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Inequalities in China

December 12, 2007
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China’s Communist Revolution was founded upon the idea of equality. It was a basic principle of the early Communist Party that inequalities ought to be eradicated and the power and privilege of elite groups should be dismantled. Today in China the situation is very different. Farmers and rural people no longer have the support of the central state in their grievances against powerful forces — land developers, factory owners, power companies. And inequalities have increased dramatically in China — inequalities between the rural population and the city population, between manual workers and professionals, between eastern-coastal regions and western regions. Small numbers of elites are able to capture wealth-creating opportunities; the separation between wealthy and poor widens; and often the political power of office permits self-aggrandizement within China’s burgeoning economy. The situation of small farmers and of internal migrant factory workers is particularly bad, by all accounts.

Paradoxically, these facts about widening inequalities serve to point out something surprising: the sometimes narrow limits to the power of central state and party institutions. Regional and local officials are often able to undertake actions and policies that are directly harmful to poor people and directly contrary to central policies — and the central government is unable to reign them in. There are some deliberate policy efforts from the central state to improve the conditions of rural people — as a class and as a region of disadvantaged population. But those policies have often had little effect; the benefits that were intended to redress inequalities wind up in the hands of more elite actors.

So how do Chinese people think about these facts — facts that are even more visible to them than to us outsiders? Recent research seems to point out a generational difference with regards to the “sense of justice” that Chinese people bring to their perceptions of the society. Older people appear to have shaped a set of ideas about social justice under the Mao years that lead them to judge today’s visible inequalities very unfavorably. Younger people seem to be more accepting of inequalities — if they are earned! What is most morally offensive to younger people seems to be the fact that privilege of position allows some people to do much better than others. Whether this is a function of corruption, cronyism, or the use of state and party power for personal gain — younger people seem to be very offended at these sorts of inequalities. (C. K. Lee’s pathbreaking work on the sociology of law and justice makes these points starkly; see some of her related work in Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt.)

What should we think about China’s social future if these sorts of inequalities continue to widen?  Several points are worth considering.  First, persistent deprivation and inequality is certainly a contributing cause of social contention.  So China’s current inability to redress these inequalities probably suggests a continuation of the pattern of social protest in China.  (Tens of thousands of incidents of collective protest and resistance take place every year in China — and the rate appears to be rising.)  Second, the fact that China’s state institutions haven’t been able to regulate the local mechanisms of abuse of poor people (through property confiscations, for example) also suggests the likelihood of rising social contention.  Confiscations are a leading cause of protest.  And third, a set of meaningful reforms in legal protections for all members of society, including secure property rights for farmers and labor rights for workers, would surely create an environment that is more acceptable to the younger people who are accepting of inequalities if they have arisen through processes that are procedurally fair and legitimate.  So a more “liberal” future for China, in which economic activity is regulated by a fair system of law, and a set of opportunities are available to make something like a level playing field, would appear to be the most sustainable course for China’s leaders to attempt to achieve.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Beijing graduate student permalink
    December 13, 2007 8:13 pm

    Generally speaking, I think you are right. Your descriptions of today’s China are reasonable, and are consistent with my observation.

    However, according to my research project as a sociology graduate student in Beijing, it seems that there are no apparent differences between older people and younger people. In addition, Martin Whyte argues that there is no direct correlation between respondents’ attributes and justice attitudes they hold.

    In my opinion, China society keeps stable to a large extent. There are tens of thousands of riots every year, 70,000 in 2004(or 2005), but 20,000 in 2006. It is not the number of social riots(most of them are very small), but the scale of them is crucial.

    Yes, social inequality is serious in China, but most people evaluate the society as a just one, or an acceptable one. They usually make comparisons between their incomes and their parents’ income, or grandparents’ income, which will lead to a positive evaluation on today’s China. Meanwhile, during the long history of China, people always believe that social inequality is fair, which has great effects on civic justice today. Most importantly, the emerging of citizenship in China still functions in this question. Most people identify with equal status, and even the losers believe that everyone has the potential to succeed. But few people know exactly what civil rights they hold, and do not know how to realize them. So they embrace the social system, and do not intend to resist it. And the government has done much to help the weak group.

  2. Shaanxi graduate student permalink
    December 20, 2007 9:56 pm

    As a younger person who grows up in China, I feel that the situations of China in this essay are objective and accurate. But about some issues, Chinese people usually take different perspectives:

    1. China’s Communist Revolution was founded upon the idea of equality of wealth and happiness. Therefore, Communist Revolution in China always concentrated on the equality of wealth, and people possessing more wealth became targets of Communist Revolution until DENG Xiaoping took the power. Before Deng took the power, the equality of wealth was always the central criteria to design and judge any plan of social transformation. In this way, the wealth equality of Chinese people was static and the economy of China lost its vitality more and more under the governance of Mao.

    After Deng took the power, he denied the criteria, concentrated on wealth creating, and then adopted market economy to improve the vitality of the economy of China.

    In the time of both Mao and Deng, the Communist Party of China did not say much about the inequality of politics, education, medical care, and other social issues, which was actually built on a hierarchical system. Chinese people took this for granted or easily because in feudal time of China people have already took the inequality of social resources for granted.

  3. Shaanxi graduate student permalink
    December 28, 2007 3:39 am

    2. About “Farmers and rural people no longer have the support of the central state in their grievances against powerful forces”, there is another way to explain it from a Chinese scholar’s perspective.

    After DENG Xiaoping decided to apply market economy to China, Deng has realized that he was replacing a social system of wealth equality with that of opportunity equality. In this way, disparity would occur at every aspect of social issues, especially the aspect of income distribution. With this in mind, Deng or Deng’s Brain Trust designed that in the first phase, about twenty to thirty years after 1978, the principle of policy-making of development of China was that efficiency weighed over equality. In the second phase, which is another twenty to thirty years after the first phase, the principle would be that equality weighed over efficiency.

    As most Chinese people have experienced in 1980s and 1990s, the social status of rural people and manual workers in cities kept declining when market economy mechanism was introduced in each industry or social aspect more and more. But after HU Jintao and WEN Jiabao took the power, the governmental policies of China are concentrating more and more on equality among Chinese people at different levels than on efficiency of wealth creating. Of course this change happens not because of Hu and Wen, but because of social conflicts or pressure, which is the symbol of the second phase.

    In this way, the statement at the beginning would be better stated as “Rural people, urban manual workers, and those who could not catch opportunities kept losing the support of the central state in their grievances against powerful forces in 1980s and 1990s, but they are regaining it by and by after 2002.”

    Simultaneously, almost every Chinese person will agree that the social equality of China will not go back to the time of MAO Zedong, because that kind of absolute equality will kill the motivation of people to develop anything.

    3. About “the sometimes narrow limits to the power of central state and party institutions. Regional and local officials are often able to undertake actions and policies that are directly harmful to poor people and directly contrary to central policies — and the central government is unable to reign them in.”, basically this is true, but that regional and local officials are often able to undertake actions and policies that are directly harmful to poor people is not because their purpose is to do harm to poor people, but because they want to get more benefits through their power.

    This situation reflects two social problems of China:

    (1) The central government of China is short of a comprehensive evaluation system to measure the performance of local governments, which have only GDP to show how much and well they have done every year. According to the character of different organizations, enterprises’ performance is financial; armies’ performance is material; governments’ performance is social; universities’ performance is informational. GDP is much closer to a financial system than a social system. Therefore, if the central government does not change the wrong evaluative system, its policies to improve the disadvantaged people can hardly achieve their goals.

    (2) The governmental officials of China are positioned in awkward places. They carry a lot of social responsibilities, especially the economic development, but there is no income distribution system for them to share the economic development. Simultaneously their income relies on the hierarchical power of administration system. Therefore, corruption or abuse of position power has become the only compensation system for them. It is easy to point out the problem and find its reasons, but it is quite difficult to solve it because China did not establish a sophisticated social system to trace people’s behaviors and integrity. Therefore, all kinds of proposed solutions are only theoretical while not practical.

  4. Shaanxi graduate student permalink
    January 18, 2008 6:18 am

    4. About social contention of Chinese society, so far as I think, it is caused by two elements: (1) “Older people appear to have shaped a set of ideas about social justice under the Mao years that lead them to judge today’s visible inequalities very unfavorably.” (2) Even the social reforms of acceptable inequality to younger people require restructuring or reshuffling many social resources, then not to say those social reforms of unacceptable inequality to younger people, which means the functions of corruption, cronyism, or the uses of state and party power for personal gain. Therefore, the social contention is actually the conflicts between the traditional minds of older people and younger people, or between the acceptable inequality and unacceptable inequality, or among all of them. Therefore, it is quite complicated to analyze each case of social contention because it might belong to one type of contention or it might involve several types of contentions.

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