BEIJING — The frail old woman sat on a small wooden folding chair, staring at the sidewalk and waiting for a bed to open up at the hospital across the street.
She was carrying a sack of clothes, a ginseng root in a bottle and half a watermelon in a grocery bag. "It's really tiring," she said, looking exasperated.
Su Qixin, 71, was scheduled for breast surgery last week, but the west campus of the Peking Union Medical College Hospital had no room for her. If she were well-heeled, Su might have bought her way in. As the wife of a factory worker from Shandong province, Su had no choice other than to sit on the street for two days, interrupted only by a night in a run-down dormitory.
Although Su Qixin is just one person in a corner of Beijing, her experience is a reminder that in the shadows of China's massive economic clout, the standard of living for ordinary Chinese still lags far behind that of developed nations. China is now the world's second-largest economy, but many of its 1.3 billion residents face low wages, a massive gap between rich and poor, and dysfunctional public services that breed discontent.
Never miss a local story.
National leaders, obsessed with avoiding any sign of civil unrest, have pledged several times to address those issues. Articles in official media this year have underlined the concern with titles such as "Country's wealth divide past warning level."
World Bank figures show that despite the gains of recent decades, China's gross national per-capita income is only $3,620 — 124th in the world, above Angola and below Tunisia. In the United States, annual per-capita income is $47,240. Serious income disparity strains the situation further: The top 10 percent of Chinese households earn about 26 times what the bottom 10 percent earn, according to a study conducted for the Credit Suisse investment bank.
The implications are clear at the capital's leading hospitals.
At Peking University First Hospital, a patient can stand in line for hours to buy a 14-yuan ticket, about $2, to see a doctor. Or a patient can pay 200 yuan, almost $30, and see the same doctor without waiting. Inside the hospital, the experience is relatively calm.
For those who can afford only the $2 tickets, however, the ordeal can last all day, causing anguish and outbursts; several times this year, it's boiled over to bloodshed. On March 10, a patient who was unhappy with his treatment at a north Beijing hospital slipped back onto the grounds and stabbed a doctor in the head, chest and back. The doctor died immediately.
On June 17, the mother of a patient at a west Beijing hospital stabbed a doctor with a fruit knife. The doctor survived with wounds to her hands, thigh and calf.
Early this month, Chinese media reported that a man had pleaded guilty to murder for stabbing another man in the chest at a hospital in southeast Beijing. The two men had been competing for business from reselling hospital admission tickets.
Police and health officials recently launched a campaign to discourage such scalpers. They arrested dozens of people last month, hung bright red signs forbidding the practice and set up crowd control systems outside hospital entrances.
The Chinese government last year announced a $124 billion plan to build new hospitals, boost health care subsidies and provide insurance to at least 90 percent of Chinese citizens by 2011. There's also an economic spinoff. Fears about the cost of health care and a lack of confidence in the system are frequently cited reasons for the reluctance of Chinese to buy more goods and services.
For all the official efforts, though, visits to three Beijing hospitals last week found lines at two of them and plenty of unhappy people.
Wang Lianyu, for example, had been standing outside the east campus of the Peking Union Medical College Hospital for six hours, waiting for a chance to get an appointment for his wife. It was 4 p.m. Wednesday. The ticket window wasn't scheduled to open until 6:45 a.m. the next day.
Wang's wife, a 62-year-old in need of gallbladder surgery, was waiting on a bench nearby.
"I think it's very unreasonable," Wang Lianyu said.
A man standing beside him, Zhang Xianfeng, was with his 22-year-old son, who has a potassium deficiency in his blood. They, too, had been there since morning and were planning to spend the night camping out. "I have no better way of doing this," Zhang said.
Before he or Wang could explain further, a man walked up — apparently plainclothes security — and began interrupting a reporter's conversation by loudly proclaiming in English that Chinese health care was superior to that of the United States. Two security officers in uniform soon followed and asked the McClatchy reporter to leave.
At the third location, Peking University First Hospital, there was no line, but one was expected to start forming sometime after midnight to get ready for the next day's ticket sales.
The crowds grow at big hospitals in Beijing partly because people at times don't trust the doctors at small or provincial facilities, said Liu Xue, a professor at Peking University who teaches strategic management in the health economics and management department.
The problem is made worse by ticket sellers, a phenomenon — fueled by cheap labor in China — that makes it possible to pay someone to stand all day for a few dollars, he said.
"This situation is common in other fields, though it is cruel to have it applied in the medical field," Liu said.
Attempts to interview officials from the three hospitals visited were unsuccessful.
A woman who answered the phone at the joint press office of the Peking Union Medical College Hospital explained that locations designed to handle 2,000 visitors a day now have to deal with more than 10,000. The woman, who wouldn't give her name, said no one was available for an interview.
"There is a long line and that is just the situation of China," she said before hanging up.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow China developments at McClatchy's China Rises blog