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Last Updated: Monday, 7 March, 2005, 17:17 GMT
Building the well-off society

By Paul Mason
Business Correspondent, Newsnight

Paul Mason views the growing social inequality in China from the kitchens of a massive fish restaurant in Tianjin.

Waitresses in line at Jincaiching Restaurant
Jincaicheng Restaurant, with 700 staff, is the biggest in Tianjin
The local nickname for the Jincaicheng Restaurant is "The Aircraft Carrier". With 220 tables, 700 staff and 27,000 square metres of floor space, it is the biggest restaurant in Tianjin.

It's designed to cater for a wide range of customers - from working class families on a big night out, to China's new elite.

It is the perfect place to observe the new class structure of China and we spent time behind the scenes with three people whose lives revolve around the business.

Yang Ming, Trainee Waitress

Yang Ming, Trainee Waitress
Some girls stay in the village all their life until they get married. I don't want that kind of life
Yang Ming
It was the household chores Yang Ming didn't like. On her grandmother's farm she used to draw water from the well, collect the firewood and watch the cows.

Now she has swapped farm clothes for a waitress' uniform - and the eight rooms of the family farm for a bunk bed in Tianjin, China's third biggest city. She lives in a dorm with 29 other young women and earns 300 Yuan a month: that is just 20.

She has no intention of going back. She told me: "Living in the village restricts what you see and learn. Some girls stay in the village all their life until they get married. I don't want that kind of life."

She's travelled 2,000km from Hainan Province, an island in China's deep south. In Tianjin everything is different: the temperature is sub-zero, the food is heavy, the customers brash: "We didn't even know what the hand-dryers in the loo were for," she laughs.

"It was a bit hard to adapt to the discipline. At first we had to ask permission to leave the restaurant. And time off was limited. The management were worried about our safety - especially because we're women and we're not used to the city. But as time's gone by we've settled down: now we have one day off a week."

Yang Ming's journey from the farm to the city is one that 140m Chinese peasants have made already. Migrants are now a major force within the Chinese workforce - they make up 600 out of the 700 workers at Jincaicheng Restaurant where Yang Ming lives and works.

By the time China's market reforms are complete, 300m more will have hit the road. As long as they keep coming, at the rate of 10m a year, those on the bottom rung of the employment ladder will, like Yang Ming, have to work for next to nothing.

Mu Xing Ha, Head Chef, Second Kitchen

Mu Xing Ha, Head Chef, 2nd kitchen
They're demanding top quality ingredients for every dish, and they're trying different kinds of cuisine
Mu Xing Ha
For Mu Xing Ha, head chef in one of the restaurant's three main kitchens, life is getting sweeter all the time. He's 35 and he's been a chef since he left school. The market reforms have globalised the tastes of the clientele and the sources of the fish: forget the fish market - he does his wholesale buying now at the airport.

"Before customers came to the restaurant just to eat. Just to fill in their stomachs with food. They didn't want vegetables or seafood much. Nowadays, customers are choosing a variety of food to meet their tastes. They're ordering meat, seafood, vegetables, and salad etc. They're demanding top quality ingredients for every dish, and they're trying different kinds of cuisine."

When he started, in the 1980s, the most a chef could earn was 600 Yuan a month. Now he earns 6,000 - 20 times the wages of a waitress, and he's only half way up the management hierarchy.

It's a wage gap that illustrates one of the most pressing problems for China's rulers - while GDP per person is rising, the country is now one of the most unequal on earth.

Ma Ya Cui, Chief Executive

Ma Ya Cui, Chief Executive
My philosophy's to be loyal to the Party, because I am a senior manager. I also have to be loyal to the company
Ma Ya Cui
Ma Ya Cui's income, as Chief Executive, is undisclosed. From the look of her loft-style apartment in the city's new waterfront development zone, it is safe to assume it's a lot higher than the chef's.

Mrs Ma is not a classic entrepreneur: she's been appointed manager of the restaurant by TEDA, the state owned investment group that set up the restaurant last year, on premises left vacant by a failed, state-backed department store. Before the restaurant she helped run TEDA's hotel, and its football team.

"I've been involved in state-run businesses for the past 20 years," she says. "My philosophy's to be loyal to the Party, because I am a senior manager. I also have to be loyal to the company. In other words, my mottoes are loyalty and obedience."

Whatever else this is, it's not free market capitalism.

The wealth gap is growing fast in China. According to the World Bank, it's among the most unequal societies on earth. Social unrest is rising too - though it rarely makes the official media outlets.

Last year, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences warned: "The growing wealth gap is an important factor leading to social and political instability."

So China's economic policy is now being tweaked to make sure that more than just the new elite gets a chance to enjoy what the Communist Party calls the "well-off society".

China's rising wealth effect is being generated not just by market reforms but by massive state intervention and cheap money. It's created a kind of social escalator - it moves faster at the top than at the bottom, but once you're on it, for now, the only way is up.

The problem is, two thirds of China's population haven't even got a foot on the bottom step. And no one wants to contemplate what might happen if it should ever stop.

Paul Mason's film will be broadcast by Newsnight on Monday, 7 March, 2005.

Newsnight is broadcast every weekday at 10.30pm on BBC Two in the UK.

Newsnight was 25 on 30 January, 2005. Click on the link on the right-hand side of this page for more on the show's history.

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