need much income because they mainly rely on self-provisioning and mutual aid. Just as peasants in our own country did until a hundred years ago or so. The benefit or marketisation will not accrue to them and is more likely to increase real inequality.

More on a couple of programmes from the BBC documenting growing inequality here.

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