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The Hunger Games – eerily similar to China?

June 3, 2011

Okay: obviously, the Chinese government doesn’t take poor children from across the country and pit them against each other in a battle to the death. I make no such claims. But I must say, after reading Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy about a dystopian future America, I was unsettled by the similarity of her world to China, right now.

In the Hunger Games, what used to be America is now Panem, a country where most of the people are very poor – many barely surviving on their poor rations – while an elite lives lavishly in the Capitol, where the totalitarian government reins. The people of Panem each live in a district with a production specialty. The protagonist, Katniss, lives in District 12, the coal mining district. District 1 makes luxury goods, District 3 is the factory hub, District 6 is lumber, District 11 is agriculture, etc.  The districts that make expensive things – like luxury goods and seafood – live more comfortably than those who make cheaper essentials, like agriculture and coal, who basically live in poverty.

In the Capitol, however, people live in the utmost luxury. They eat so much that it’s commonplace to purposefully induce vomiting to allow more eating. They voraciously consume government-produced entertainment (the pinnacle being the Hunger Games, akin to the Roman Games), they are obsessed with fashion, and their lives are full of comforts that all they can worry about are the most superficial things. No one in the Capitol ever has to worry about having enough to eat. The Capitol is a lot like the developed urban West today. And it’s a lot like Shanghai.

Despite the parallels between the lives of those in Collins’s fictional Capitol and my life at home in America, the China parallel stuck out much more clearly because China’s inequality is far worse than America’s. Sure, we have a huge wealth gap; but that’s largely because the rich are so goshdarn rich. In China, it’s much worse, because the gap is due much more to the large number of people still living in poverty.  China’s GDP per capita is $3774.  America’s is $48,989. Check out this chart. Wow.

Meanwhile, most of us in Shanghai live very, very comfortably, and the best off (including most foreigners) live lavishly. Parties late into the night, dining out constantly, shopping all the time, sipping our lattes that cost more than the entire day’s meal budget for most Chinese families.  Who produces all the goods we gorge on here? The people in the inland provinces–like Panem’s Districts. Mongolia does coal. Guangdong does textiles. Yunan makes coffee. And only 25% of rural Chinese families owned a refrigerator. There’s no way they take hot showers on a regular basis.

The difference in lifestyle between those in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangdong, and Shenzhen (China’s richest cities) and the rest of the nation is stark. I know this because of my visit to Henan province last year. I was in a touristy area, but I was still blown away by the dirty, drab, overcrowded cities we drove through. I saw abject poverty–people living in their own filth, begging for food.  I also remember being shocked after  learning about the housing for teachers during my summer at Harvard Beijing Academy. While the pampered American students (like me)  got to stay in air conditioned private rooms, with maid service and private bathrooms, the teachers–most hailing from poorer regions of China–were crowded into tight barrack-like rooms with no air conditioning, and had to walk a block to get to the shared bathroom. I brought two suitcases full of clothes, but most of my teachers only had two or three outfits that they rotated. It’s an entirely different standard of living.

Furthermore, as in the Hunger Games books, many people in China still have barely enough to eat. This is why the accelerated inflation over the last six months has made Beijing absolutely paranoid. They do NOT want an uprising. And like in The Hunger Games, the government suppressed uprising how? With an iron fist. I’m sure you’ve read about the Chinese government’s reaction to uprisings in Tibet and Xinjiang provinces. Or even the crazy over-the-top crackdown on the non-existent revolution named after a flower inspired by the Middle East (I’m still careful not to type our the name here).

Granted, I should be fair to China’s government: over the past 30 years, millions of people have been lifted out of actual poverty. Since the Mao days, everyone’s lives are getting better as the country gets richer. Few are actually starving to death, whereas millions did under Mao. Things are getting better.

But the truth is, most of China’s new wealth has gone to the big coastal cities (China’s Capitol), and most of the people in the countryside and migrant workers live lives in stark contrast to the wealthier members of society. Lives without the basic comforts and securities people in the cities have come to expect. They don’t have clean water (factory pollution is a huge problem). Often, they don’t have running water. Few can afford to buy a car.

Meanwhile, China’s number of millionaires is growing faster than anywhere in the world, as is its market for luxury goods, high priced real estate, and Bordeaux wine. The wealth is very highly concentrated at the top. The government is fully aware of the widening income gap, and the problems it presents.  Recently, Beijing cracked down on luxury ads in the city, not wanting to draw such public attention to the income gap.

The government is so afraid of rebellion that, in reaction to recent uprisings in Mongolia, Beijing pledged a huge amount of money to go towards development of the region and preservation of its culture. They also cracked down heavily on protest–but the greedy Capitol in The Hunger Games would have reacted much, much more harshly in such a situation, and never, ever would have pledged more investment to appease protesters.

The saddest part is, I know that the parallels between The Hunger Games and the developing world are much, much scarier in other parts of the world, like war-torn sub-Saharan Africa. People really are starving to death, and tearing each other to bloody shreds, while fat cats in government live exorbitantly luxurious lifestyles of the backs of the practically ensalved populace.

China isn’t nearly as bad. At least there’s relative peace. But how much oppression is that peace and harmony (and efficient infrastructure building) really worth? Before reading The Hunger Games, I thought it was worth a lot, and underrated by people in the west. Now?  I don’t know anymore.

I’m becoming more and more disillusioned with the benefits of authoritarian government, and I suspect that the income gap problem will persist until there’s a major change in government. I don’t think it necessarily will happen through revolution (in fact, I really hope it doesn’t), but it needs to happen.  One day at a time.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Becker Cheng permalink
    June 3, 2011 5:58 am

    Very interesting read. I am a very loyal fan to Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy and have thought about similar comparisons to the real word.

    The survival skills learned and cultures practiced in the rural lands/districts is more beneficial towards humanity than the media-controlled citizens of the “capitols”.

    Thank you for the article.

  2. Sonja permalink
    July 20, 2011 1:45 pm

    omg i had the same feeling!!!

  3. March 31, 2012 10:43 am

    According to the CIA factbook the US has a GINI coefficent of 45 compared to China’s 48 which means that income inequality is pretty close to 45 degrees, 45 degrees means perfect income equality. Now if your talking about standard of living? Then the US would be better off than China for sure. You have to realize that for China to ensure the maximum amount of employment for its enormous population, it has to sacrifice the pay of its workers. Why do you think everything is made in China?

    A majority of the products around you is probably made on the backs for hardworking chinese workers to satisfy the US standard of living.

  4. June 18, 2012 2:01 pm

    Just watched the movie in the theater here in China, and it was a bit surreal. Can’t believe they screened that here. Should be interesting to watch what happens with the two sequels.

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