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Contrasting China

Contrasting China is a lesson exploring the growing divide between rural and urban, between rich and poor

Key questions

What are the working conditions for the people living and working in the cities?

What is life like for the farmers still working on the land?

What can the government do to make sure that everyone has a good standard of living and access to the basic services?

Although China had an estimated GDP of US$5,300 per capita in 2007 this does not mean a high income for all and 250 million Chinese people still live on less than US$1 a day.

Standards of living vary greatly in China. Many Chinese people in the country still live a life of subsistence farming unchanged for hundreds of years - 300 million people in rural China have no access to safe water and nearly 800 million have seen no improvement in sanitation and hygiene in recent years. Since 1995 more than 100 million peasants have left their villages for China's cities, looking for work.

The working and living conditions for many migrant workers are poor. They work long hours - around 54 hours a week - on wages around US$150 a month in cities where the cost of living is increasing rapidly. They often live in dormitories provided by the companies sleeping four or five to a room. Many migrants face specific problems of discrimination, difficulty accessing schools for their children and access to social insurance. They often live in cramped housing situations where diseases such as tuberculosis can easily spread, creating public health risk. Also, because a large portion of migrants are men who, in some cases, have relations with sex workers, they are more highly susceptible to sexually transmitted disease. Migrant workers accounted for some 80% of Beijing's new HIV cases in 2006. The average employee stays for an average of two years, sending money home before they themselves return. Chinese factories can lose between five and 50 % of their workforce in a year.

The economic revolution has however also created a new wealthy ‘middle-class'. According to the latest Forbes Rich List (2007), China had 66 billionaires, the second largest number after the United States which had 415. The newly wealthy are creating a huge consumer market in China demanding the latest gadgets and fashions. In 2007 the number of internet users in the country reached 210 million, up by more than 50% on the previous year. With over half a billion mobile-phone users, China has more subscribers than America, Japan, Germany and Britain combined.

The economic disparity between urban China and the rural hinterlands is among the largest in the world and has formed an economic-cultural-social gap between the rural and urban areas, which is a major division in Chinese society.


What things do you and you family expect to have in order to have a reasonable standard of living?

  • Be safe at home and work?

  • Have your own bedroom?

  • Access to medicine if you are ill?

  • Be able to rest, watch TV or text friends?

  • Be able to have three meals a day?

  • Be able to shower or take bath?

  • Go to the toilet whenever you need to?

  • Have a drink of something whenever you feel thirsty?

Main Activity

You have already seen some of the benefits of economic growth in China for the new urban middle classes but there is a contrasting life in China.

There is a growing gap emerging between the rich and the poor and this is having an effect on society.

In groups discuss and summarise who is benefiting from economic change and which groups of people are being left behind.

Concept map examples

Create a ‘concept map' which looks at the factors affecting standards of living and try to create links between these factors.


In your group decide:

Would it be better for the majority of people to live in the cities or to remain in the countryside? Which would make it easier for the government to look after their needs?

Report back to the whole class your justification.