The Forbidden City, located at the center of Beijing municipality, was the seat of power for 24 emperors from 1406 to 1911. It took thousands of artisans and 14 years to complete the colossal complex spread over 720.000 square meters with 9.000 bays of halls and rooms which become a symbol of China's monarchial grandeur built on the blood and sweat of its toiling peasantry. Significantly, however, the main entrance to the imperial city, Tiananmen or the Gate of Heavenly Peace, connects the past with the present in a curiously fatalistic manner.
Indeed, the wealth gap in Chinese society has increased phenomenally with the difference between the wealthiest and the poorest having risen from as much as four times in 1978 to almost 13 times today.
So, what we have in China today is tremendous economic freedom without political empowerment of the citizenry. Corruption and nepotism are logical outcomes of this situation. And the middle class is too tiny to influence the system. According to one estimate, middle-class groups with income ranging from 2,500 dollars to 10,000 dollars per year constitute less than five percent of the population. By contrast, lower income groups even in wealthier cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou do not earn more than 900 dollars a year. About 60 percent of China's population still lives in the countryside, with per capita income less than 300 dollars per year.
Having said that, one cannot ignore China's huge population base of 1.3 billion people. Even at five percent, the country's middle-income segment numbers at 65 million people. These people are the architects of the future China which, many observers predict, will be the major economic powerhouse of the world by the end of the decade. A glimpse of this can be had in Beijing's scores of multi-storey shopping malls where customers literally trip over each other to move ahead. Its huge and fashionable hotels are crawling with guests, as are its eating houses, bars and discotheques.
And the Forbidden City is not so forbidden anymore. It is one of China's major tourists' attractions where hundreds of hawkers accost visitors and shove tourist books in their faces, quoting prices with huge margins for bargain. Finally, China is waking up from decades of slumber.