What is the social structure of China


Prof. Dr. Thomas Heberer

To person

Prof. Dr. Thomas Heberer, born in 1947, Professor of East Asian Politics at the Institute for East Asian Studies and at the Institute for Political Science at the University of Duisburg-Essen. His research interests: political and social change in China, the political cultures of China, questions of nationality politics and various aspects of political and social development.

China is a country in upheaval; While the modern age has arrived in the cities and the economy is growing, millions of Chinese live in poverty in the countryside.

While cities are prospering in China, rural areas are still poor. (& copy AP)

The economic reforms have led to social upheaval in China. As a result of the return to family farming in rural areas, surplus labor (an estimated 100 to 150 million people) who were no longer needed in the agricultural sector pushed into self-employment and at the same time into urban areas. To ease this pressure, the state allowed rural workers to reside temporarily in cities in the mid-1980s. In doing so, he relaxed the household registration system (chin .: Hukou system), which since the 1950s has forbidden farmers to move from the countryside to the city without official approval, a measure that was intended to stabilize cities and prevent rural exodus. Rural artisans, traders and migrant workers now filled the vacuum of services and cheap labor. At the same time, they formed the core for the emergence and rapid development of a private economic sector, which was ultimately accepted by the political leadership and represented the basis for market-economy structures. With over 90 percent of all companies and around 50 percent of all employees, this sector has developed most dynamically in recent times and is making a significant contribution to China's high growth rates. Small, medium-sized and large entrepreneurs formed that were not only economically active, but increasingly also socio-politically active.

The rapid economic development and the integration into the world market at the same time promoted the emergence of a class of academically trained specialists and thus an important group of the urban middle classes. The importance of technically and academically educated people in business, society and politics has also increased significantly. Since the 1990s, a university or technical college degree has been a prerequisite for leading party and government functions from the central to the community level. As a result, the political elites have changed from the central to the local level: They are better educated and no longer oriented towards revolution, but modernization.

Growing inequalities

The new social differentiation is the result of the transition to market economy structures and the associated profit opportunities. Growing social division of labor, the use of market opportunities and market gaps, the opportunities offered by private entrepreneurship, but also illegal activities and corruption are the causes of growing social inequality and huge income differences.
These can be seen primarily between urban and rural areas, but also within urban and rural layers. While the income difference between the 20 percent of the population with the highest and the 20 percent with the lowest income was about four times as much in 1990, in 2004 it was already almost 13 times. In 1990 the 20 percent of households with the lowest incomes still had a share of nine percent of total income, in 1998 only 5.5. Conversely, the proportion of 20 percent households with the highest incomes rose from 39 percent of total income to around 52 in the same period and even exceeded the 80 percent limit in 2003. Since a large part of the income is not recorded statistically, the income differences are in reality much larger than shown statistically.

Growing inequality is also reflected in the consciousness of the population. Chinese surveys in various cities in 2003 showed that only 1.5 percent of those questioned believed that the reforms had had a positive effect on the workforce. 59 and 55 percent, respectively, were of the opinion that they had mainly brought the officials and private entrepreneurs advantages. Displeasure has also grown among urban workers in recent years. One reason is the social and material insecurity, especially in the old industrial regions, where the majority of state-owned companies have collapsed or are insolvent. Many of those officially labeled "exempted from post" are in fact unemployed without any material support. The state is increasingly having to deal with outbreaks of social frustration and crime.