China: A Look at The Year Just Past

Two books published in 2016 highlight the widening gap between rich and poor in Xi Jinping's China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping extends greetings to Chinese citizens and people around the world during his New Year's speech in Beijing, Dec. 31, 2016.

China’s Lunar New Year celebration, just ending, is a time for summing up and reviewing the past year—both the good and the bad.

Obviously, for the world’s second largest economy, China’s slowing growth rate is of concern.  

But as China enters the Year of the Rooster, President Xi Jinping can take comfort in China’s growing economic influence in the world and the recognition the country has gained as a rising power.

Xi assumed a high-profile role at the G-20 Summit in Hangzhou last September as well as more recently at the World Economic Forum in Davos,  Switzerland.

He was the first Chinese leader ever to attend, and CEOs gathered there welcomed his apparent embrace of “globalization.”

At home, Xi’s four-year-long crackdown on corruption appears to have become popular among many ordinary Chinese citizens, who resent land seizures and the wealth acquired by local Communist Party officials.

On the negative side, the country’s huge rich-poor gap persists, and Xi clearly still has far to go to eliminate endemic corruption among Party officials.

To understand the past year’s downside, two books published in 2016 can help us to understand why a relatively high-level widespread corruption still exists in China, while at the lowest level of society, poverty and social ills such as prostitution persist.

Rich officials, poor workers

In his new book China’s Crony Capitalism, China scholar Minxin Pei has meticulously documented the ways in which Communist Party officials and their relatives collude with Chinese businessmen to enrich themselves.

Pei, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, examines 260 typical cases of corruption that were exposed in Chinese state media. They show how China’s economic rise has enriched Party officials.

But Pei digs deeper than the Chinese press in analyzing these cases and drawing conclusions about a system that breeds corruption.

A second book, titled simply Lotus, is a novel that provides deep insights into the lives of the migrant Chinese workers whose cheap labor has created China’s economic miracle. 

Among those workers, thousands of women who feel crushed by assembly-line factory work in the big cities have turned to prostitution.  A character named Lotus is one of them.

Author Lijia Zhang creates a sympathetic portrait of this young prostitute, at the same time shedding light on the plight of China’s migrant workers.

As journalist and writer Ian Johnson says in a review, Zhang's book opens a window into “a land of underground sex trade, corrupt police, desperate migrants, and flawed characters trying to make the right decisions.”

What links Zhang and Minxin Pei’s two very different books is the insights they provide into the underside of China’s economic success.

Widespread corruption

In the introduction to his book, Minxin Pei quotes President Xi Jinping himself on the widespread nature of corruption in China.

Here in part is what Xi said back in October, 2014:

“Corruption in regions and sectors is interwoven; cases of corruption through collusion are increasing; …the exchange of power for power, power for money, and power for sex is frequent….”

President Xi, says Minxin Pei, “obviously has good reason to worry.”

According to Pei, the symptoms of corruption in China that Xi himself graphically describes are “those of a Leninist regime in late-stage decay.” And he doesn’t believe that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign can reverse this trend.

Pei traces the origins of China’s crony capitalism to the early 1990s.  Following the Beijing massacre of 1989, China’s economy stalled. The then supreme leader Deng Xiaoping re-launched economic reforms with the aim of encouraging private enterprises, reducing the role of state-owned enterprises and making the economy more efficient.  

But the resulting decentralization of political and economic power left the ownership of huge state-owned assets, such as land and mines, unclear. Party officials and their businessmen allies were able to move in and use these assets to create wealth for themselves.

Another view

To keep this in perspective, Andrew J. Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University, notes that crony capitalism is not the only kind of entrepreneurial activity in China.  “Some of China’s largest and most successful firms are authentically private,” he says.

In a review of Pei’s book published in the current edition of  The New York Review of Books, Nathan asserts that Pei “may exaggerate the degree to which corruption threatens the survival of the regime.”

But a number of scholars agree that Pei has made a major contribution to our understanding of the flaws in China’s model of economic development.

According to Huang Yasheng at the MIT Sloan School of Management, “no one has detailed the evolution of corruption in China as ably and as comprehensively.”

Pei also shows how Party officials and businessmen follow evening banquets with visits to prostitutes and brothels as a way of strengthening their ties. 

And offering a prostitute as a kind of prize to a Party official at the end of an evening becomes in effect a bribe.

Sympathetic portrayal

In her book titled Lotus, novelist Lijia Zhang vividly describes this practice for Western readers.  

But Zhang also does much more.

Her sympathetic portrayal of the life of a prostitute named Lotus working at a massage parlor in the economically booming city of Shenzhen also turns out to be a love story and a testament to one woman’s strength.

Lotus’s story begins as a typical one for many migrant workers, the unsung heroes of China’s economic rise.

Her massage parlor in Shenzhen lies hundreds of miles to the southeast of her rural village in Sichuan Province, and she can rarely afford to make a trip home.

Her main aim in life is to send money home to assist her family and ultimately to help her brother Shadan realize his dream of entering a university.  He would be the first in his poor village to achieve this goal.

Her family has been told that Lotus is working in a Sichuan restaurant in Shenzhen and not as prostitute.

Hard to eliminate


Like so many migrant workers, she had arrived in Shenzhen to work in a factory outside the city. Her cousin, nicknamed “Little Red,” had talked her into taking the job. But after her cousin died in a fire at the factory, she decided to find work in the city.

When her lack of a high school diploma disqualified her from the best jobs, she turned to prostitution, first as a street walker and later in a massage parlor, often fronts for prostitution.

While officially illegal, prostitution has become an industry in China that would appear to be hard to eliminate, though police do launch periodic campaigns against it.  One of the most dramatic scenes in the novel describes a raid on her massage parlor in which some of Lotus’s friends are beaten.

The camaraderie among the girls while under detention, their jokes about their plight, and the offer of one to share what little money she has to pay off the police becomes one of the most touching moments in the book.

It’s hard to imagine that a book on this sad subject could be uplifting, but this one is.

Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.