During China’s greatest period of economic growth, fed by widespread industrialization that lifted millions out of poverty, inequality has also increased — at the fastest pace and to the highest level in the world. It may get worse.
China’s Gini coefficient, 1 a widely used measure of income dispersion across a population, has risen more steeply over the last decade than in any other country, according to an International Monetary Fund working paper. Some inequality is to be expected with industrialization, but in China it’s happened at a staggering pace. One of the main drivers, the research found, is growing differences in education levels and skill premiums.
In education, China is among the most unequal societies. Demand for highly skilled workers soared with rapid technological change. Access to secondary and higher-level education has blossomed since 1980. Last year, around 8 million students graduated from Chinese universities, 10 times more than two decades ago and double the number at U.S. universities. But the gap in tertiary education completion rose even more, comparing rural to urban areas and richer to poorer people. In the relatively deprived southern autonomous region of Guangxi, for example, around 19 percent of the college-age population is enrolled in tertiary education. In Shanghai, the comparable figure is 70 percent.
The Rich Get Smarter
The percentage of people enrolled in a tertiary institution out of the whole college-age population varies widely across provinces depending on income levels. China’s capital-accumulation boom has been backed by state subsidies that encourage technological advances. Many R&D handouts are based, in turn, on employees’ educational qualifications.
Take the Ministry of Science and Technology’s Innovation Company program. Access to its incentives include stipulations that research and development spending amount to 6 percent of sales for companies with less than 50 million yuan ($7.3 million) revenue; that at least 30 percent of employees have a college degree; and that 10 percent of the staff be involved in R&D. Plenty of big names have taken advantage of such policies, including the likes of Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co., the surveillance giant that we wrote about here.
Other measures to bring home so-called sea turtles — qualified Chinese people living overseas — have deepened the divide. Under Beijing’s Thousand Talents program, launched a decade ago, returnees can get a 2 million-yuan research grant and a personal reward of more than 500,000 yuan, along with benefits. That program had attracted more than 7,000 Chinese scientists and engineers as of November 2017. Local governments, including Shenzhen, also have housing policies aimed at luring talent.
On top of the influx of expertise, it’s harder for people to find good jobs as the population generally becomes better-educated. To be sure, inequality does diminish as workers change industries, for example from agriculture to sectors that add more value. But that hasn’t happened as fast, in part because of pro-farmer policies and the dibao system that guarantees rural incomes.
Beijing is now trying to reduce the income-tax burden, adding a potentially powerful tool to address inequality. The working paper’s authors say this is especially the case in China, given the “limited role” fiscal policy has played in “moderating income inequality in China to date.”