Migrant workers on the worksite in China. Image available at Wikimedia Commons under CC license.

Warnings over income inequality have been a regular theme in Chinese politics over the past two decades, as rapid economic growth has turned the country and economic powerhouse but widened the gap between the richest and the poorest. One measure of inequality constantly reported and debated over the years has been the Gini coefficient, a statistic measuring the amount of inequality that exists in a population on a scale from 0 to 1, with a number closer to 1 indicating a greater level of inequality.

No country should hope for a high Gini index ranking. But as news of China’s Gini coefficient was shared across the internet last month, quoting a State Council adviser, the statistic was turned on its head, interpreted by some as an indicator of the country’s growing global prowess.  

The confusion apparently originated with a September 25 online report from Beijing Business Daily (北京商报), a newspaper published by the Beijing Daily Newspaper Group, directly under the capital city’s municipal committee of the Chinese Communist Party. That story bore the headline: “State Council Adviser Tang Min: China’s Gini Coefficient Tops Global Rankings With Income Disparity Rather High” (国务院参事汤敏: 中国基尼系数在世界排名靠前, 收入差距较高).

In the story, shared across a number of websites and social media accounts, Tang Min (汤敏), an economist formerly with the Development Research Center (DRC) of the State Council and a frequent commentator on social entrepreneurship, was quoted as saying that “from a global perspective, China’s Gini coefficient ranks highly, and our level of income disparity is regarded as quite high in the world.” But despite Tang’s clear suggestion that income disparity was an issue China needed to grapple with, the story’s headline led to some confusion.   

When the Beijing Business Daily story was shared on September 26 on Douyin, the Chinese video sharing site, by “Hefei Transport Radio” (合肥交通广播), a local FM radio station in the capital of Anhui province, the misinterpretation of Tang Min’s remarks in the story’s headline led to a bewildering chorus of patriotic shouting. The news was taken to suggest that China was in a leading position globally.

A screenshot of coverage of Tang Min’s remarks on the Gini coefficient and inequality as shared by “Hefei Transport Radio” on social media on September 26.

“We’re in the front of the rankings,” one user wrote. “When I see how excellent the motherland is, I feel at ease. Thanks!”

Immediately below, another user wrote simply: “Thanks to the motherland!”

“Our mother country is getting stronger and stronger,” another commented.

User comments on the Tang Min headline about China’s high Gini coefficient.

The Douyin post quickly gathered more than 16 thousand comments, and many netizens continued to voice their excitement at the apparent fact that China’s Gini coefficient ranked highly, a sign – or so they thought – of rising prosperity for all.

“China is the world’s number one,” one user wrote beside a string of fighting spirit emoticons.

Another, with three thumbs up emoticons, wrote: “I feel proud of our motherland as it is out front of the global rankings.”

More user comments on the Tang Min headline about China’s high Gini coefficient, posted to China’s Douyin platform.

On October 6, the WeChat official account Guibo (鬼波) posted a rundown of this mistaken outpouring of nationalist emotion, including screenshots of many of the thousands of comments. The post was called, “Some [Users] Make a Huge Joke as They Express ‘Patriotic’ Feelings.” The author wrote:

It is not wrong to go to praise the motherland when you see it is strong and making progress, and this is a positive expression of patriotism. But if, as they express their patriotic feeling, people do not bring along their brains along, they risk becoming a laughingstock.

The news of Tang Min’s misunderstood remarks naturally also prompted ridicule from internet users who accused their compatriots of being fatuous nationalists. On Weibo, these prematurely patriotic internet users were likened to willing “leeks,” or jiucai (韭菜), a reference to the internet slang “cutting leeks” (割韭菜), which is synonymous with constant exploitation by greedy companies, or by a government that demands constant sacrifice.

“The proper way of thinking we see from a leek is that it gets excited when the sickle draws near,” read one Weibo post on October 8, referring to the Gini coefficient story and the willingness of some to submit so quickly to ideas of national glory that might actually support their exploitation. A user commenting below the post quoted from the 20th century Chinese writer Lin Yutang (林语堂): “There is a certain kind of person in China, at the very bottom of society, with their rights constantly trampled upon, who maintains the ideas of the ruling class, and everywhere defends the ruling class. Look for such weak-minded creatures in the animal kingdom and you could not find them.”

A Weibo post on October 8, 2021, shares comments from web users praising China for its world-topping Gini coefficient, referring to them as “leeks.”

Discussions of income inequality and China’s Gini coefficient come as the direction of China’s future economic development has been a major topic of discussion. Back in August, Xi Jinping renewed calls at a meeting of the senior commission responsible for economic coordination for “common prosperity,” or gongtong fuyu (共同富裕), a push to address income inequality through greater state control of the economy and society, and through exerting moral and political pressure on businesses and wealthy tycoons to give back in support of the general welfare.

China says the push for “common prosperity” will be the main objective of longer-term development goal, as narrowing the widening wealth gap is a crucial part of its economic (and political) blueprint. At the core of

the concept of “common prosperity” is the idea that a more equitable Chinese society requires a larger and more prosperous middle class. But there are also fears that a heavy-handed and populist approach to addressing the income inequality challenge could dampen investment and innovation, or even mark a slide backward toward the leftist politics of the 1960s and 70s.

Income inequality has continued to be a major issue in China, and many young Chinese have despaired over the lack of prospects for strong jobs and social mobility today. The Economist reported earlier this month that China’s Gini coefficient stood at 0.465.

Stella Chen

CMP Senior Researcher

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