Trends and Tensions
By the mid-1980s the pace of social change in China was increasing, and, more than in any decade since the 1950s, fundamental changes in the structure of society seemed possible. The ultimate direction of social changes remained unclear, but social trends and tensions that could generate social change were evident. These trends were toward greater specialization and division of labor and toward new, more open and loosely structured forms of association. The uniform pattern of organization of work units in agriculture, industry, public administration, and the military was beginning to shift to an organization structured to reflect its purpose. Education and technical qualification were becoming more significant for attaining high status in villages, industries, the government, or the armed forces. Opportunities for desirable jobs remained limited, however, and competition for those jobs or for housing, urban residence, or college admission was keen.
The primary tension in Chinese society resulted from the value political leaders and ordinary citizens placed on both the social values of security and equality and the goals of economic growth and modernization. China remained a society in which all desired goods were in short supply, from arable land to secure nonmanual jobs, to a seat on a city bus. Crowding was normal and pervasive. Competition and open social strife were restrained by the public belief that scarce goods were being distributed as equitably as possible and that no individual or group was being deprived of livelihood or a fair share. In the mid-1980s Chinese authorities feared that social disorder might result from popular discontent over price increases or the conspicuous wealth of small segments of the population, such as free-market traders. The press frequently condemned the expressions of jealousy and envy that some people directed at those who were prospering by taking advantage of the opportunities the reformed economy offered. The rise in living standards in the 1980s may have contributed to rising expectations that could not be met without considerably more economic growth.
The tension between security and economic growth was reflected in the people's attitudes toward the work unit and the degree of control it exercised over their lives. There was no apparent reason why even a socialist, planned economy had to organize its work force into closed, insular, and sometimes nearly hereditary units. People generally liked the security and benefits provided by their units but disliked many other aspects of "unit life," such as the prohibition on changing jobs. Limited surveys in cities indicated that most people were assigned to work units arbitrarily, without regard to their wishes or skills, and felt little loyalty toward or identification with their work units. People adapted to unit life but reserved loyalties for their families at the one extreme and for the nation and "the people" at the other.
Rural reforms had essentially abolished the work unit in the countryside, along with its close control over people's activities. State and party control over the rural economy and society persisted, but individuals were accorded more autonomy, and most rural people seemed to welcome the end of production teams and production brigades. The success of these rural reforms made modification or even abolition of work units in the urban and state sectors a possibility.
By the mid-1980s the Chinese press and academic journals were discussing recruitment and movement of employees among work units. Although the discussion initially focused on scientists and technicians, whose talents were often wasted in units where they could not make full use of them, the questions raised were of general import. Such blocked mobility was recognized by China's leadership as an impediment to economic growth, and a "rational" flow of labor was listed as a goal for reform of the economy and the science and technology system. But few concrete steps had been taken to promote labor mobility, although government resolutions granted scientists and technicians the right to transfer to another unit, subject to the approval of their original work unit. The issue was politically sensitive, as it touched on the powers and perquisites of the party and of managers. Managers often refused permission to leave the unit, even to those scientists and engineers who had the formal right to apply for a transfer.
Similarly, foreign-funded joint ventures, on which China's government placed its hopes for technology transfer, found it impossible to hire the engineers and technicians they needed for high-technology work. There may have been personnel at other enterprises in the same city eager to work for the new firm, but there was no way to transfer them. In 1986 the State Council, in a move that had little immediate effect but considerable potential, decreed that henceforth state enterprises would hire people on contracts good for only a few years and that these contract employees would be free to seek other jobs when their contracts expired. The contract system did not apply, as of late 1986, to workers already employed in state enterprises, but it did indicate the direction in which at least some leaders wished to go.
The fundamental issues of scarcity, equity, and opportunity lay behind problems of balance and exchange among work units, among the larger systems of units such as those under one industry ministry, or between city and country. One of the major goals of the economic reform program in the mid-1980s was to break down barriers to the exchange of information, personnel, and goods and services that separated units, industrial systems, and geographic regions. National-level leaders decried the waste of scarce resources inherent in the attempts of industries or administrative divisions to be self-sufficient in as many areas as possible, in their duplication of research and production, and in their tendencies to hoard raw materials and skilled workers. Attempts to break down administrative barriers (such as bans on the sale of industrial products from other administrative divisions or the refusal of municipal authorities to permit factories subordinate to national ministries to collaborate with those subordinate to the municipality) were often frustrated by the efforts of those organizations that perceived themselves as advantageously placed to maintain the barriers and their unduly large share of the limited goods. Economic growth and development, which accelerated in the 1980s, was giving rise to an increasingly differentiated economic and occupational structure, within which some individuals and enterprises succeeded quite well.
Economic reforms in rural areas generated a great income spread among households, and some geographically favored areas, such as central Guangdong and southern Jiangsu provinces, experienced more rapid economic growth than the interior or mountainous areas. The official position was that while some households were getting rich first, no one was worse off and that the economy as a whole was growing. Press commentary, however, indicated a fairly high level of official concern over public perceptions of growing inequality. The problem confronting China's leaders was to promote economic growth while retaining public confidence in society's fundamental equity and fair allocation of burdens and rewards.
The major question was whether the basic pattern of Chinese society, a cellular structure of equivalent units coordinated by the ruling party, would continue with modifications, or whether its costs were such that it would be replaced by a different and less uniform system. In the late 1980s, either alternative seemed possible. The outcome would depend on both political forces and economic pressures. In either case, balancing individual security with opportunity would remain the fundamental task of those who direct Chinese society.
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