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Income inequality is surging, and there are few countries where it is rising faster than the United States. The distance between rich and poor is greater in America than nearly all other developed countries, making the US a leader in a trend that economists warn has dire consequences. GlobalPost sets out on a reporting journey to get at the ‘ground truth’ of inequality through the lenses of education, race, immigration, health care, government, labor and natural resources. The hope is to hold a mirror up to the US to see how it compares to countries around the world.

In Beijing, migrants remain in the shadow of China's rise to wealth

One-third of China's workforce is made of migrants, many of whom have effectively become second-class citizens in their own country.

Wang moved to Beijing from a farm in central China’s Anhui province five years ago, looking for a better life for his two young children. Rent eats up half of his monthly salary, and after school fees for his kids plus food and heating bills, there is nothing left to save.

“I came here because my hometown is very poor,” he says. “But my life here is not good. I can’t earn much through this work and it’s very difficult.”

Beijing, a sprawling metropolis, has a growing "floating" population of migrant workers from all over China.
(Sim Chi Yin/VII/GlobalPost)

“It is so hard to send my children to school. The hukou and other certificates are essential,” he explains, talking about the household registration document that dictates the status every Chinese migrant’s life. “I work for the local government district, so they give me a special certificate to send my children to school.”

On that note, Wang is lucky. China has an estimated 230 million internal migrants, effectively undocumented workers fueling the boom in major cities. The latest official estimates say that one-third of Beijing’s workforce is made of migrants, and though a good share of them are employed in white-collar jobs with benefits, the hukou is a constant concern.

Patrick Chovanec, a professor at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management in Beijing who writes a popular blog on China’s economy, said the government’s release of the Gini data was significant, but only tells a fraction of the story. Chovanec said he believes real problem in China is not income inequality but rather an “inequality of privilege.”

“What bothers people is that some are getting rich not because of what they do but because of who they know,” he said. “That sense that there’s a set of people who live according to a different set of rules, that power begets wealth and wealth begets power — that is what bothers people.”

“Its important because inequality of income is the problem, that’s a market outcome,” said Chovanec.

Tang Yuanchao, 57, is another trash collector on Jinbao Jie who came here 10 years ago from Chongqing, Bo’s former territory. A decade ago, Tang believed he could achieve a Chinese dream in Beijing, building a better future for his children and perhaps rising to a different segment of society. But in that decade, the wealth gap grew even wider. Today, Tang has a hard time making ends meet on a monthly salary of less than $200, with skyrocketing rents that force migrants like him to move on a regular basis.

China's soaring rise to wealth is evident in the rich areas of Beijing, but migrant workers mostly stay at the bottom of the income gap.
(Sim Chi Yin/VII/GlobalPost)

“We are treated differently than the people who were born in Beijing,” says Tang. As a migrant worker, even after 10 years in the city, “I earn less money than regular employees who do the same job.”

So sensitive is the topic, China’s super-rich are reluctant to speak publicly about their wealth, and even less inclined to reveal how wealthy they actually are.

At the intersection of these two worlds is 31-year-old Wang Yu, a young investment banker in Beijing who managed to beat the odds. Wang grew up on a farm in Chongqing, but through extreme hard work and what he describes as many strokes of luck like having great high-school teachers who wanted to help him, he was the only student in his county chosen to attend Peking University in Beijing — one of the country’s most prestigious schools. An education there changes lives, and it did for Wang.

He spends his days advising wealthy clients on how to invest their money; his wife works in marketing for Apple. If there is a Chinese equivalent to the American Dream, they might be the living example.

But Wang remains keenly aware of his beginnings, as well as how difficult it is for migrants to make it in China. Unlike the wealthy drivers who blare their horns at the trash collectors on Jinbao Jie, he sees them, and thinks about how his life easily might have gone in a very different direction.

“Not everybody in China has the equal rights to get this chance. I’m very lucky,” he says over coffee in a café near his apartment. “I attended the best high school in my county. But my teachers went to work for schools in a larger city after I graduated, so even my younger fellow students didn’t have the same opportunity.”

China’s new generation of leaders has pledged to address the country’s growing income inequity. Where to begin is a massive challenge.

Li Linhui, a sociologist at Peking University, said the government is looking at new strategies, but underlying social tension over the wealth gap is building. He is optimistic.

“I think it will improve because new generation of migrant workers are growing and they are unwilling to go back home,” said Li. “Their voice will definitely be heard and their struggle will make a difference.”

The investment banker Wang and his wife make a comfortable living, and he’s been able to acquire the coveted Beijing residence permit. He wants to move his parents to the capital and is planning for a family of his own, yet he retains a unique perspective as someone who has achieved much from little.

“I meet a lot of wealthy people in my work. Compared with them, I don’t think I’m wealthy,” says Wang. “Most migrant workers don’t have equal rights to get a chance and choose their lives. I think they need to make their voices be heard.”

More from GlobalPost: The Great Divide: Global income inequality and its cost