Imagine a teenager without a license was driving a BMW coupe with no license plates but 32 traffic violations caught on camera in less than a year and then viciously attacked a middle-aged couple when their Buick stopped unexpectedly in front of him.
The teen, and his friend, who was following the customized BMW in an Audi A6L with fake government license plates, jumped out of their luxury cars and beat the couple continuously for three minutes, while being yelled at by a crowd of bystanders they dared them to call the police. The couple was rushed to the hospital - the wife had two stitches while the husband had to get nine stitches on his forehead and two on the back of his head.
The scene happened in a residential section of Beijing on Sept. 6 and the teenager driver, Li Tianyi, was the son of a Chinese army general. The episode, reports Jamil Anderlini of the Wall Street Journal, "has spiraled into a national scandal that reveals the depth of popular anger at the power and privilege enjoyed by members of the ruling elite in a society where the gap between rich and poor has reached extreme levels."
The incident has prompted outrage in China and the general's son has crashed into a wall of anger. "Second-generation rich, second-generation officials, second-generation celebrities, before you learn to make money, you should probably learn how to be human," commented one user of the popular Chinese Twitter-like micro-blogging service, Sina Weibo. "How could a boy be so arrogant, so unconscionable?" another Sina Weibo user wrote on the same website, "You have a powerful father, so you can do anything you like?" Thousands of other Chinese netizens have also piled on, with many calling the scandal an explicit example of the shameless behavior of the country's privileged elite.
"Public frustration with abuse of power is nothing new in China," writes Josh Chin of the Wall Street Journal, "where government officials and the extremely wealthy have long been seen to operate outside the rules that govern regular people. But the increasing speed with which information travels on the Chinese Internet, particularly though micro-blogging services like Weibo, has helped turn the transgressions of the elite into a national obsession."
Even Chinese state media recognizes the seriousness of the widespread outrage in China and the mounting discontent toward the country's rich and powerful.
"This is no one but the younger Li and his father's fault," pronounced Global Times, Beijing's official mouth-piece, in an editorial entitled "Spoilt brat's antics threaten social order," "while Li Tianyi has been abusing his privileged background and treating the general public as if they meant nothing, they are not only destroying themselves, but also tearing our society apart. This is not an exaggeration, as past lessons involving children of privilege abusing their power have shown us, such small events can often ignite greater public dissatisfaction, threatening the very foundations of the government."
The growing gap between the rich and powerful and the poor and powerless in China comes with increasing social cost. To put the disparity in perspective, as the Los Angeles Times' David Pierson describes, "China's per-capita annual income still ranks below that of Angola and Albania. The vast majority of China's 1.3 billion people aren't even subject to income taxes because they earn too little. Only 24 million people make the minimum $545 monthly income necessary to be taxed, according to the Chinese Ministry of Finance."
Thanks to the 30 years of accelerated economic development, Chinese society is not on the verge of collapse. But the widening gap between elites and masse has become one of the biggest challenges for China's future development. Since such disparity is largely derived from power corruption and social injustice, it also threatens the country's political stability.
The top Chinese leadership recognizes the gravity of the problem. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao stated recently at China's National People Congress that "it is unfair if a society's wealth is only in the hands of a few people." Wen then added, "In that case, the society is doomed to instability."
The challenge for the Chinese government, however, is not the lack of willingness from the top to close the gap and remedy the disparities, but rather, as Zhang Dongsheng, Director of the Department of Income Distribution at China's National Development and Reform Commission, puts it, the government, by and large, has thus far "said more than it has done" to tackle the problem.
Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College's China Program.