“You’ll be amazed at how everything is so cheap here,” a friend told me about Beijing, after I accepted a job to work in the city.
And for a time, I was. A tall bottle of beer and plate full of meat skewers cost around 20 yuan ($3.29) at a restaurant near my office. Cab fares, with a flag-down rate of less than 10 yuan, were less than half of what you’d pay in a large US city.
Apartments I priced near the Lama Temple — an area popular among expats for its bars, cafes and traditional Beijing alleyways — were around 4,000 yuan a month, or $658, not bad for a city of more than 20 million.
Fast-forward three years and rent at those same apartments has increased more than 1,000 yuan ($164) a month. Groceries have also become more expensive, and that beer and plate of meat skewers now cost closer to 30 yuan ($4.94).
Cab fares have gone up too, and on Sunday the Beijing government announced that it is considering raising the cost to ride the city’s subway. A one-way fare is 2 yuan ($0.33).
These are all minor inconveniences for me, since I make a wage that’s considered middle class by American standards. I just go out less, cook at home more and bike instead taking of taking a cab when possible.
But it’s a much bigger deal for the average Chinese family living in an urban area, whose annual income was around 15,785 yuan ($2,600) in 2012.
According to the Wall Street Journal, annual household incomes for Chinese families more than doubled from 2005-2012. A Chinese friend of mine who, like me, is in his 30s, said many new college graduates are making twice as much today as they did 10 years ago.
But the increase in wages is being outpaced by the rise in the cost of living, making it increasingly difficult to prosper in the city.
Communist party leaders have made urbanization a top priority. The New York Times reported that the government aims to move 250 million rural residents into cities over the next 12 years. Even with the promise of higher salaries, better municipal services and education opportunities, I wonder what their quality of life will be like if the cost of goods and services continue to rise.
Will they encourage others to join the great migration, or return home in search of a more affordable place to raise a family?