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Just how Dickensian is China?

Inequality is better than it was. But it doesn’t feel that way

W ITH ITS fast trains, super-apps, digital payments and techno-surveillance, China can seem like a vision of the future. But for some scholars, such as Yuen Yuen Ang of the University of Michigan, it is also reminiscent of the past. Its buccaneering accumulation of wealth and elaborate choreography of corruption recall America’s Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century, an era that takes its name from a novel by Mark Twain and Charles Warner.

China, including Hong Kong and Macau, now has 698 billionaires, according to Forbes, almost as many as America (724). The habits of the new rich could fill a novel in the spirit of Twain. Even the non-fiction accounts are outlandish. One billionaire, according to the book “Red Roulette” by Desmond Shum, offered the author’s well-connected wife a $1m ring as a gift. When she refused, he bought two anyway. One businessman remarked to Ms Ang that his neighbour’s dog will only drink Evian. Meanwhile, over 28% of China’s 286m migrant workers lack a toilet of their own. And in parts of rural China, 16-27% of pupils suffer from anaemia, according to a 2016 study, because they lack vitamins and iron.