Social Differentiation

Social Differentiation

Although much of the social structure of modern China can be interpreted as reflecting basic drives for security and equality, qualities in short supply before 1950, not all organizations and units are alike or equal. There are four major axes of social differentiation in modern China. To some extent they overlap and reinforce each other, but each rests on distinct and separate grounds.

The Work Place

Work units (danwei) belong to the state or to collectives. State-owned units, typically administrative offices, research institutes, and large factories, offer lifetime security, stable salaries, and benefits that include pensions and free health care. Collectives include the entire agricultural sector and many small-scale factories, repair shops, and village- or township-run factories, workshops, or service enterprises. Employees on the state payroll enjoy the best benefits modern China has to offer. The incomes of those in the collective sector are usually lower and depend on the performance of the enterprise. They generally lack health benefits or pensions, and the collective units usually do not provide housing or child-care facilities. In 1981 collective enterprises employed about 40 percent of the nonagricultural labor force, and most of the growth of employment since 1980 has come in this sector. Even though the growth since 1980 of individual businesses and small private enterprises, such as restaurants and repair services, has provided some individuals with substantial cash incomes, employment in the state sector remains most people's first choice. This reflects the public's recognition of that sector's superior material benefits as well as the traditional high prestige of government service.

"Security and equality" have been high priorities in modern China and have usually been offered within single work units. Because there is no nationwide insurance or social security system and because the income of work units varies, the actual level of benefits and the degree of equality (of incomes, housing, or opportunities for advancement) depend on the particular work unit with which individuals are affiliated. Work units are responsible for chronic invalids or old people without families, as well as for families confronted with the severe illness or injury of the breadwinner. Equality has always been sought within work units (so that all factory workers, for example, received the same basic wage, or members of a collective farm the same share of the harvest), and distinctions among units have not been publicly acknowledged. During the Cultural Revolution, however, great stress was placed on equality in an abstract or general sense and on its symbolic acting out. Administrators and intellectuals were compelled to do manual labor, and the uneducated and unskilled were held up as examples of revolutionary virtue.

In the mid-1980s many people on the lower fringes of administration were not on the state payroll, and it was at this broad, lower level that the distinction between government employees and nongovernment workers assumed the greatest importance. In the countryside, village heads were collectivesector workers, as were the teachers in village primary schools, while workers for township governments (and for all levels above them) and teachers in middle schools and universities were state employees. In the armed forces, the rank and file who served a three- to five-year enlistment at very low pay were considered citizens serving their military obligation rather than state employees. Officers, however, were state employees, and that distinction was far more significant than their rank. The distinction between state and collective-sector employment was one of the first things considered when people tried to find jobs for their children or a suitable marriage partner.

Communist Party Membership

Every unit in China, from the villages through the armed forces, is run by the party, which has a monopoly on political power. Party members are in a sense the heirs of the traditional gentry. They are a power-holding elite, dispersed over the whole country, and serve as intermediaries between their own communities or units and the nation. They are recruited from the population at large on universalistic grounds of "merit," and they claim authority by their mastery of an ideology that focuses on government and public order. The ideology is contained in books, and party members are expected to be familiar with the basic texts, to continue studying them throughout their careers, and to apply them in concrete situations.

The differences between the traditional elite and the party are obvious. Party members are supposed to be revolutionaries, be devoted to changing society rather than restoring it, come from and represent the peasants and workers, and be willing to submit themselves totally and unreservedly to the party. On the whole, party members are distinctly less bookish and more militaryoriented and outwardly egalitarian than traditional elites. Party members have been preferentially recruited from the poor peasantry of the interior, from the army, and from the ranks of industrial workers; intellectuals have usually found it difficult to enter the party. The party is represented in every village and every large or medium-sized enterprise in the country. The scope of its actions and concerns is much greater than that of its traditional predecessors.

Relatively speaking, there are more party members than there were traditional gentry. In 1986 the Chinese Communist Party had 44 million members in 2.6 million local party branches. This meant that about 8 percent of China's adult population belonged to the party. Not all party members hold state jobs: some hold village and township-level positions, and many armed forces enlisted personnel join the party during their service. (Indeed, a chance to join the party has been one of the major attractions of military service for peasant youth.)

Party members direct all enterprises and institutions and dominate public life and discussion. Anyone with ambitions to do more than his or her daily job or work in a narrow professional specialty must join the party. Membership is selective, and candidates must demonstrate their zeal, devotion to party principles, and willingness to make a total commitment to the party. Ideally, membership is a complete way of life, not a job, and selection for membership depends more on assessment of an individual's total personality and "moral" character than on specific qualifications or technical skills. While this could probably be said of all communist parties, Chinese Communist Party members certainly mirror China's traditional mandarins, who were political generalists rather than technical specialists. Party members are the intermediaries who link enterprises and communities with high-level structures, and they can belong to more than one organization, such as a factory and a municipal party body. Party membership is virtually a requirement for upward mobility or for opportunities to leave one's original work unit.

Urban-Rural Distinctions

In modern China, legal distinction is made between urban and rural dwellers, and movement from rural to urban status is difficult. Urban life is felt to be far preferable, and living standards and opportunities for such advantages as education are much better in the cities. This firm and absolute distinction, which had no precedent in traditional society, is the result of a set of administrative decisions and policies that have had major, if unintended, consequences for social organization. Modern Chinese society has been marked by an extraordinary degree of residential immobility, and internal migration and population movement have been limited by state control. For most of the period since 1958, there has been no legal way to move out of villages or from small cities to large cities. Although people have not inherited estates and private property, they have inherited rural or urban status, which has been a major determinant of living standards and life chances.

China's cities grew rapidly in the early and mid-1950s as rural people moved in to take advantage of the employment opportunities generated by economic growth and the expansion of heavy industry. The authorities became alarmed at this influx, both because of the cost of providing urban services (food supply, waste disposal) and because of the potential problems of unemployed or semi-employed migrants creating squatter settlements. Additionally, Chinese leaders held a certain anti-urban bias and tended to regard China's cities as unproductive. They accused city residents of living off the countryside and indulging in luxury consumption. Extolling large, smoking factories, they sought to engage the population in the manufacture of utilitarian commodities, like steel or trucks. The authorities demonstrated their bias against commerce and service trades by closing down many shops and markets. Since 1958 they have employed household registration and food rationing systems to control urban growth and general migration .

In the 1980s the distinction between urban and rural status grew mainly out of the food distribution and rationing system. Rural registrants were assumed to be growing their own staple foods, and there was no provision for state allocation of grain to them. The state monopolized the trade in grain; it collected grain in the countryside as a tax or as compulsory purchase and used it to supply its functionaries and the urban population. Urban status entitled one to purchase an allotment of grain, oil, and various other staple items. These were rationed, and a ration coupon as well as money was necessary to obtain grain legally. Ration coupons were good only in their own localities. The rationing system served several purposes. They included the fair distribution of scarce goods, prevention of private speculation in staple foods, and residence control. In addition, the police in cities kept household registration records and could make unannounced inspections, usually at night, looking for people who did not have legal permission to reside in a city. The controls have not been foolproof and have worked more effectively in times of shortages and strict political control.

In the 1980s the reasons for the administrative barriers around cities were fairly straightforward. Incomes and living standards in China's cities are two to three times higher than in the countryside. In addition, more urban dwellers have secure state jobs with their associated benefits. State investment has been concentrated in heavy industry, mostly urban, and agriculture and the rural sector have been left to their own devices, after meeting their tax obligations. The ironic consequence of a rural and peasant-based revolution has been a system that has acted, intentionally or not, to increase the social and economic gap between country and city.

Regional Distinctions

Regional distinctions in ways of life and standards of living were marked in traditional China and continue to have a strong influence on contemporary Chinese society. China's size, poorly developed transportation system, and state controls on migration mean that regional differences in income and in life chances remain large. Contemporary Chinese commentary, while certainly explicit on the role of class, has tended to ignore regional variation. This may reflect the characteristic emphasis on Chinese unity and uniformity, as well as the difficulty of fitting regional analysis into a Marxist framework. Nevertheless, both geographical position and a community's position in administrative and regional hierarchies act to limit income from sideline occupations, cash crops, village industries, and even such matters as marriage choices.

Incomes and educational standards in the 1980s were highest in the productive lower Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) Valley and central Guangdong Province regions and lowest in the semi-arid highlands of the northwest and the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, as they had been since the late nineteenth century. The lowest incomes and living standards were in the peripheral areas inhabited by minority nationalities. Within all regions, there were distinctions between urban cores, intermediate areas, and peripheries. Villages on the outskirts of major cities had more opportunities for production of cash crops such as vegetables, more opportunities in sideline occupations or subcontracting for urban factories, and easier access to urban services and amenities. Higher village incomes were reflected in better housing, higher school attendance, wellappointed village meeting halls, and a high level of farm and domestic mechanization. For settlements on the periphery, however, even if only a short distance from urban centers, transportation was difficult. Such settlements had changed little in appearance since the 1950s and devoted most of their land and work force to growing staple grains. Many children in these villages dropped out of school before completing primary education, as physical strength and endurance were more highly regarded than book learning.

There is clearly a degree of overlap in the four fields of social differentiation (work units, party membership, urban-rural distinctions, and regional distinctions). The top of the hierarchy is occupied by those who work in state organizations, belong to the party, live in a major city, and inhabit a prosperous region. Correspondingly, the least favored inhabitants are peasants whose villages are located in the remote parts of poor regions. What is most impressive about social differentiation in modern China is the extent to which key variables such as region and rural or urban status are ascribed, and not easily changed by individual effort. This is the negative side of the security and stability that attracted China's populace to the party and its programs.

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