It’s just that we can’t see them – reflections on class and poverty

This is the 1510 Digest, a weekly roundup of recent essays and articles published on the Chinese web, with links to translations on the Marco Polo Project.

Over the last thirty years, along with remarkable economic development, China has seen the gap between rich and poor increase widely. But how do these statistics translate into daily life and experiences?
Today’s digest proposes two pieces that consider the impact of this distance as it applies to the individual. Hong Kong University lecturer Zhou Baosong offers a philosophical reflection on the Evils of poverty by conjuring up the figure of a struggling ‘Mr Zhang’; a post by ‘W’, a Chinese student in America, shows a young person’s perspective on the question of class.

It’s just that we can’t see them
By W, 21 November 2012

This post circulated on Douban proposes a reflection on class from the perspective of a young Chinese woman now living overseas. In her university class, she sees an American reality TV show where minor celebrity do the work of ‘normal people’. One of these celebrities, whose task is to go work at Wal-Mart for a day, asks the host: “What is Wal-Mart?”. W. interprets this question as a clear example of class difference: more than a difference in wealth and income, it is the distinction between people who live in radically different worlds, and do not share common references.
In contrast, W. recalls her childhood as a time when people were all the same: some were slightly richer or poorer, but everyone had roughly similar lives; and the word ‘class struggle’, repeated everywhere, did not make much sense to her then. She grew up in a provincial city, not far from the country where she went at New Year, and was punished for mocking her country cousins or finding them dirty.
W’s first real memory of a clear difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ came as she grew older, when Mc Donald’s or KFC had been around for a while, and she saw people from the country queue up to them, as if they were something exceptional. She particularly remembers her feeling of alienation when once, in Beijing, a migrant worker complained that the Chicken McNugget’s he’d been given were smaller than those on the picture. But now that she lives overseas, studying philosophy, she acknowledges that her life has drifted away from that of her childhood friends, who are slowly becoming ‘them’ as well.
By way of contrast, she also tells a story of experiencing class alienation herself. When she was in college, she stayed with wealthy friends of her parents. One evening, they organised a party for their daughter who studied overseas. At the party, W met people with a completely different outlook on the world, and experienced a radical feeling of alienation.
To conclude, she wonders whether children growing up in China today will be able to relate across society like she used to – but also mentions class encounters as an area Chinese writers should look into for inspiration.

Marco Polo translation: It’s just that we can’t see them
Original link: 只是我们见不到

The evil of poverty
By Zhou Baosong, 07 December 2012

In this piece, political philosopher Zhou Baosong questions the liberalist assumption that the State should not intervene to alleviate poverty, arguing that poverty actually reduces people’s freedom, and that this is not just.
To do so, he conjures up an imaginary character, Mr Zhang. Mr Zhang was a good worker in a factory that laid him off; since then, he has been unable to find stable employment and, as a result, his daughter has had to drop off from school and his old mother can’t get proper medical attention. At great length, Zhou Baosong describes the sufferings of ‘Mr Zhang’ and his family – before stating that these people are not abstractions, that their suffering is real, and that the State should do something to alleviate it.
In the second half of the text, he questions the assumption that the sufferings of Mr Zhang’s family directly result from their own actions, and are therefore aligned with the logic of the market, rational and just. He looks, in particular, at the situation of Mr Zhang’s daughter, who does not have access to equal education, and therefore starts in life below the children of richer parents. This, he said, is an evil to be seen in mainland China, less so in Hong Kong.
To conclude, Zhou Baosong asserts he neither rejects the market not offers a solution, but simply encourages readers to acknowledge that the sufferings of the poor are unjust, and that something should be done to alleviate them.

Marco Polo translation: The evil of poverty
Original link: 貧窮之惡

All articles in this digest and a large range of other Chinese readings are accessible at Some are available in English, French and Spanish translation. (You can join the project if you’d like to help with translations.)

Danwei is an affiliate of the Australian Centre on China in the World at The Australian National University. This posting is a result of one project that is part of that on-going collaboration.

The China Story, China Heritage Quarterly and East Asian History are publications of the Australian Centre on China in the World.

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