How exactly can and should the rich and poor learn to live together? This is a tense and intractable global issue, and it is an even tougher problem for China under its current social conditions. Tensions can be glimpsed in particular over the issue of affordable housing in China. China’s government has recently moved to control the housing market, partly out of economic concerns and partly because sky-high housing prices have generated widespread anger.
Now the city of Wuhan is turning heads with its own somewhat unorthodox answer to closing the housing gap between rich and poor — let rich and poor live together, they say.
According to a policy recently announced by Wuhan’s government, the city will no longer open up areas for the exclusive development of affordable housing. Instead, development projects from now on, whatever their nature, will be required to dedicate a specified proportion of their total development area to affordable and low-rent housing.
The government explained this policy as a way of encouraging rich and poor to live together and benefit equally from public services, including transportation. At the same time, they said, this could help minimize misunderstanding between rich people and poor people.
We can’t say for certain whether this is just an idea right now, or whether there are plans in motion to formalize this policy in actual regulations. In any case, if it is only an idea with nothing concrete behind it, people are likely to shrug it off as lovely but empty rhetoric. However, if it is moving in the direction of actual policy, I hope Wuhan moves quickly to explain the nitty gritty of how it intends to accomplish this.
As an idea, this measure in Wuhan deserves affirmation. It accords nicely with one of the United Nations’ key agendas, which has been to address severe gaps between rich and poor. A number of countries have come out with policies encouraging rich and the poor to live together. In most cases, however, these are just trial programs, and the response of the public on the internet has been of two minds — one dismissing such projects as utopian dreams, the other suspecting they are just acts of public deception.
Many people in China have pointed out that Wuhan’s vision could be achieved only in Switzerland or a few other countries in northern Europe, where general wealth is already a reality and nearly everyone can live in spacious homes. But isn’t it possible that mixing up the rich and the poor in China will result in even greater pressure for the poor?
In the very capitalistic city of Hong Kong, I understand things have been mixed up with some success. I have visited Deep Water Bay area on the west side of Hong Kong Island, where you can find luxurious homes with stunning views of the sea. But I was told there is also affordable public housing in the area. As I understand it, these public estates were constructed because people said: Look, if rich people get to enjoy sea views, why can’t the poor enjoy them too?
A few years back, a well-known real estate developer, Ren Zhiqiang (任志强), said: “It’s quite a normal thing for us to have ‘poor areas’ and ‘rich areas’ right now. Just as we let a few people get rich first,” he said, referring to Deng Xiaoping’s words at the outset of economic reforms three decades ago, “we need to let a few people live in luxury districts first. Only later can we make all places luxury districts.”
Ren’s words prompted a lot of criticism, but this sentiment was echoed by other developers. That’s not surprising. One important strategy of consumerism is to create of a sense of social hierarchy. Once a sense of social hierarchy exists, business people can target the rich with luxury goods at higher prices. This is a logic those who are rich enough to consume luxury products already understand. To their mind, it’s only natural that there should be luxury areas and poor areas. In fact, more distant that poor are, the richer one feels.
This idea in Wuhan is something bright and interesting. But what people are most eager to know is how the government expects to convince real estate developers and the rich of its wisdom. Or, seen the other way around, what concessions will the city of Wuhan have to make to developers and the rich in order to ensure smooth sailing for this policy? As real estate developers are already so mixed up with policy makers in China, there is a very real fear that a fair-looking policy might just open up more and wider loopholes for developers to take advantage of.
We can only wait for the appropriate answers to these questions from the government of Wuhan.
This article appeared originally in China at The Beijing News.