Terminally ill


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Zhang Fengtai, a Chinese railroad worker, has been saving nearly his whole life for this. Not for a cool car or a fancy apartment. No, he’s been saving for something that’s going to save him – a double bypass heart surgery. With China’s paltry government healthcare coverage, Zhang will have to pay Rmb 37,000 ($5,415) out-of-pocket for the surgery. That’s enough to wipe out his life savings and some of his daughter’s.


“While it is expensive for us, it could have been worse,” said Zhang Ying, his daughter. “We only had to pay 30 percent of the costs, because he worked for the railroad his whole life. Also, this was a one-time expense, but people that get cancer have to keep pouring money into the illness. Old Hundred Names (an idiom for average Chinese), like us, try to save as much as we can afford in case we get sick. If the government gave us better coverage it would relieve a very heavy pressure and worry from our minds.” 


The Zhangs’ situation is common. Most middle-class Chinese save a huge portion of their income for medical emergencies. This practice has helped push China’s savings rate to around 50 percent, meaning that for every Rmb 100 a worker earns, he or she puts 50 aside for the future.


These days, with its export sector crippled by the global economic downturn, China’s leaders want to get money like Zhang’s out of rainy day funds to help stimulate domestic consumer spending in hopes of boosting economic growth. While China’s 1.3 billion people now earn enough to make their economy the world’s third largest, they don’t feel secure spending it; they’re scrimping to protect themselves against an uncertain future.


To break that cycle, in April Beijing rolled out a Rmb 850 billion ($124 billion) blueprint to reform healthcare. The goal is to insure 90 percent of Chinese citizens by 2011, and to create a universal healthcare system by 2020.


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