22 March 2019
Chinese author Hao Jingfang, 32, won the Hugo Award for her work Folding Beijing. Photo: CRI
Chinese author Hao Jingfang, 32, won the Hugo Award for her work Folding Beijing. Photo: CRI

Award-winning sci-fi book reflects class divide in Beijing

Chinese author Hao Jingfang’s work Folding Beijing has won the Hugo Award for best novelette.

In her futuristic book, Hao depicts Beijing as a city divided into three physical layers, each occupied by a different socio-economic class – the elite, the middle class and the underclass –highlighting the class solidification problem in China.

Born in a middle-class family in Tianjin, Hao graduated with a doctorate degree in economics from Tsinghua University in 2013.

She has been working at the China Development Research Foundation, which is affiliated with the State Council.

According to Hao, the story was inspired by her own observations of the struggle of poor people in the Chinese capital.

In the story, people are separated not only by their class but also by time.

Each class wakes up at a different time during the 48-hour day. Laborers, who comprise the underclass, are only allowed to be awake for eight hours at night.

The three social classes cannot travel between layers, and they rarely interact with each other, although they live in the same city.

During the award ceremony, Hao said: “I don’t want my novel to become true, and I hope the real future will be brighter than my story.”

Most Chinese have witnessed great improvements in their lives during the first three decades since China opened up its economy in 1978.

The people’s optimistic outlook reached its peak in 2008. Since then, the class divide among the elite, the middle class and the underclass has increasingly worsened.

Social mobility is decreasing. Children from underprivileged families find it really difficult to move up the social ladder. And the rich can’t get into the ruling class.

The power and wealth of the upper class are more likely to be inherited by their descendants, who are unlikely to fall into the underclass.

Class divisions are not unique in China.

French economist Thomas Piketty wrote in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century that the rich and poor classes lack mobility, and calls it disparity inheritance.

Such disparity is getting more extreme in China at a rapid pace.

The Gini Coefficient, a common measure of income disparity, has soared to 0.4 in the mid-2000s from below 0.3 in the 1980s, a situation that is worse than in developed nations like the United States, Japan and Britain.

Beijing stands out as an example. The capital is home to the privileged class living in Zhongnanhai, billionaires in Haidian and Chaoyang districts, and the low-income class in urban villages.

Three social classes all live in the same city with little interaction, let alone social mobility.

Awarded annually since 1955, the Hugo Awards are among the highest honors in science fiction and fantasy.

They are named after Hugo Gernsback who was the founder of the American science fiction magazine Amazing Stories.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 30

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist

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