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China Social Classes

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: General Studies
Wordcount: 4682 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The social class structure of China has a long history, ranging from the feudal society of imperial times to the industrialising and urbanising society of today. The traditional Chinese social structure was distinct in many ways from the Western societies. Not only has the People’s Republic by far the largest population ruled by a single government, and has lacked an institutional church or otherwise powerful religious elite, it has also always had a unique and highly developed lineage system operating alongside a centralised bureaucratic political structure. The former disparities have led Whyte et al (1977) to conclude that modern processes of social change would proceed differently from both the West and other developing economies.

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The main aim of this essay is to describe and account for the changes in China’s social classes since 1949. It is important, however, to firstly define this term so that a clear distinction of the social groups within the Chinese society can be drawn. It will become apparent, that not only have the changes for the various classes been vast, but also that the Maoist government had been hugely occupied with stratifying their people as a means to abolish the class structure to ultimately reach an egalitarian society. The principal line of reasoning of this paper is that these conflicting events have created the greatest divide amongst Chinese society, i.e. between the rural and the urban population, whose consequences are still omnipresent today more than thirty years after Mao’s death.

“Class, at its core, is an economic concept; it is the position of individuals in the market that determines their class position. And it is how one is situated in the marketplace that directly affects one’s life chances.” (Hurst, 2007) This was theorized by Weber in his three-component theory of stratification which includes wealth, prestige and power on the basis of “unequal access to material resources.” (Weber, 1964).

One of the most prominent Chinese sociologists and author of Xiangtu Zhonguo, Fei Xiaotong, argues that Chinese society consists of a meticulous ranking of people, who are classified according to distinct categories of social relationships. While western societies are made up of an organisational mode of association (tuantigeju), Chinese society is created by applying logic of chaxugeju, i.e. an egocentric system of social networks linking people together in multiple ways through moral demands on each person in a specific context. As such, Fei argues, China should not be viewed as a class-based but a net-work based system. This notion is a harsh contrast to the Marxist interpretation and to the use of class-analysis that Mao and others applied in an attempt to change Chinese society and to mobilise the peasantry, rather than as a way to understand it. Mao’s idea was to use Marxism to break through the old relational bonds of society, which he labelled feudalistic, and to create new categories for rebuilding the social order. Much of the difficulties in understanding the Chinese concept of class stems from the tumult within the society it is intended to analyse. As Kraus (1981) notes first revolution, then rapid industrialisation have compressed a broad range of radical social changes within a single generation. And most of all, “changing Chinese approaches to the class system of the PRC are themselves elements in the social conflict which they prescribe, illuminate and obscure” (ibid). The Party had a great interest in class analysis, which was purely strategic, never academic. Mao’s 1926 essay “the Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society” opens with the question “Who are our enemies? Who are our friends?” (Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung, 1967). In order to reach one day the desired egalitarian society that Marx had proposed for the future the party had to specify the social order of the present time and of each individual citizen. That way, potential support could be identified and mobilised, the enemies isolated and the intermediate classes be persuaded to join sides with the revolutionaries. In an attempt to identify the people who should receive benefits and those who should lose them, the Party applied a complex system of over sixty class designations which ranged from categories that were clearly bad such as capitalists and landlords, through to intermediate designations of petty bourgeoisie and middle peasant, to the workers and poor peasants in whose name the revolution had been made.1 The unfamiliarity of the ordinary people and many cadres with the Marxist notion of class categories led Mao to demand the press to publish the categories in newspapers so that all persons could understand the significance of their new class designations. Since the revolution was based in rural areas, the semi-feudal set of class designations was more elaborate than others. Kraus (1981) suggests that the differentiation of rural classes was complex both because of the wide-ranging relationships which they encompassed and because of the Party’s experience with them. It is for this reason that the designation of strata within classes was particularly rich, including e.g. hired agricultural labourer, poor peasant, middle peasant, rich peasant etc., while the varieties of landlords are even more impressive and contain a certain connotation, such as enlightened landlord, bankrupt, tyrannical, reactionary, hidden or overseas Chinese landlords.

Although the Party worked systematically in applying the theories of Karl Marx in designating the different classes, and although Marx’s theory of class has been subject to considerable controversy among academics and practicing revolutionaries, it is certain that Marx never understood class to be what twentieth-century western social science calls stratification. Unlike the latter, which is essentially a static concept, class is embedded in history, is dynamic and is centred upon the question of change. Dahrendorf (?) adds that, for Marx “the theory of class was not a theory of a cross section of society arrested in time but a tool for the explanation of changes in total societies.”

Social Change under Mao:

During empirical times prestige was generated from education, abstention from manual labour, wealth expended on the arts and education, as well as a large family with many sons and an extensive personal network. In summary, there was no sharp divide between the elite and masses, and social mobility was possible and common.

Chinese society since the second decade of the twentieth century, has been the subject of a revolution intended to change it in fundamental ways.

As the model shows, Chinese society now has a peasant class, a working class (which includes urban state workers and urban collective workers as well as urban non-state workers and peasant workers), a capitalist class (about 15 million), a cadre class (about 40 million and a quasi-cadre class (about 27 million).

According to Li Yi the basic pattern of Chinese society was established by 1960, and all changes since then, including the economic reforms in the 1980s have only been modifications and adjustments to the pattern. Li describes this pattern as “cellular”, i.e. most people belong to one large, all-embracing unit such as a factory, government office of village.

The main transformation of the society was carried out by the party during the 1950s in a series of major campaigns. Society was organised “vertical”, i.e. each individual and social group was put into a hierarchically organised system as opposed to belonging to social institutions that were organised horizontally by their members. On the macro-level one could find the pervasive system of the cerntralised buraucracy (xitong) which itself was organised according to the ‘branch’ (tiao) principle. The micro-level was represented by work-units (danwei), state-enterprises and rural collectives, which encompassed each individual’s live comprehensively. As White (1993) notes, this “system of verticality has led to social encapsulation” , which means that individuals and groups were “encloistered” within their units and separated from other units at the same level.

Cadres after 1950s:

After 1949, the Communist Party cadres became the new upper class in China, with the revolutionaries ruling the country. Their status allowed them access to materials and options that weren’t fairly distributed or otherwise reachable. Especially housing, which was in great demand particularly in the larger cities, was easily accessible for cadres who were protected from the intense competition for the scarce living space.


When the communists came to power in the 1950s, the social hierarchy changed fundametally. The communist party held peasants and those people in esteem who had joined the communist revolution. In an attempt to reduce rural inequalities, resources were confiscated from the wealthy, and since wealth consisted primarily of agricultural land, the landlord families were the target of harsh punishment campaigns. Many of the latter as well as educated elites lost their land and other properties and many were executed in retribution for the exploitation of tenant farmers. From 1951 one, the initial land reform redistributed the confiscated land equally and foremostly to those families who didn’t own any for them to farm privately. In 1953, however, a series of reformes were implemented in which the government began taking back this land, designating it as community property. “Families were required to work larger plots of land collectively, in groups of twenty to forty households” (bookrags.com, 2008) and the harvest was split between the government and the collective. At the same time, local governments took over commerce, shops, markets and other forms of private trade and replaced them by supply and marketing cooperatives and the commercial bureaus of the local governments. Thus, instead of using the farmed produce for themselves and instead of selling of the surplus on local markets, individuals were “paid” for their efforts in points by the newly established supply cooperatives, which then periodically traded the grain for money. On the whole, the size of the unit was increased and the role of private ownership as well as inherited land was decreased. By the early 1960s, an estimated 90 million family farms had been replaced by about 74,000 communes. Mao’s overall vision was to capitalise on the sheer number of peasants and effecitvely produce a surplus harvest that would help industralisation. This was known as the Great Leap forward, which is now widely regarded as a failure since it had resulted in the death of more than twenty million peasants.

Urban life after 1950:

At the same time as the land reforms were implemented in rural areas, large industries and in fact virtually all privately owned business were nationalised in the cities and craft enterprises and guilds were reorganised into large-scale cooperatives which became the branches of the local governments. Just as farmers were put into communes, state workers were placed in large work units called danweis. In an effort to ensure full employment, market competition in these firms was eliminated. People leaving school were assigned jobs bureaucratically, and once matched a job, employees could not quit voluntarily. But they could not be fired either, and thus had a job guaranteed in the same company for life with their children inheriting their position. In fact, there did not exists such a word as ‘unemploment’ in the Chinese language, according to the idea that there exist no unemployment in socialist countries, only individuals “waiting for work” (Imamura, 2003). Mobility within the danwei mostly only consisted of gaining administrative promotions. Since most of the alternative routes to social mobility were closed off, formal education continued to be the primary avenue of upward mobility. But since the urban education reform grew at a rate much faster than in rural areas, more and more workers were high school graduates. The slowing of state industries and the increasing number of qualified middle class candidates contributed to the fact that it became increasingly difficult to obtain a position as a state worker. Hence, urban youths not selected for further eduaction and those looking for work were often sent to rural areas to work in agriculture. This flow has been increased by more intensive mobilisation and a new law was passed that demanded secondary school graduates to work in agriculture for at least to years before becoming eligible for further schooling. In this mode, a total of 12 million urban youths were moved to the countryside between 1968 and 1975 (Whyte et al, 1977). These large transfers of urban people to rural areas were made possible by the state monopoly over employment and urban housing, by the hukou registration and rationing, and by the impressive political network that had alrady been established in all neighbourhoods. On the whole, one can say that this rural settlement has been accomplished by social pressure rather than by incentives to move. It is debatable whether this massive programm of population transfers was intended primarily to “avoid having large numbers of ‘unemployed’ people living in cities parasitically” (Bernstein, 1977), or whether this was meant to be part of a more positive effort to close the rural-urban gap by supplying villages with well-educated and more scientifically sophisticated personnel.

Urban inequalities were further reduced through salary compression in firms. Differences in the salary paid for high-skill, high-prestige occupations such as doctors and other professionals, and blue-collar work such as unskilled factory employees was decreased dramatically. Efforts were also maid to downplay the social importance of the former and to increase the prestige of the latter.

Ever concerned about economic inequalities, the government also appropriated wealth and abolished labout markets in urban areas. Privately owned housing was seized and subdivided into much smaller living spaces. Effectively, families could rent apartments but never purchase them, which abolished a key element in wealth inequalities because properties could not be perpetuated from generation to generation any longer.

Communist overall: position?

It is readily distinguishable that communism has brought about far-reaching changes in China with the rural population having to adjust to the shifting ideological currents. Traditionally, the average citizen, and especially the more than eighty percent rural population, had little or nothing to do with the central of local government. Most peasants’ lives were centred on their home village or township, while the family was the main unit of economic production and social activity. The Maoist revolution, however, injected the Communist party into every sphere of rural and urban life and every institution of society. Thus, for the average Chinese citizen, whether rural or urban, Communism has brought about an almost intrusive role of governmental element into the daily life and embedded itself in the operations of all significant facets of the economy and society. The formerly local, small-scale and fragmented power structure was replaced by a national and well-integrated bureaucratic system. The unpredictable consequences of market forces were replaced by administrative allocation and changing economic polices enforced by the government.


Marx did, moreover, make out the elimination of the distinction between city and countryside as one of the major goals of the future Communist society. In the 1950s, however, and ironically enough in light of Marxist pretensions the Party drove a wedge between rural and urban areas that was novel in Chinese history. Solinger (1999) explains that its chief purpose was to lock onto the land a potential underclass, ready to be exploited to fulfill the new state’s cherished project of industrialisation. The party used administrative orders and resource controls to isolate the urban population, not just geographically but socially as well. Although Marx had predicted that only capitalist states would do so, the party hoped to be to be able to draw upon the peasantry as an industrial reserve army.

The Hukou-System

By the 1960s the Chinese government had implemented their policy of household registration which was different from anything that had previously existed both in China and in the rest of the socialist world. The aim of the hukou system was to avoid over-urbanisation, to make distribution of state services through the work units and communes easter and to better prepare the population for a possible invastion by the Sovjet Union. It eliminated geographical mobility entirely since it “fixed people permanently on the basis of their birth place or their husband’s residence” (Cheng and Selden, the City) and thus made it illegal to migrate from the countryside into cities.Accordingly, all persons were required to register their place of residence officially, with records maintained by the public security office of the higher agricultural cooperative in the countryside and in the neighborhood in cities. From then on, residence status became an ascribed, inherited one, which determined an individual’s entire livelihood and welfare based on the location of the registration. Since rations of grain, cloth and other needed articles were tied to one’s hukou, individuals living in urban areas without permission had to live off friends, relatives or the black market.

Although a class system in the usual sense was abolished, a new set of categories, if not precisely a new class system supplanted the dismantled class hierarchy of the past. There were 6 different levels of ranks, in descending order: peasants, non-peasants, city and town residents, urbanities, those in large cities, and those in cities directly administered by the central government.

“Just after liberation, peasant households did not fell lower rank (diren yideng) and urban ones did not feel higher… Later, a great difference in interest came from the differences in where one lived… A ranking structure was gradually established with the peasant household at the lowest level.” (Ging, Zhongguo xianxing). Therefore, one can conclude that the hukou system did actually set up a new class distinctions between the rural and urban populace. This understanding of class draws upon Honig’s work on the ethnicity of native place in China, in which she offers the rich insight that native-place identity, and thus the urban-versus-rural-identity can well serve as “a metaphor for class” (Honig, Creating Chinese Ethnicity).

The boundaries placed around the rural population as a whole rendered the peasantry as a separate, inferior class or status group in comparison to urban residents. Because the generic peasant was not legally prohibited from migrating, when the Hukou was destroyed in (?), migration took on a totally state-determined and ‘class’-based dimension. As Kraus rightly states, “the CCP first set boundaries around peasants, marking them off as a separate, ascribed status group – almost a pariah class – and then barring them from entering urban areas.” Or if they did enter, it was never as citizens, but as subjects, who were not supported with the rationed food or access to welfare services. When peasants and semi-peasants entered the city, the often felt comparatively deprived by the tightly locked city walls. Whereas everyone was poor in the country side, differences in wealth were readily obvious after entering the city.

Impact of Economic Reform on Chinese Society

On the eve of reform, the structure of Chinese civil society was similar to a typical less-developed country of the third world, despite Mao’s efforts to make certain industrial and technological advancements, which were most notable in the nuclear armaments sector. As Chinese social statistical data (Zhongguo shehui tongji ziliao) states, in 1978 eightytwo percent of the population were rural, 71% of the country’s labour force worked in agriculture or related activites, 93.3% worked in manual labour as opposed to mental ones and the private sector was negligible so that the main destinction was between state and collective sectors. The vast majority of the people, i.e. 76% worked in rural collectives, and only 5.1% in urban collectives. 18.6 % of the people worked for state enterprises. White (1993) concludes, that this institutional devide reinforced the rural-urban distintion because levels of income and conditions of work were generally superior in state firms. Since the rise of other classes such as self-employed or private entrepreneurs was prohibited, China’s social structure on the eve of reform was relatively homogenous. According to White, the ‘official’ structure only contained two classes (workers and peasants) and one stratum (intelligentsia). In an attempt to further homogenise the members of each social group, uniform conditions of work were imposed upon them and the emergence of internal differences limited.

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The economic reforms, on the whole, have affected the specific social classes in different ways and have led to changes in the existing groups and have even led to the rise of new ones. This has created a new political environment which may affect the fundamental credibility of the communist regime and may influence the policy process in the future. The main impact of the reforms on society can be described as its shift “away from the state and its ancillary agencies” (ibid) towards individuals, households, firms and groups. The change in the relationship between the state and society has brought about an uneven redistribution of economic power for the latter and this dispersion of greater social power has opened up the potential for a new social sphrere with greater social autonomy from the state. One can possible observe the shoots of an incipient civil society which also brings about crucial implications for China’s long-term political future.

These shifts were part of a broader process of rapid social differentiation. Chinese social structure has become more complex both in terms of structure and attitudes because the existing classes have itself become more internally complex due to diversification in the different economic sectors, in the forms of ownership and the levels of income.

Some of the new classes and strata that have emerged are: The nuveau-riche peasant, who have made money quickly in recent years through specialised agricultural production or diversification into the local industries, trade and services. (see Song article); Private entrepreneurs in the cities, who have accumulated small fortunes through personal initiatives, specialised skills or good guanxi-networks; A growing number of entrepreneurial managers in state-owned enterprises who are well attuned to the spreading logic of market competition.

Moreover, Chinese society has become more fluid and dynamic again and there has been a rapid increase in horizontal mobility within the countryside, between urban and rural areas and between regions.


The political apparatus used to destroy the old inequalities has itself given rise to a new set of social distinctions. Political power has been employed to transform Chinese society but it seems that the Party changed society faster than it has been able to modify its comprehension of a dynamic social structure. As Wallerstein concludes, “classes do not have some permanent reality. Rather, they are formed, they consolidate themselves, they disintegrate or disaggregate, and are reformed. It is a process of constant movement, and the greatest barrier to understanding their action is reification.”

In the capitalist society movement between classes is a possibility. Hence the use of the term “The American Dream” to show the ability of people to ascend to a higher class through hard work and ingenuity. “Class composition is forever changing, to the point where there may be a completely new set of families.” (Schumpeter, 165)

Furthermore, China’s leaders wanted to change some aspects that were found in the traditional society such as the content of education and rural tenure, but they left other aspects, e.g. the family structure, largely untouched.

In the villages the army offered the only reasonable alternative to a lifetime spent in the fields, and in fact, demobilised soldiers staffed much of the local administrative structure in rural areas.

Systematic attempt by the regime to contain society within a limited number of categories.

1 see handout about social classes


Hurst, Charles E. (2007). Social Inequality Forms, Causes, and Consequences Sixth Edition. Allyn and Bacon Boston, MA.

Weber, Max. (1964). The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. edited by Talcott Parsons. New York, NY: The Free Press

Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1967, 1:13

(Wallerstein, I. (1975) ‘Class-Formation in the Capitalist World-Economy’, Politics and Society, Volume 5(3) p. 369)

White, G. (1993), Riding the Tiger – The Politics of Economic Reform in Post-Mao China. London: Macmillan.

http://www.bookrags.com/research/social-stratificationchina-ema-05/ as at 3rd. April 2008.

Imamura, H. (2003) ‘Unemployment Problems and Unemployment Insurance in China’ Far Eastern Studies Vol.2 (March), pp.45-67.

Whyte, M.K., Vogel, E.F., and Parish, W.L. (1977) ‘Social Structure of World Regions: Mainland China’ Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 3, pp. 179-207.

Bernstein, T. (1977) The Transfer of Urban Youth to the Countryside: Revolutionary Change in China. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press.

Zhongguo shehui tongji ziliao (ZGSHTJZL; China Social Statistical Data


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