Tea Leaf Nation

A Peculiar Phrase Finds a Home in China

Frustration at 'Catch-22's' are a common part of life here.

BEIJING — For those Chinese who have carried their tales of woe for hundreds of miles and suffered numerous bureaucratic setbacks, this seems like mockery. On April 23, China passed a new law banning petitioners from taking grievances to the central government without first trying to resolve them with local officials, even though the petitioning system, which dates back to imperial times, is supposed to allow individuals to appeal directly to higher authorities when they bump up against local bureaucracy. This latest restriction, with the ostensible goal of "streamlining the petitioning system," all but extinguishes the last hope for many desperate for a sympathetic ear from above. In fact, the petitioning system is blinkered enough that Wang Lin, a law professor at Hainan University, called it a judicial "Catch-22" in a September 2011 essay published in popular newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily.

Over time, public frustration in China with smothering red tape has helped popularize a decades-old U.S. concept. In the 1961 classic Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, a U.S. military regulation stipulates that a pilot is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions; but if he makes a formal request to be removed from duty, he is proven sane and therefore ineligible to be relieved. The term Catch-22 has long since become U.S. slang for an absurd and self-defeating rule; now, perhaps as a sign of the times, it is entering Chinese slang as well. A recent search on Baidu, China's largest search engine, found over 4.9 million mentions of the term, which literally translates as "military rule clause 22."

While, for outside observers, the abuse of Chinese authority implicates high-flying officials and gargantuan sums -- on March 30, Reuters reported that Chinese authorities seized $14.5 billion worth of assets from family members and associates of Zhou Yongkang, China's former top security official -- most Chinese do not experience the wantonness of power as attention-grabbing headlines. For a petitioner lining up outside Beijing's State Bureau of Letters and Calls (the highest rung in the petitioning ladder), or a newspaper editor grappling with the baffling intention of the latest censorship directive, or a migrant worker sifting through layers of bureaucratese to decipher the conditions he must fulfill to gain an urban residency status, a different culprit bedevils daily life: the onerous laws and nonsensical policies baked into many forms of Chinese social control.

According to a report by China Central Television, China's state-owned television channel, the average Chinese citizen needs to procure 103 permits and licenses over his or her lifetime. In many cases, these permits seem intended more to elicit denial than consent. Take the country's convoluted reform of hukou, a household registration system that controls in-country migration. In April 2010, the southern city of Kunming released a draft regulation that forbade employers from hiring migrants who did not hold a residency permit there. Yet in order to obtain the permit, the regulation decreed, a migrant must first hold a steady job. With its circuitous logic, the regulation would have essentially banned millions of migrants from settling in the city. It ignited a fierce public outcry, prompting newspaper editorials with headlines such as, "Does Kunming have its own version of Catch-22?" City authorities eventually revised the regulation in its official version the following year, granting migrants a short window between finding housing and employment and applying for a residency permit.

In another case, the Fengtai district government in Beijing ruled in March 2011 that individuals under collective residency status -- a type that registers one under a school or company as opposed to under one's own name -- were not allowed to purchase apartments in that district. Affected citizens were incensed, pointing out that according to existing law, an apartment is required before one is eligible to convert a collective residency status to an independent one. Even Xinhua, the Communist Party's official wire service, condemned the policy, calling it "a Catch-22-style ruse" in an editorial, and wondered if "certain uninformed officials pulled it out of their heads." The government later rescinded the restriction under public pressure, though it still excluded those registered under their schools -- namely, recent Beijing college graduates from other provinces -- from the ranks of local homebuyers.

The more preposterous of these rules can sometimes undermine their authors. Last summer, China's State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT), a government branch that enforces media censorship, ordered several television channels to curb their evening showings of anti-Japanese dramas centered on World War II, a genre that has come to dominate Chinese television screens in recent years. The government has tried to rein in these shows, the cartoonish characters and implausible plots of which have become the subject of derision among Chinese audiences and a source of embarrassment for propaganda authorities. Producers wryly referred to the order as a "Catch-22." They complained that other draconian SARFT rules, including restrictions on show themes ranging from time-travel to crime investigation to imperial court intrigue -- had created the situation in the first place. "Only anti-Japanese dramas seemed safe, and that's why we all flocked to it," confessed Chen Jialin, head of the Chinese Directors Association, at a conference in June 2013.

Such instances are so common in today's China that they rarely trigger more than a dry laugh from their domestic audience. In a few cases, however, they have made international headlines. Ai Weiwei, China's prominent dissident artist, found himself in a legal quandary in April 2012, when the government charged his company for tax evasion and required him to pay $2.4 million in back tax and penalties. He tried to sue, but Beijing's Chaoyang District court told him that he must first produce the official seal of his company, which in reality had already been confiscated by police, and which Ai had no way of retrieving. Eventually, the court took the case, but rejected his appeal. (A second appeal to a Beijing intermediate court met a similar fate.)

Ai was disappointed, but not surprised, for he understood he was fighting "a losing battle", as he later told CNN. "I'm more aware than ever now that I'm just as vulnerable as most other ordinary people in this country." It is this recognition of indifferent power that grants Catch-22 continuing relevance in modern China. "The many characters in Catch-22 feel like mirrors to the men and women around me," one reader wrote in January, in a review of the novel on Douban, a Chinese website akin to Goodreads. "We sneer at the system, yet we can never escape."

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

Mapping the Four C's of Chinese Wealth

Live in a city near China's coast, and in a capital. (Coal doesn't hurt.)

SHANGHAI — Conversations about China have long stopped asking if decades of breakneck growth have widened the gap between rich and poor. English-language media is now more likely to focus on whether the country's inequality is merely as deplorable as the United States', or if it has already joined Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa to become one of the globe's most socially stratified places. The map below gives a vivid picture of that (click any image to enlarge):

China's inequality is regional, as it is in many large countries. Terms like "wealthy coastal provinces" and "impoverished interior" are now well-worn sayings in any China hand's phrase book. Most English-language discussions of China's regional inequality stop there, or at most focus on differences between the country's 31 provincial-level regions. The risk of overlooking finer-grained trends looms large, given that many Chinese provinces are larger than entire countries in both size and population.

This forms a stark contrast with the United States, where the accessibility of census data and mapping tools has filled the Internet with detailed cartographical exposés on the nation's haves and have-nots. In China the problem is not lack of interest, but a paucity of publicly available digital data; maps as fine-grained as these U.S. county-level ones are a challenge to compile when some of China's data must be downloaded off online gray markets or entered by hand from pricey official statistics books, and the few Chinese maps that are produced rarely cause ripples beyond the Chinese-language Internet. 

The map above attempts to provide a more detailed look at Chinese income inequality by using the 2012 China Statistical Yearbook for Regional Economy, the most recent book of regional data available from the nation's second-largest public library. The Yearbook provides data for China's 300-plus prefectures: subprovincial administrative units covered by a mix of towns and farmland whose largest cities are designated as prefectural seats. The Yearbook also contains separate per capita income data for each prefecture's urban and rural dwellers, but the map combines them into a weighted average based on urbanization rates. (While the rural and urban income metrics differ slightly, they are the most comparable metrics the government produces, and Chinese analysts frequently compare the two when calculating the urban/rural income gap.)

Analyzing China at the prefectural level both confirms and complicates widely held views of the nation's wealth gap. Parts of the coast are indeed above the national average, but many other pockets of wealth lie scattered around the country. How did so many parts of China's supposedly poor interior manage to achieve above-average incomes? Much of China's geographic income gap can actually be explained with a few patterns. Let's call the following list "the four C's" for ending up on the right side of China's regional inequality.

1. Cities:

This ingredient for wealth is likely obvious to those familiar with China's gaping urban-rural divide. The Statistical Yearbook shows that peasant incomes are only about a third of urbanites'. Since this article calculates a prefecture's per capita income as a weighted average of its rural and urban incomes, the level of urbanization will play a huge role in determining whether the prefecture beats the national average, as more urbanized prefectures are weighted more heavily toward higher urban incomes.

It may seem easy to conclude that massive-scale urbanization (such as that proposed by the central government in March 2014) is the key to addressing China's regional inequality. The map below shows this hope may be misplaced. Even when filtering for only urban incomes, China remains a divided place:

Urbanization will undoubtedly help to improve people's lives, but regional inequality has other causes that must be explored as well.

2. Coast:

The coastal advantage is real. Common in most countries, in export-heavy China this phenomenon has been driven by policies that privileged coastal investment and development in the early days of the country's reforms. The growth of factory towns and bustling trading cities has propelled the rise of incomes up and down China's coastal prefectures. Of 53 prefectures abutting the Pacific Ocean, 37 have above-average incomes, and eight of China's 10 richest prefectures sit on the coast.

Despite this, the maps show the term "rich coastal provinces" to be a bit of a misnomer. Zhejiang province is the only coastal province in which every prefecture boasts incomes above the national average -- all of the others have at least a few underperformers. Take Guangdong, regularly considered one of China's richest and most developed provinces. Its wealth is highly concentrated in the industrial metropolises of the Pearl River Delta -- the area where the Pearl River meets the South China Sea -- which is surrounded by a relatively poor hinterland. Census data reveals that Pearl River Delta cities like Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Dongguan combined contain just over half of Guangdong's 100 million residents, meaning that the other half live in underdeveloped outer regions. 

3. Capitals:

China's capitals are almost invariably their province's or region's largest cities by population and economic size. Home to government bureaus and the regional headquarters of state enterprises, they also enjoy well-trained workforces and good infrastructure that make them the first stop for inbound investment. The virtuous cycle of investment and development helps ensure the capitals grow large populations of high-earning urbanites, often making them islands of wealth amid seas of relative poverty.

Even capitals that fail to surpass the national average still maintain an edge over the poor provinces they administer. Every capital is significantly richer than its province's or region's average, ranging from a premium of 11 percent for Fuzhou, capital of Fujian, to Xi'an, whose residents' incomes are nearly double the average of the province of Shaanxi.

4. Coal:

Coal in this case refers not just to coal, but to natural resources more broadly. But coal does explain the most famous example: The city of Ordos, occupying an otherwise desolate patch near the Gobi Desert, has grown rich and urban because it sits on over 10 percent of China's coal reserves. Resources also explain several of the other rich prefectures in otherwise poor areas, such as Karamay in Xinjiang, Baotou in Inner Mongolia, Daqing in Heilongjiang, Golmud in Qinghai, and Panzhihua in Sichuan.

Of course, natural resource abundance alone is not a guarantor of high incomes -- just see coal-rich Shanxi -- but in otherwise poor, sparsely populated areas, it can foster the development of urban mining and service economies that boost the overall economy and raise individual wealth as well. 

Studying China's income gap at the prefectural level is valuable, if for no other reason than it gives a slightly closer glimpse at the contours of Chinese inequality. There may be no guaranteed way to get rich here -- but this data at least shows where the odds are best.

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