Lai See

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 March, 2010, 12:00am

Wealth-poverty divide in two mainland cities

There has been a great deal of talk about 'poverty Shanghai-style' versus 'Beijing-type wealth' on the mainland lately.

Both cities are the traditional destinations of migrant workers, who have contributed enormously to their economic and social development. But, it's a classic tale of two cities as workers have had very different socio-economic experiences.

A receptionist of a five-star hotel in Shanghai who earns 5,000 yuan (HK$5,685) a month is considered poor because of soaring living costs. But a Beijing man with a similar income to support a family of three will be regarded as wealthy. The difference is the former is a migrant worker while the Beijing man is a local, who enjoys plenty of social benefits.

It's a common predicament among the so-called sea drifters, or migrant workers. In Shanghai, 'relative poverty' is a widespread phenomenon, especially among migrants.

This type of wealth disparity is not an isolated issue affecting only Shanghai and Beijing. It's a fundamental resource distribution problem embedded in the national economic structure.

Relative poverty cannot be defined merely by drawing a poverty line. In Shanghai, the poverty line is set at 425 yuan per month.

According to Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau statistics, there are about 1.5 million people in the city (8 per cent of the population) earning less than 500 yuan per month but above the 425-yuan mark who do not qualify for welfare assistance.

So, if a boss pays a worker 500 yuan a month, he will be cursed for spoiling the man's chance to receive government subsidies.

Lai See remembers a few memorable lines in the 1994 movie Shawshank Redemption, which can best sum up the warped reality on the mainland today: 'These walls are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. Enough time passes, you get so depend on them. That's institutionalised.'

Search engine vacuum

Now that Google has closed its search engine on the mainland, industry watchers have other worries over the gaping hole left in the market.

Although home-grown Baidu has emerged as a frontrunner in the short term, experts believe it may not be the main beneficiary because internet users don't like to see a monopolised market. As a result they are likely to turn to other smaller engines such as Sohu's Sogou, Tencent's Soso and other newcomers.

According to Analysys International data, Baidu occupied nearly 60 per cent of the market at the end of last year, whereas Google's share was 35 per cent. There are concerns that Baidu might capitalise on its market advantage by setting new rules to benefit itself.

A search engine is considered more than just a company; it is effectively a social infrastructure that has an impact on society and implications for governance.

Pressure from Pyongyang

The big bully North Korea is picking on its brother in the South again. This time, Pyongyang has threatened to take 'extraordinary measures' unless Seoul lifts its ban on tours to Mount Kumgang resort.

The warning was issued to a group of South Korean businessmen, who visited the resort recently after the North threatened to seize their assets if they did not.

Built with South Korean money, the resort used to earn North Korea tens of millions of dollars a year. But tours were suspended after a South Korean tourist was shot dead in 2008. The South wants the case to be fully investigated.

North Korea has threatened that unless the tours restart, it will consider cancelling all agreements and seek a new business partner.

We say Seoul should call Pyongyang's bluff and let it do it.

Colour of money

More and more companies are adopting environmental policies, and striving for zero defects and zero pollution. The latest to join the 'green line' is Macau casino operator Sands China, which will install motor efficiency controllers on 96 escalators in Venetian Macao, Sands Macao and Four Seasons.

We are told that the 'green' controllers can save energy by up to 35 per cent.

It is so refreshing to find a casino with such strong environmental awareness. But then again, the colour green has long been associated with the colour of money.

Time to switch off

Speaking of the environment, we are reminded that it's Earth Hour today. There must be many detractors out there asking how simply flicking off a light switch can make a difference to global warming.

It won't of course. But the point is about making a stand against climate change by mobilising millions of people around the world to demand action.

So, don't forget to reach for the switch at 8.30 tonight.