Income inequality is something you hear about everyday, it is a real and growing problem around the globe, but it is not always something you think about when you think about China. Since the opening of China back in the 1980’s and it’s unique economic policies of “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” income inequality has exploded. Yes, economic reforms have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, but in a country of 1.5 billion people that still leaves hundreds of millions of citizens in poverty. I live in one of the highrise buildings in the background, the ones with the balconies, central air conditioning and tinted glass windows;they are inhabited by expats and rich Chinese living in 250 – 400 square meter apartments, with ayi’s and drivers, they workout in the health club and swim in the lap pool. They drive Range Rovers and Porsche’s.
In front of those buildings is a typical Chinese neighborhood, or “New Village” as it is often called, six-story blocks of apartments–40 – 80 square meters– with retail shops below and street vendors lining the streets, This is where the ayi’s, the retail store clerks, the shop owners and security guards live, they ride bicycles and electric scooters, they drive the expats around in mini-vans and care for their children. This is the every day China.
My American perception of China, prior to moving here, was firmly rooted in the last century, the ping-pong diplomacy of the 1970’s, the government crackdown on the student unrest of 1989 and the emergence of China as the manufacturing replacement for the United States’ industrial heartland. Despite the growth of China’s new middle-class, the urbanization of its population, the skyrocketing skylines of Chinese cities and the increasing evidence of China’s growing wealth, the mental image of China as an emerging economy, not fully developed, is deeply rooted. Nothing prepared me for the conspicuous wealth on display in Shanghai. Everyone dressed in identical, drab Mao suits? Nope, how about Gucci, Prada, Yves St. Laurent, Hugo Boss and other top designers. A tangled cluster of bicycles filling the streets? Nah, more like Porsche Cayman’s, BMW X5’s, Audi A6’s, Maserati’s and Ferrari’s.
Don’t get me wrong, not everybody is wealthy, or even middle-class, but there are a lot of ultra-wealthy people in Shanghai and they aren’t shy about it.
Shanghai is breaking out in European art this month with the first ever exhibit of Monet in mainland China and an exhibit of Flemish painting titled “Rubens, Van Dayck and the Flemish School of Painting: Masterpieces from the Collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein.” The China Art Museum is hosting the Rubens’ show and it features almost 100 canvases, prints and tapestries and also includes works by Jan de Cock, Quentin Massys and Jacob Jordaens. Admission to the museum is free, but the show has a separate 20 RMB ($3.23 USD) charge. Despite numerous tour buses parked around the museum there was nothing close to resembling a crowd in the former China Pavilion of Expo 2010, at 1,790,000 sq ft of floor space, it is the largest art museum in Asia.
In addition to the Rubens’ show, the China Art Museum has a permanent collection of modern Chinese art that is enough to bring you back time after time, but before I return, I plan on catching the popular “Master of Impressionism: Claude Monet” show on display at the K11 Art Mall (yes, 40 Monet paintings from the Paris Marmottan Monet Museum are being displayed in the basement–Level B3– of a luxury shopping mall, in Shanghai).