Opportunities and Competition

Opportunities and Competition

Cities, by definition, are places with a high degree of occupational specialization and division of labor. They are places offering their inhabitants a range of occupational choice and also, to the degree that some occupations are seen as better than others, competition for the better occupations. Cities also provide the training for specialized occupations, either in schools or on the job.

In China there is a cultural pattern stressing individual achievement and upward mobility. These are best attained through formal education and are bound up with the mutual expectations and obligations of parents and children. There is also a social structure in which a single, bureaucratic framework defines desirable positions, that is, managerial or professional jobs in the state sector or secure jobs in state factories. Banned migration, lifetime employment, egalitarian wage structures, and the insular nature of work units were intended by the state, at least in part, to curtail individual competition. Nevertheless, some jobs are still seen as preferable to others, and it is urbanites and their children who have the greatest opportunities to compete for scarce jobs. The question for most families is how individuals are selected and allocated to those positions. The lifetime tenure of most jobs and the firm control of job allocation by the party make these central issues for parents in the favored groups and for local authorities and party organizations.

Between the early 1950s and mid-1980s, policies on recruitment of personnel and their allocation to desirable jobs changed several times. As the costs and drawbacks of each method became apparent, pressure mounted to change the policy. In the early and mid-1950s, the problem was not acute. State offices were expanding rapidly, and there were more positions than people qualified to fill them. Peasants moved into cities and found employment in the expanding industrial sector. Most of those who staffed the new bureaucratic sectors were young and would not begin to retire until the 1980s and 1990s. Those who graduated from secondary schools or universities, however, or were discharged from the armed forces in the late 1950s and early 1960s found few jobs of the sort they were qualified for or had expected to hold.

Attempts to manage the competition for secure jobs were among the many causes of the radical, utopian policies of the period from 1962 to 1976. Among these, the administrative barriers erected between cities and countryside and the confinement of peasants and their children to their villages served to diminish competition and perhaps to lower unrealistic expectations. Wage freezes and the rationing of both staples and scarce consumer goods in cities attempted to diminish stratification and hence competition. The focusing of attention on the sufferings and egalitarian communal traditions of the past, which was so prominent in Maoist rhetoric and replaced the future orientation of the 1950s, in part diverted attention from frustrations with the present. Tensions were most acute within the education system, which served, as it does in most societies, to sort children and select those who would go on to managerial and professional jobs. It was for this reason that the Cultural Revolution focused so negatively on the education system. Because of the rising competition in the schools and for the jobs to which schooling could lead, it became increasingly evident that those who did best in school were the children of the "bourgeoisie" and urban professional groups rather than the children of workers and peasants.

Cultural Revolution-era policies responded with public deprecation of schooling and expertise, including closing of all schools for a year or more and of universities for nearly a decade, exaltation of on-the-job training and of political motivation over expertise, and preferential treatment for workers and peasant youth. Educated urban youth, most of whom came from "bourgeois" families, were persuaded or coerced to settle in the countryside, often in remote frontier districts. Because there were no jobs in the cities, the party expected urban youth to apply their education in the countryside as primary school teachers, production team accountants, or barefoot doctors; many did manual labor. The policy was intensely unpopular, not only with urban parents and youth but also with peasants and was dropped soon after the fall of the Gang of Four in late 1976. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of the youth who had been sent down to the countryside managed to make their way back to the cities, where they had neither jobs nor ration books. By the mid1980s most of them had found jobs in the newly expanded service sector.

In terms of creating jobs and mollifying urban parents, the 1980s policies on urban employment have been quite successful. The jobs in many cases are not the sort that educated young people or their parents would choose, but they are considerably better than a lifelong assignment to remote frontier areas.

The Maoist policies on education and job assignment were successful in preventing a great many urban "bourgeois" parents from passing their favored social status on to their children. This reform, however, came at great cost to the economy and to the prestige and authority of the party itself.


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