Class in Contemporary China
Class in Contemporary China
Social Stratification under Reform
It is always an over-simplification to identify turning points in the development of a society: there are inevitably continuities across such specific moments as well as discontinuities. Nonetheless, December 1978 has to count as a major marker of change in the development of the PRC. The Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee of the CCP which met at that time is usually held to be the beginning of the period of 'reform and opening' because of its decisions and their consequences. The plenum decided to turn its back on the politics of the Mao-dominated era once and for all, to formally review (and learn the lessons of) the CCP's more recent history and, most importantly, to adopt a new development strategy that would introduce market forces into the state socialist economic system, decentralize administration, separate the functions of government and party more clearly, lessen the government's role in economic management, and open the domestic economy to global interactions (Goodman 1985; Naughton 1995).
The social impact of these changes has been both dramatic and considerable (Bian 2002; Zhou and Qin 2010). Social scientists both inside and outside the PRC, and the CCP itself, have all agreed that the development of the socialist market economy has resulted in considerable inequality and increased stratification (World Bank 2012: 8; Sun and Guo 2013). There is still uncertainty and debate about the extent and consequences of those inequalities (Li, Sato and Sicular 2013), the dynamics of change, and the resultant stratification and class formation. The view of the class structure prepared by the CASS Institute of Sociology has been embraced by the Party-state and dominates discussion. Nonetheless, this remains an issue of considerable debate within China and generally amongst social scientists.
Markers of Change
After the mid-1950s, China's social structure was dominated by the then prevalent CCP ideology of class, as well as the distinction between state and collective sectors of the economy and the household registration system. Theoretically, the economy was divided into three ownership sectors: the state, the collective (where ownership was socialized by the people living or working in a unit) and the private sectors. Almost 80 per cent of the urban workforce was in the state sector and they not only had their employment guaranteed for life - the so-called 'iron rice bowl' - but received substantial benefits, including housing, education for their children and health care. These terms of employment and benefits were not shared by workers in the collective sector, which included all agricultural activity and the rest of the urban workforce (Davis 1985; Walder 1986: 45). The private sector was negligible after 1956, reserved largely for welfare recipients.
The introduction of the household registration system ( hukou colloquially or huji ), first in 1955 but more assiduously and draconically after 1960, tied almost every individual to their mother's place of birth for life, and severely limited the opportunities for moving somewhere else (Cheng and Selden 1994). Each household and all its individual members were classified according to whether they lived in an urban or rural area; and whether they had a right to buy from the public supply of grain (non-agricultural household registration) or were expected to feed themselves under all circumstances (agricultural household registration). After 1960, the development of the household registration system effectively brought a strict rural-urban dichotomy, which was particularly pernicious for peasants unable to either move to urban areas or to access the benefits of urban life (Chan, Madsen and Unger 2009). At the same time it also restricted the movement of the urban workforce and often effectively tied the individual