When foreign tourists visit the Saite department store in Beijing, they think they have made a mistake with the plane ticket and ended up in the wrong country. The store, the most up-market in the capital, is five storeys of designer clothes, top-of-the-line cosmetics and the latest electrical gadgets from Japan. For example, a black fox-fur coat from Stizzoli in Italy sells for 25,000 yuan (about HK$23,250) while a 50 millilitre bottle of Coco perfume by Chanel goes for 725 yuan. 'Many people can afford to buy this kind of perfume, not just the heads of companies and nouveau riche,' explained the elegantly turned out salesman. 'Ordinary employees buy it too, for their wives, girlfriends - and husbands. Deng Xiaoping said it - some people should become rich before the others.' Business for Saite and other department stores was especially good in the month up to and including the Lunar New Year, one of the peak periods for consumer spending during the year. The Beijing tourism bureau last week announced that the city had earned 1.3 billion yuan from tourism during the seven-day holiday, 88 per cent of what it earned during the previous week-long holiday from October 1. Most of this came from 687,500 visitors from other parts of China, who spent an average of 1,822 yuan over 5.2 days in the capital. As for Beijing residents, 19,207 of them went on organised trips outside the mainland, including Hong Kong and Macau, 30 per cent more than a year ago, and 40,000 went on organised trips within China. The rapid development of mass tourism is striking evidence of the rising living standards of millions of urban people. But the enormous wealth created by 20 years of growth that, according to official figures, is the highest in the world is not being shared equally. For every one buying Dior perfume and Versace suits in Saite, there are half a dozen CD pedlars and laid-off workers on the street outside whose monthly income would be wiped out by a single purchase there. 'The wealth gap between rich and poor in China is wider than in the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe and even Russia,' said Yang Fan, an economist at the economic research institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences. 'It is comparable to that in India, Indonesia and countries in Africa.' The media does not speak much about this sensitive issue, an inequality that is the opposite of the egalitarianism for which tens of millions died to create the Communist state in 1949. But economists routinely say that 20 per cent of people hold 80 per cent of the individual bank deposits of more than six trillion yuan. The clearest evidence came during a television programme about taxing bank deposits in August 1999, when Vice-Finance Minister Gao Qiang said that, according to estimates by his ministry, 10 per cent of depositors had 60 per cent of the individual deposits. Add to that the shares, bonds and real estate held by the 10 per cent and the foreign capital illegally held outside the country, which runs into tens of billions of US dollars, and you have a wealth gap worthy of Dickensian London. The big divides are between farmer and city dweller and those who live in coastal areas and the interior. 'Between 1979 and 1985, the income of farmers rose by an average of 15.2 per cent a year, most of it spent on consumer goods,' Mr Yang said. 'Between 1986 and 1997, their income grew by just 4.1 per cent a year, half of it in the form of grain, so that their cash income grew by two per cent.' Since then, farm incomes have continued to increase at this low level. 'Even more serious is the gap between farmers in the coastal areas and those in the interior. The differential is 80 per cent. The cash income of 600 million farmers in the interior rose between 1986 and 1997 by an average seven yuan a year, one 50th of that of incomes of farmers in coastal areas. The income of more than half of the farmers fell,' Mr Yang said. 'Society can accept that a minority can become very rich as long as the real income of the majority is not falling. But since 1995 the income of many farmers has fallen and the number of unemployed has risen. 'Faced with this situation, we must change the allocation of interests. If not, it is against social equity and is inefficient - if people do not have spending power, how can companies make money?' Mr Yang called for higher income and inheritance taxes and the compulsory use of real names for purchases of savings, shares and property, so that the rich carry their proper share of the cost of reform. Defenders of the wealth gap argue the old Maoist system was economically moribund - few would argue with them - and that Deng was right to replace the principle of equality of income with that of equality of opportunity. For them, as for disciples of Thatcherism worldwide, the gap is a reflection of the relative worth of different skills in the market and a necessary step in the process of creating a new economy.