Date
12 December 2017
Although income levels in China continue to rise by over 8 percent annually, many workers in the big cities still find it hard to cope with the surging cost of living. Photo: AFP
Although income levels in China continue to rise by over 8 percent annually, many workers in the big cities still find it hard to cope with the surging cost of living. Photo: AFP

How much do you earn, a maggot or a dog?

There are two new catchphrases in Chinese: “earning a maggot a month” and “earning a dog monthly”. Both apparently originated from some online postings.

It’s said that a white-collar worker in Shanghai once remarked: “I live worse than a dog, although I earn 20,000 yuan each month.” Many workers in big Chinese cities understood his feelings.

Then, another worker bought a whole chicken from a supermarket in a second-tier city, and maggots were found inside the chicken. The man complained and the supermarket gave him 5,000 yuan (US$760) as compensation. Soon, people are saying,  “I work so hard, but my salary is less than a maggot.”

These catchphrases are now widely used in China’s teeming cities to indicate one’s income level. “Earning a maggot a month” means a monthly salary of 5,000 yuan while “earning a dog monthly” means a monthly paycheque of 20,000 yuan.

Whether 5,000 yuan or 20,000 yuan, that is considered a decent salary in first and second-tier Chinese cities.

The average monthly income in China rose 8.8 percent to 2,155 Chinese yuan in the first half of this year. In urban areas, workers saw their monthly salary increase by 8.1 percent to 3,054 yuan on average, according to data from the National Statistics Bureau.

Although those who earn either a maggot or a dog are already above most of their peers in China, they still struggle a lot, as their income can hardly catch up with the surging cost of living.

It’s true that income levels continue to rise by over 8 percent annually despite moderating economic growth. A fresh university graduate working in hot sectors such as internet, finance, consumption, healthcare or services is likely to be doing well, and the belief that one can achieve a better life by working hard is still very much alive.

But there is a dark side. Housing prices in big cities have skyrocketed in recent years. White-collar workers have to allocate substantial portions of their income to pay the mortgage for a decent car and buy proper clothes to meet everyone’s expectations. 

If they get married, they will have more to worry about, like the hukou (household registration) and education of their children.

Despite their “decent” salary, there are a lot more stressful issues they have to face such as healthcare and retirement.

Of course, they may opt to move to a smaller city or the countryside. However, big cities still offer far more opportunities than smaller cities.

That is the case in developed economies like the United States, Japan or South Korea. It’s more so in China, where regional disparities are even worse.

So if a young man chooses to move to a smaller city, he might have to give up some of his dreams, such as a wide personal network, better career opportunities or education in a prestigious school for his children.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 23

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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RT/CG

Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist

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