“From the Gold Rush to the Property Rush: Poor Chinese” – Musings from an Australian Perspective

A village near Wanning, Hainan, January 2015


“’Rich’ and ‘poor’ are relative terms, of course. Australians are unlikely to meet Chinese people who are living below the poverty threshold. Such people do not have enough money to travel here for a holiday or to study, and they certainly do not have the money to invest in Australian property. In this sense, all the Chinese people you meet in Australia are rich.”

So says Barry Li in his recently published book The New Chinese: How They Are Changing Australia. There’s certainly a sad truth to it that is of course applicable to all countries and nations – you are unlikely to meet America’s or India’s or Canada’s poorest unless you travel to their country. And as I discussed in my previous post about Rich Chinese, China’s poor are more likely to be living in the western inland parts of the country, not in the developed, eastern seaboard cities that most travellers are likely to go. If you do make it out to those undeveloped areas (many do, in their search for landscapes, authenticity and culture), it is still hard to judge ‘what is poor’. Not only do you have to deal with currency conversions, cost of living, your own opinion of ‘poor’, but crucially those people’s opinion of ‘poor’. Perhaps you see them as poor, but from their perspective in comparison to others they know, they are rich. Or perhaps they put on a welcome display for you, portraying the perspective of rich when in reality their debts and loans are un-repayable.

It’s hard to discuss Chinese poverty while sitting far away in Sydney. What can I know about the extent of it? How can I ever know what it’s truly like? I’ve recently re-read Li Cunxin’s Mao’s Last Dancer, his autobiography of his transformation from child of rural Shandong peasants, to international ballet star. It means a lot more to me now, than it did when I first read it in early high school, because the places he mentions, the food, the city life he describes I can relate a lot more to now, now having been to China a few times. I have seen communes like the one he grew up in, still lived in, the water pump at the centre still the only running water. But this doesn’t mean at all that I understand the life of a ‘poor Chinese’, only that – by Australian standards – it still very much exists.

The ‘poor Chinese’ that Barry Li discusses are not ones within China, but those outside. Because he’s already said that the Chinese outside of China are inherently rich, this means he is talking about the ‘less rich of the rich’ group. This is still difficult to place within an Australian ‘rich-poor’ context. Li (Barry) places himself in this group; he estimates that he earns 10-20 times less than his accountant peers currently in China who were in China during the economic boom. He laments missing out on China’s incredible growth during 2000-2010, and not being able to afford the ‘new China’ when he returned in 2010. Upon returning to Australia to his “normal middle-class life”, he becomes frustrated by being out-priced again, citing his inability to bid above 1.6million AUD at a North Sydney property auction. Losing the auction to not another local Chinese family, but a Chinese family financially backed by familial networks who capitalised on the economic boom, make him “feel poor” and “realise the unfairness” of being unable to “afford the perfect house for my children to grow in”.

I may not be the right person to critique these words; as an Australian millennial homeownership is consistently in the news and Sydney is forever being told to us as impossible. In my opinion of Australian standards, being able to even consider being at an auction for a $1.6million does not class you as ‘poor’. But perhaps more importantly, as Australians, we underestimate the wealth of China and Chinese, if someone from this background who is unable to afford something at this price does consider themselves to be at the lower economic end.


Photo taken in Wanning, Hainan, January 2015. Not a photographer – just going through the photos I have and finding a new purpose for them.