In january, for the purpose of contact tracing, the authorities in Beijing released data on the movements of two people infected with covid-19. A 44-year-old migrant worker with the surname Yue had gone from one construction site to another, visiting nearly 30 over the course of 18 days. He worked odd jobs, supporting a big family. The other was a young white-collar worker, reportedly with the surname Li. She spent the early days of January skiing and browsing in posh shops, such as Dior.
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By many measures inequality in China has improved over the past decade. The gap between rich and poor is still wider than in most advanced countries. But research suggests that Chinese people accept inequality—as long as they feel that working hard will lead to a better life.
The problem is that many Chinese no longer feel that it will. The data suggest that social mobility is slowing, while inequality has grown more conspicuous. The contrasting portraits of Mr Yue and Ms Li, for example, sparked a lively debate online. Whereas a rising China offered people several routes to the middle class, covid-era China has seen some of those paths narrow. Frequent lockdowns, strict controls on movement and a tepid economy have made it harder for Chinese strivers to move up in the world.
The government’s covid policies have hit two groups especially hard. The first is China’s nearly 300m migrant labourers, such as Mr Yue. They leave their homes in the countryside to work in cities, where they can earn far more and send money home. But covid has disrupted this pattern. Many have got stuck in their villages, either due to lockdowns or quarantine restrictions that freeze bus and train services. Cities have at times tried to keep non-residents out, lest they bring the virus in.
Life has never been easy for migrant workers in cities. Lacking a local hukou, or household-registration permit, they are not eligible for benefits. They are the last to receive help from the authorities during outbreaks. When Shanghai locked down this year, many migrant workers took to sleeping rough because they had lost their jobs and could not afford rent. Some food-delivery drivers avoided going …….