Poverty is, perhaps, the one true global unifier. From New York to Mumbai, Paris to Kabul, Singapore to Mogadishu, it exists without exception, reducing its worst sufferers to the same fundamental desperation and abject need worldwide.
Shanghai is the richest city of the country with one of the fastest growing economy in the world, but China is still very much a developing nation.
A young woman with a heart-wrenching deformity of the lower body sits outside of Cloud Nine shopping mall—a multi-million dollar, ten-level skyscraper featuring high-end brands. A blanket cover her legs, which, upon a closer look appear to be startlingly nonexistent. She holds a paint can out in front of her in hopes of donations from those walking by.
It is a truly unsettling display of modern China’s growing wealth gap. As China’s economy has experienced roughly ten percent annual growth over the last three decades, the gap between the rich and the poor has grown to its highest point since the initiation of economic reforms in 1978.
The Gini coefficient, which measures worldwide income inequality—0 representing absolute equality and 100 absolute inequality—ranked China as having the sixth largest wealth gap in the world, with a coefficient of 41.5. The United States ranks seventh with 40.8. Generally, a high coefficient is credited with causing political vulnerability and social turmoil.
One means of income for Shanghainese homeless is collecting bottles, worth roughly 0.12 RMB (about .02 USD) each, a daily hunt that plays out across the city as homeless scour public waste bins in search of discarded bottles. At the night market on Zaoyang Lu, a mere one minute walk from the NYU Shanghai dorms and right outside the side entrance to ECNU, apparently homeless people encircle diners eating food on offer from street food vendors. As soon as someone finishes a beverage, the bottle collectors gingerly approach and hold out their hands for the empty bottle, which they then slide into their tattered bag before walking away, usually with a humble xie xie.
One cultural difference which sets Chinese homeless apart from many of those I have encountered in America is their attitude to themselves and those walking by. In the States, a homeless man generally approaches a passerby or waits for them to come near and pleads with them to cough up change, heavily playing on guilt. Another tactic is to entertain those walking by or to draw on humor. Once in Cleveland a man came up to me and started rapping. He was quite good too. After about five minutes of lyrical genius he asked if I had any change to spare. On another occasion, a man approached a group of my friends and yelled, “I’m not gonna lie guys. I just want a beer.” As we started laughing he continued, “Come on man, it’s an honest campaign.”
In China things are much different. Beggars hardly ever speak, and instead of trying to inspire guilt into those walking by, they act like they are the ones who should feel ashamed. Another woman outside of Cloud Nine shopping mall kneeled as if in a full bow and held her head in her hands, hiding her face from the world and emanating the shame she felt for herself. A collection can lay out in front of her.
Perhaps the most startling image of poverty I’ve come across is that of a man who often sits in front of the Family Mart on Zaoyang Lu. His face, hands and feet are askew with light pink scarring, apparently the result of burns of some sort. His lips are swollen, and his face is a mangled complexity of pink scars. His hands, which share the same discoloration, are worse. Whether maimed or naturally disfigured, the thumb and pinky of both hands jut out to sides in opposite directions, leaving his three middle fingers protruding straight forward with nails roughly inch-long nails sticking out of fingers that eerily seem unattached. Every time I encounter him, I wonder what happened to him. Was he born disfigured? Or was there some terrible accident? I will probably never know. I encountered him again one night at about midnight sleeping under the bridge outside the front gate of ECNU, with two others laying under the bridge as well, leading me to believe that his daily life consists of getting up, going to Family Mart in search of donations, and returning to the bridge at night to sleep.
China will soon overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy—which isn’t as big of a deal as the media will make it out to be, because China’s population is roughly four times that of the United States. But within this globalized economic powerhouse, real people ravaged by fate or cruelty appear to be lost in China’s wealth gap. Outside Shanghai and other Chinese megacities, the situation is worse; the rural southwest and western desert suffer far more poverty than these wealthy metropolises.
Shanghai is a city where homeless beg in front of skyscrapers, temples have been overtaken by factories, and people seem so caught up in the future they can barely stop to reflect upon the past. As such, it is the epitome of modern China. And it can be fairly said of the poverty on display here that it is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to income inequality throughout the nation.