BEIJING – In June, a Chinese friend of mine who grew up in the northern industrial city of Shenyang and recently graduated from university moved to Beijing to follow his dream -- working for a media company. He has a full-time job, but the entry-level pay isn't great and it's tough to make ends meet. When we had lunch recently, he brought up his housing situation, which he described as "not ideal." He was living in a three-bedroom apartment split by seven people, near the Fourth Ring Road -- the outer orbit of the city. Five of his roommates were young women who went to work each night at 11 p.m. and returned around 4 a.m. "They say they are working the overnight shift at Tesco," the British retailer, but he was dubious. One night he saw them entering a KTV Club wearing lots of makeup and "skirts much shorter than my boxers" and, tellingly, proceeding through the employee entrance. "So they are prostitutes," he concluded. "I feel a little uncomfortable."
But when he tallied his monthly expenses and considered his lack of special connections, or guanxi, in the city, either to help boost his paycheck or to find more comfortable but not more expensive housing, he figured he'd stick out the grim living situation. "I have come here to be a journalist -- it is my goal, and I do not want to go back now. But it seems like it's harder than it used to be."
When I asked how his colleagues and former classmates were getting along, he thought about it for a moment and then replied that some were basically in the same lot as him, "but many of my friends have parents in Beijing, and they can save money to live with them. If your family is already established here, it helps a lot." After a moment, he added: "And some of them have rich parents who have already bought them their own apartments -- and cars."
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Despite China's astonishing economic growth, it has gotten harder for people like my friend to get by in the big city. His is not a particularly lucrative profession. Like many in Beijing, he cannot count on his annual pay to keep pace with China's official rates of inflation -- which many economists suspect are lowballed anyway. (The consumer-price-index inflation rate is considered so sensitive that the State Council approves it before it is released publicly.) Even so, every month this year consumer-price-index inflation has exceeded the official average monthly target of 4 percent. Last month state media hailed it as good news that it was, officially, just 4.2 percent.
Anyone in Beijing can point to examples of friends who see rents hiked 10 percent or more in one year. The prices at restaurants keep going up, even as portions are getting noticeably smaller. Throw in the loss of intangibles that money can't buy -- like air quality and food safety -- and you begin to understand the grumbling among some of Beijing's non-wealthy folks that their standard of living seems to be diminishing, even as the national GDP surges ahead at a heady 9 percent.
Could it possibly be true that a swath of people in China's big cities is downwardly mobile, if one compared wages with living expenses? I asked Patrick Chovanec, an associate professor at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management in Beijing. Alas, he told me, it's difficult to find much clarification in China's famously fudgeable official statistics. (For instance, the official unemployment rate only includes individuals with urban hukous, or permanent residency permits -- which excludes the most economically vulnerable.) Still, he noted: "If you perceive that you're losing buying power -- or have rising but unmet expectations -- that's when people get upset.… And this country, for a country growing at over 9 percent, is in a foul mood."
Indeed, there is a palpable sense of frustration in Beijing, especially compared with the last time I lived here in 2008. You can see it on the dour faces on the metro, hear it in raspy voices at dinner conversations, and especially sense it in the new gruffness of taxi drivers, who no longer think ferrying people around town for 10 yuan, about $1.60, is such a good deal for them (their base fare hasn't been raised). Still, it's hard to rage against abstractions. It's a lot easier to fume at obnoxious people.
No wonder, then, that in 2011 the Chinese media and Sina Weibo (China's version of Twitter) buzzed nearly every month with salacious reports of China's Paris Hilton-types -- the sons and daughters of the wealthy and political elite, dangling opulent accessories and impoverished judgment -- behaving badly in BMWs and Audis and typically expecting to get away with it, to boot.