One of the fun things about living in China, is that there are very few questions that are considered off-limits (less fun when they are asking you), so I make the most of it and dive right into the personal lives of complete strangers (much to my modest wife’s embarrassment).
One of the first questions I get when I start chatting with a stranger is about my salary, I think it’s more out of a curiosity of American life, than actually caring about how rich or poor I am. Through these exchanges the last few years I’ve managed to get a pretty good picture of how wages vary throughout China.
I remember being surprised at how eager students were in Longzhou (a tiny, middle of nowhere town) to get a part-time job that paid 3rmb/hour (~$.35) handing out fliers for China Mobile for a few hours in front of a supermarket. Jobs like that were hard to come by in Longzhou, and most of the students settled for something that was steadier, but might only pay 2rmb/hour (~$.23).
The students who headed to the big cities (Mostly Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Dongguan) didn’t fair much better over the summer. Even working in a mobile phone factory (placing the screen into the case) only paid 7rmb/hour (~$1), but at the end of the month the company took food and rent (for the tiny factory dorm) out of the paychecks, leaving students with only about 4rmb/hour (~$.47). After an entire summer of working 60 hours a week, one student had only saved a few hundred dollars (This is the student Celia mentioned here).
Many of them weren’t too excited about becoming teachers either, even though it is considered a good job in China. For most of them, it had been their parents’ idea. When asked they always pointed to the fact that it was a safe job (as a teacher you would have to work at it to get fired). The pay however for a rural middle school teacher is miserable. On average it’s about 1,500rmb/month (~$200), and they are required to be at the school 12 hours a day, 6 days a week to monitor the students’ studies.
This isn’t to say that this is typical of all jobs in China, I have a few students who have managed to avoid the assembly line and now make 2-3,000rmb/month (~$3-400) making sales on commission.
So it’s pretty strange to now be working in a hospital in a large city, where the salaries are much higher. I discovered, after hearing about a few luxury shopping sprees (one dr. bought a couple Rolexes, and another bought four Gucci bags), that some of the doctors in key positions are making well over 100,000rmb/year. Their income is a combination of salary (25%), gifts for performing operations (25%), and kickbacks for prescribing certain medications (50%).
All of this is to say that China is a land of growing inequality (already surpassing that found in the US). Deng Xiaoping (the leader after Mao) said, “To get rich is glorious,” and “Some should be allowed to get rich first.” It will be interesting to see what methods the gov’t uses over the next few years to try to convince the public to wait their turn.
update: New story from People’s Daily shows Average wage for migrant worker is 1,690rmb/month
Update Oct. 26, 2011 – Latest information shows that the highest minimum wage is in Guangdong province, and is 1,320RMB per month.
Update, April 5, 2012 – “Data from the National Bureau of Statistics of China showed that average income for urban residents was 1,998 yuan a month in 2011.” People’s Daily