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China's people love capitalism, but hate inequality. That's bad news for the government.

A woman walks by a man begging in Shanghai in 2012.
A woman walks by a man begging in Shanghai in 2012.
(Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

The contradiction between China's officially communist government and its capitalist economy is, at this point, cliche. But the attitudes of the Chinese people towards the country's growing capitalism reveal some interesting things about how that contradiction plays out. Chinese views of capitalism turn out to be, in one important way, more positive than American views — but Chinese citizens are also deeply concerned about growing inequality as a symptom of capitalism's rise. This contradiction is a problem for all capitalist societies, of course, but poses some unique challenges for China's Communist Party's leadership.

The new data comes from the Pew Global Attitudes Survey, which asked people in about 40 countries whether "most people are better off in a free market economy, even though some are poor and some are rich." The chart below shows the results for China, the United States, Germany, the UK, and the median result among the remaining countries in the survey:

china capitalism survey pew

By a 58 point margin, Chinese citizens think free markets end up helping more people despite the inequality they cause. The figure in the US is 45 points, and the global median is 37 points. China has one of the rosiest views of capitalism's benefits in the world.

Despite the Chinese Communist Party's rhetoric, this shouldn't be very surprising. China's capitalist economic reforms over the past 35 years have been the single greatest anti-poverty campaign in human history. In 2010, about 577 million fewer Chinese citizens were living in poverty than in 1981. Meanwhile, in the West, the wealthiest individuals got fabulously richer, while middle- and lower-class incomes remained relatively stagnant. On that metric, the past few decades of capitalism have been way better for China than they have for the most of the developed world.

That's not the whole story, though.

elderly woman shanghai communal toilet

An elderly woman heads to a communal toilet in an impoverished Shanghai in 2013. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

Though China's growth has been, broadly speaking, good for the country's poorest, Chinese citizens are becoming increasingly concerned about growing inequality. The growth of the Chinese economy has sent inequality skyrocketing — by one measure, inequality is significantly more severe in China than it is in the United States.

That's becoming a big concern in China. Pew's Katie Simmons reports that 42 percent of Chinese citizens think inequality is a "very big issue." 46 percent of Americans said the same — and inequality is one of the most important issues in American politics.

As the below chart shows, a plurality of Pew's Chinese respondents blame their government's policies for the wealth gap:

chinese survey pew quote inequality

There's truth to that. "The rapid rise in income inequality in China can be partly attributed to long-standing government development policies that effectively favor urban residents over rural residents and favor coastal, more developed regions over inland, less developed regions," David Zhou, a PhD student at the University of Michigan and coauthor of a study on rising Chinese inequality, said.

This is a real problem for China. The past view years have seen a spate of low-level social unrest — protests, riots, strikes, and the like. While in part this surely has to do with the rise of social media and other outlets for organizing, as well as the sense of civic participation that often comes with urbanization and a growing middle class, these protests are arguably tied to the growth in inequality as well. In 1993, there were about 8,700 "disturbances" — the official name for protests, riots, and the like — in China. By 2010, the figure was 180,000Nargiza Salidjanova, an analyst at the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, links this to growing inequality.

So while Chinese citizens broadly think the transition to capitalism has been worth it, there's real anger about the rising inequality that's accompanied by it. It's a major problem for the Chinese Communist Party going forward — and it's one among many.

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