Now, the issue is especially thorny for China's government: President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have based much of the public legitimacy of their administration on trying to address a widening wealth gap resulting from decades of capitalist reforms. Part of their overall plan, for example, has called for improving rural health care and education.
China's booming economy has lifted the financial fortunes of most of its citizens, but some have gained far more than others. Economists say the country, still nominally socialist, is now among the most unequal major economies in the world. Much of this imbalance is seen in the contrast between residents of the big, wealthy cities, and those of small, poorer towns and rural areas. The disparity is a growing concern to leaders worried about social instability.
Eight-month-pregnant Zhang Xiaoyan, 34, was pulled alive from a partially collapsed apartment Wednesday in Dujiangyan.
Incomes in rural areas, for example, averaged 4,140 yuan a person last year, or about $590 at current exchange rates. That represents an increase of 91% from a decade earlier, not adjusted for inflation. Urban disposable incomes, by comparison, rose by 150% during the same period, to an average of 13,786 yuan last year.
China's leaders have become increasingly concerned about the widening income gap, particularly in rural areas because rural residents still comprise more than 60% of China's 1.3 billion residents.
The tragic consequences of the earthquake underscore the ugly contradictions of Chinese capitalism, in which new industries are being built up amid massive rural poverty, and industrial wages amount to just a few dollars per day. In fact, it is precisely low wages and large-scale poverty that foreign corporations are seeking, as they move inland from higher-wage coastal regions around Guangzhou and Shanghai.
In Chengdu, local authorities have promoted a new, high-tech industrial park housing operations of multinational firms such as Motorola, Alcatel, Intel, IBM, and Nokia in an attempt to make the city the “Silicon Valley of China.” However, other buildings in the city and region are largely old and vulnerable. This state of affairs is emblematic of the callousness of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which has become an agent for corporate interests as it has transformed China into the low-wage workshop of the world.
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Over the last decade, China's strong economic growth has spread inland, resulting in a burst of construction activity in rural areas. But as the heavy damage illustrates, the gap between China's countryside and urban centers appears to remain huge, not only in terms of income but also safety practices.
The floors of many buildings in rural areas are prefabricated slabs that are laid in place and quite often reused when a building is knocked down, said one longtime construction engineer in the region who requested anonymity.
"These would be free-floating during an earthquake as gravity keeps them in place, and as the walls sitting on them collapse, it would only get worse," he said.
Gao, the Beijing geologist, said a large number of houses that collapsed probably were put up by farmers themselves.
"Many worked their entire lives to build these houses," he said. "When construction materials became more expensive, many of them wouldn't consider earthquake resistance."
The average annual income in Wenchuan, population 112,000, was about $200 in 2002, the latest data available. That was less than one-fifth that of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, about 60 miles southeast.
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