A sting in the tale of two Shanghais
Two Shanghai court cases in the news this month serve to highlight the remarkable contrast between the haves and the have-nots in mainland society.
In the first case, the offender was given a one-year jail sentence, suspended for one year; in the second, the verdict was for three years but suspended for five.
On paper, one sterner than the other, but assuming both perpetrators keep their noses clean, the end result is not so different. The non-violent offences that landed them in the dock, however, could scarcely be further removed.
The lesser crime involved an unemployed man in his fifties who decided to use his house keys to take out his financial frustrations on more affluent neighbours' cars.
He reportedly said he 'hated rich people' and had been angry about the fact he 'didn't live a wealthy life'. The scratches he caused to the nine vehicles' paintwork amounted to 19,900 yuan (HK$23,955) in damage.
The second case, by contrast, involved just under one billion yuan in illegal loans.
Yan Liyan - listed in 2006 as the mainland's 56th richest man - had faced charges of embezzlement and contract fraud worth 2.7 billion yuan, but prosecutors were unable to substantiate the details. Instead, he was convicted of aiding and abetting two executives at a securities firm to use his companies to channel 937 million yuan in illegal loans to cover their losses on the Hong Kong stock market.
Yan had been held in custody for two years ahead of the trial but it seems bizarre that he could be convicted of involvement in such large-scale corruption and leave the court effectively a free man. (The crooked executives, incidentally, were jailed for 13 and 121/2 years.)
It would seem the punishment was lighter than even he had expected. When the sentence was announced, Yan smiled broadly and called out to his family: 'We're going home together for dinner.'
The big question in all this is: where is the deterrent? And given the size of the temptation, substantial deterrent is needed.
Shanghai - and the Yangtze River Delta that surrounds it - is awash with cash. It's visible in the shiny new BMWs, Jaguars and Lamborghinis that cruise along the city's elevated highways. It's seen in the spectacularly overpriced designer handbags chic young mistresses use to batter their way through crowded pedestrian areas. And it blares out from the stylishly exclusive nightclubs flowing with rivers of champagne and Johnnie Walker Blue mixed with green tea.
But it goes without saying that not everyone is on the sweet end of the deal. Those trendy nightspots are nightly laid siege by platoons of penniless beggars. Supercars come to a rest at red lights alongside rusting tricycles piled with recyclables rescued from the litter bin.
The reality is that most of Shanghai's 23 million residents scrape by on a minimal amount of money, and none more so than newly arrived migrants.
According to the municipal statistics bureau, the average annual wage in 2009 - the most recent figure available - was 42,789 yuan. That's well above the national average but it doesn't go very far in a Gucci store.
It is the in-your-face brashness of the nouveaux riches in the mainland's most glamorous city that is a constant reminder to the rest of the population just how meagre their own lot is. But the cost of everyday items takes its toll as well.
Inflation hit 5.5 per cent last month, the highest in almost three years, and officials this week hinted it could have gone even higher since. As food and other daily necessities are one of the main drivers of those price increases, the impact on the lower-paid is all the more keenly felt.
It is little wonder, then, that the drive to gain personal wealth and the material trappings it brings has become the paramount goal. Employers talk about the difficulty of retaining staff who are willing to jump ship to a rival for a negligible increase in pay - even if that means longer hours and poorer working conditions. In one of the most extreme examples, a high school student in Anhui province sold one of his kidneys for 20,000 yuan so that he could buy an iPad 2.
It is slowly dawning on increasing numbers that they may never realise their dream of striking it rich, and the realisation is not a happy one.
In just the past month, there has been rioting in Guangdong and Hubei provinces and Inner Mongolia , bombings of government buildings in Tianjin and Jiangxi province, and clashes in Zhejiang over land compensation issues.
Seasoned China-watchers have been starting to mutter about a gathering storm. There is a growing sense of a country in danger of pulling itself apart at the seams, and the authorities' ever more heavy-handed response seems only to sow the seeds of yet greater resentment.
Next Friday marks the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. That should be a cause for celebration in the corridors of power, but the people's party is now seen by many as the party of self-interest and corporate sleaze.
Shanghai government insiders privately admit they are feeling immense pressure due to worries about upsetting public opinion and the need to listen to grassroots opinions - something they admit has been a novel experience. A populace that once blindly accepted decrees is becoming increasingly vocal about standing up for its own interests, and demanding a bigger piece of the pie.
If the government doesn't start delivering that soon, people may decide to help themselves.
Now, where did I put my keys?