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Inequality and Its Enemies in Revolutionary and Reform China

During the epochs of revolution and reform in China over the past six decades, under what conditions have heightened inequality and perceptions of inequality translated into the discernment of inequity and the stimulus to challenge the order perpetuating it? The paper throws light on the key institutions and mechanisms underlying, structuring and restructuring patterns of inequality, the changing features of popular resistance that inequality has bred, and the contested meanings and discourses of it.

CHINA SINCE 1978Economic & Political Weekly EPW december 27, 200827Inequality and Its Enemies in Revolutionary and Reform ChinaChing Kwan Lee, Mark SeldenSocial inequality has been a core problem at the heart of sociological analysis since the birth of the social sciences. China’s recent development – from one of world’s most egalitarian societies on the eve of reform in the 1970s to becom-ing, by 1995, one of the most unequal in Asia, and then, by the early 2000s, in the world – and the rash of social protest that has accompanied these changes – has naturally spawned a bur-geoning literature documenting and assessing patterns of inequality (Zhou 2004; Li et al 2004; Lu2002,Walder,Liand Treiman 2000; Xie and Hannum 1996; Bian1994;Ravallionand Chen 2007; Khan and Riskin 2005; Wan 2008;Huang2008). Increased accessibility both to official survey data and research in local communities has allowed researchers to amass large and increasingly sophisticated data sets documenting income distri-bution, social mobility and structures of inequality. Working within the “stratification paradigm”, these empirical studies have overcome a major obstacle confronted by a previous generation of China scholars studying social inequality: the dearth of scien-tific data. The essays collected in James L Watson’sClass and Social Stratification in Post-RevolutionChina, published as recently as 1984, mostly relied on the official press in the absence of local, regional or national surveys.Themostdirect access to Chinese society in the book involved “emigrant inter-views” conducted outside China. In less than 20 years, the socio-logical and economic literatures, including large-scale surveys and detailed ethnographies, like the realities they seek to explain, has been drastically transformed.Nevertheless, if the field has gained in data collection, preci-sion of measurement, sample size and statistical and ethno-graphic sophistication, the understanding of patterns and struc-tures of Chinese inequality confronts two major pitfalls that superior data and techniques cannot resolve. There is yet to emerge a compelling institutional, or political economic, analysis of the defining characteristics and patterns of Chinese social rela-tions against which to gauge inequality. This has been true both in China, throughout the epochs of revolution and reform, and internationally. Indeed, there remains disagreement on the very terrain on which China’s most compelling inequalities rest. The “stratification paradigm” is concerned with explaining individual positions and movements across empty places in a social struc-ture of unequal income, occupational status, and life chances. Without a theory of social structure, and a methodology appro-priate to it, it is almost impossible to meaningfully measure and interpret inequality (Burawoy 1977). Should one measure indi-vidual or household income or assets, access to medical service, During the epochs of revolution and reform in China over the past six decades, under what conditions have heightened inequality and perceptions of inequality translated into the discernment of inequity and the stimulus to challenge the order perpetuating it? The paper throws light on the key institutions and mechanisms underlying, structuring and restructuring patterns of inequality, the changing features of popular resistance that inequality has bred, and the contested meanings and discourses of it. Ching Kwan Lee (, author of Against the Law: Labour Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt(University of California Press, 2007), is with the Sociology Department, University of California, Los Angeles, USA. Mark Selden ( is with the East Asia Program, Cornell University and is a coordinator of The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus.
CHINA SINCE 1978december 27, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly28or access to education? How big an income gap is big? These are empirical questions with theoretical consequences. In examining the scores of articles and studies of Chinese inequality produced in Chinese and English in recent decades, we note the absolute poverty of interpretive structural analysis, that is, analysis that moves from increasingly sophisticated weighing of the numbers to gauging their wide-ranging social and structural conse-quences. What is the nature of the contemporary class structure and its predecessor during the revolutionary epoch that followed from land reform? Indeed, is social class a useful vehicle for assessing social inequality in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), whether at the height of revolutionary mobilisation or during the contemporary epoch of market and mobility and what are the best indicators for clarifying class dynamics? How are we to define regions in order to best capture spatial disparity? Candidates that have been put forward for understanding spa-tial disparities include coastal and inland regions, mountain and lowland regions, city and countryside, intra-and comparative provincial measures. Without any theoretical framework for grasping social structure, survey data and statistical techniques may generate artefacts that clarify little of the underlying reali-ties. Moreover, the crude distinction between “market” and “redistribution” invoked by many stratification studies belies the institutional complexity as well as variation across time and localities in the past six decades. Obviously, the market in the “market economy” in the 1980s was very different from that of today; allowing getihu (peddlers) to purchase and sell goods is not the same as privatising vast state owned enterprises with ownership and control passing to well-positioned cadres and their business allies; township and village enterprises, whether of the collective or privately owned variety, differ in funda-mentals from international investors in factories employing tens of thousands of migrant workers, and so forth. These are but a sample of the empirical questions that must be addressed in mov-ing towards a theoretical paradigm for understanding China’s social structure.The long dominant stratification paradigm also fails to shed light on the historical meanings and political and moral centra-lity of inequality issues in the Chinese revolutionary and reform experience. Using the currently hegemonic and ostensibly “neu-tral” language of social strata, return to human capital and mobi-lity obscures the fact that, in contrast to the United States or United Kingdom, class membership has frequently been a matter of life and death (as in the land revolution) and the product not merely of social relations but of state-sanctioned categorisation with legal and political implications. Class labels – here we refer both to social class origins (chengfen) and spatial class designa-tions (hukou) – have been constitutive elements defining not only changing economic and social positions but also political posi-tions and subjectivities in Chinese society from the revolutionary epoch of the 1940s through the reforms of the 1980s to the present. Discourses of class, class exploitation, and class equality and social justice were used to restructure society, as in land reform followed by rural cooperative formation and collectivisa-tion and, to some extent, in the processes leading to nationalisa-tion of industry. They also provided the language to legitimise regime suppression of political dissent (as in the Hundred Flo-wers movement, Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and pro-democracy movements in 1978 and 1989, among others. With suppression of the language of social class and class struggle since the 1980s, far from disappearing, social classes and other class designations have assumed new forms. The language of class and exploitation was deployed by rebel activists during the Cultural Revolution to challenge illegitimate official malfeasance and rally popular support to rebel banners. In recent years, comparable discourses have fuelled popular out-rage about income disparity, official corruption and collusion with big business, drawing on revolutionary themes that many believed were long moribund. But rarely have the contemporary issues been framed in class terms. Recently, the stratification paradigm, promoted by sociologists at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has fallen prey to the regime’s project to individ-ualise, depoliticise and rationalise the patterns of inequality that are the product of “marketisation”, including the sale of state industrial assets, the sale of land, the elimination of welfare and health benefits associated with the former state regime. These, and issues associated with official corruption, all of which have sparked popular resistance, have pressured the regime to formu-late official responses that promise rectification of all of the pat-terns of inequality associated with these and other abuses, even as they direct popular anger away from the streets and towards the law and the courts. We inquire into the conditions under which heightened inequality and perception of inequality may be translated into the perception of inequity and the stimulus to challenge the order which perpetuates it at the expense of the poorest and most dispossessed.The fact of the matter is that neither the successive “class lines” of the revolutionary period nor the stratification paradigm of the reform era resulted in a compelling structural analysis of post-revolutionary society. In the revolutionary era that we may date from land reform in the years 1947-52 to the mid-1970s, class analysis pivoted on chengfen or class origin and obfuscated the social structure and relations defining wealth and power in the People’s Republic. Likewise, subsequent stratification models since the mid-1970s drew attention away from structural verities, in particular, from the intersections of official power and private wealth that have shaped Chinese society down to the present. It is precisely such structural analyses that are critical if analysis of issues of income distribution and other determinants of inequa-lity are to illuminate the social order or open the way to a more equitable society.In short, we need to be reflexive of the ways “inequality” is socially and politically constructed as well as morally and emo-tively apprehended. Elsewhere, sociologists studying inequality in Latin America have similarly found the language of social stratification inadequate for capturing the multivalent dynamics of complex societies. In that “lop-sided continent”, characterised by glaring polarisation of wealth, a substantial informal pro-letariat, pervasive breakdown of public order and violence of everyday life, conventional stratification categories, with their assumption of hidden and non-violent power, fail to convey “an inequality that can only be understood through a constant
CHINA SINCE 1978Economic & Political Weekly EPW december 27, 200829and daily reinforced flow of blood” (Hoffman and Centeno 2003: 373). In this brief paper, we can only sketch the broad contours of what we consider a more reflexive perspective that illuminates: (1) the key institutions and mechanisms underlying, structuring and restructuring patterns of inequality over the past six dec-ades; (2) the changing features of popular resistance that consti-tute the most important responses to inequalities and injustices; (3) the contested meanings and discourses of inequality during the two epochs that we call revolution and reform. Some of these themes can be found scattered in the China literature. We seek to synthesise them into a more coherent framework that can illumi-nate both changing structures and social movements. We take inequality to mean unequal distribution of income, wealth, life chances and basic needs entitlements. Section 1 traces the evolution of three durable hierarchies producing inequality in Chinese society – class, citizenship and locality – whose mech-anisms and interplay have been in flux across time and space since the 1940s. Section 2 turns to the changing modes of the politics of inequality. We argue that large-scale, party-initiated mass mobilisations on a national scale have yielded to more loca-lised and fragmented patterns of state intervention and social protest initiated from below. In Section 3, we note the changing academic, political and popular constructions of inequality and justice, particularly the muting of class rhetoric and subjectivities and their replacement by a discourse of efficiency, legal rights, citizenship and stratification.1 Class, Spatial Hierarchies and Citizenship Rights The revolutionary processes of land reform and collectivisation transformed and homogenised the complex social structure of pre-revolutionary rural China. On the one hand, land reform eliminated property-based income inequality, giving rise to a highly egalitarian intra-village income distribution. On the other, a two-tier structure of collectivised villagers and cadres emerged in the course of land reform and collectivisation with the latter exercising a monopoly on political power. In the formal structure of the revolutionary period, class origin (chengfen) was fixed by birth, on the basis of purported position in the pre-land reform social landscape. The result was to create a frozen set of catego-ries in which landlords and rich peasants, long since stripped of the property and wealth that once defined their class position, constituted a new social stratum at the lowest echelons of the collective order. In this “transvaluation” of values, these so-called “class” enemies and others stigmatised as “bad elements” would be repeatedly made the scapegoat and attacked in political cam-paigns. The various labels concealed the fact that inequality was no longer founded on property ownership or market outcomes, but was a political category with economic and social conse-quences enforced by the state and reinforced by mass mobilisa-tion politics at the grass roots. Stated differently, the party com-mitted to class revolution deliberately concealed and obfuscated the primary class relations of the post-land reform political sys-tem through its imposition of chengfen categories. In this sense, a regime emerged in China’s countryside predicated on high levels of intra-village income and ownership equality but presiding over an order characterised by unequal citizenship with state-distributed entitlements to social groups differentiated on the basis of their political loyalty and class-defined positions. In this system, intra-village income differentials were primarily determined by house-hold labour power, with little reference to land or property ownership. We consider below subsequent differentiations of citizenship rights.The party spearheaded a parallel drive, but one that involved less popular mobilisation, to transform the urban class structure through the expropriation of merchants and capitalists and the socialisation of industry in the form of state and collective own-ership and management of industry and commerce. In the wake of socialisation, permanent workers in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) gained lifetime employment and a welfare package that included healthcare, housing, and generous retirement benefits. Significant income, benefit and status differentials remained within worker ranks. Only workers in core (mainly large)SOEs obtained the “big” welfare package that provided lifetime employment, free healthcare for family members and many amenities such as generous retirement benefits, benefits unavail-able to workers in smaller state enterprises and urban collective enterprises. Nevertheless, nationalisation of industry, like rural collectivisation, produced substantial homogeneity of income and consumption in China’s cities as property-based differentials virtually disappeared. The deepest social divide in the cities was not within the ranks of workers but, as in the countryside, it was between workers and cadres and was mediated by a graded pay scale based on the Soviet model. The result was somewhat larger yet still modest income differentials compared with those found in the country-side. Cadres monopolised political power, and they had access to scarce resources such as special shops, and services available only to the most privileged workers. In sum, then, inequality in revolutionary China hinged neither on differential ownership of the means of production nor on substantial difference in wealth, but on differential access to power and privilege mediated through the party state, which controlled both collectives and SOEs and through them the labour and remuneration of working people in both rural and urban China. Stated differently, in revo-lutionary China we find the rise of a party-dominated bureau-cratic class (Djilas 1957; Konrad and Szelenyi 1979; Friedman, Pickowicz and Selden 1991 and 2005) with power based on posi-tions in the state and collective hierarchies and its ability to con-trol urban access, rather than on private ownership of the means of production.Another state institution has structured inequality in the form of rural-urban hierarchy, producing what in essence is an unequal citizenship regime. In 1960, when the Great Leap Forward failed, propelling China into famine, the party tightened the population registration (hukou) system that had begun to take shape in 1955, erecting a great wall between city and countryside, locking rural people into their villages and cutting off most remaining intra-rural and urban-rural exchanges that were not sanctioned and controlled by the state. The state also continued to siphon off the rural surplus to urban industry primarily via compulsory grain sales at state-imposed low prices and secondarily through
CHINA SINCE 1978december 27, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly30taxation, a mechanism central to industrialisation in the early decades of the PRC (Cheng and Selden 1994; Fei-ling Wang 2005). To be sure, urban wages were set low, but the combination of cash incomes (rural people mainly earned income in kind), lifetime employment, pensions and healthcare (provided by the state for urban workers and employees only), the subsi-dised ration system, and superior schools, all worked to the decisive advantage of urban workers and employees. The result was a formal two-track system differentiating city and coun-tryside, state sector and collective enterprises with hukou as the mediating institution. The significance of the urban-rural divide is driven home with particular clarity by two sets of facts. First, nearly all of the mil-lions who starved to death during the Great Leap famine – the data and their explanation remain elusive and the figures con-tested, but the most credible estimates range from 10 to more than 20 million extra deaths – were rural people. (Riskin 1998 poses critical methodological questions about the scale and explanation of deaths, but the fact that the countryside bore the brunt of hardship is not in doubt.) In the face of severe nation-wide famine, the state protected urban residents from starvation. Viewing city and countryside as a whole, urban per capita grain consumption dipped slightly, from 201 kg per person in 1959 to an average of 187 kg in the years 1960-63, before returning to previous levels. By contrast, rural grain consumption plummeted from 201 kg per person in 1958 to just 168 kg in the years 1960-63 and did not return to 1958 levels until 1979 (Taylor and Hardee 1986). Second, in 1961 the state “sent down” (xiaxiang) 20 mil-lion urban workers, thereby shifting its burden of feeding and providing work for them in famine times to a countryside that already had a large labour surplus and confronted acute hunger. This first wave of “sent down” urban denizens would be followed by the dispatch to rural areas of close to 20 million urban junior high and high school graduates in the years between 1964 and 1976, ostensibly to bridge the urban-rural gap through their con-tributions as farmers to rural development, but in fact, relieving the state of the obligation to provide jobs and benefits for them. To be sent down was to lose (in most cases permanently) the lar-gesse of the state (Friedman, Pickowicz and Selden 2005). Yet, we want to emphasise two points in reflecting on spatial patterns of inequality. First, the duality of rural-urban hierarchy in practice functioned more like a spectrum, extending from metropolitan cities, to suburbia, to smaller cities including county and township seats, to remote villages in interior provinces with schooling opportunities, healthcare programmes and food rationing entitlements varying not only with urban and rural designation but also with specific positions within each category during the revolutionary epoch. Relaxation of certain hukou restrictions since the 1980s has made possible the flood of migrant labourers into Chinese cities but without eliminating the second class citizenship and stigma on rural residents, including those who have lived and worked in cities for decades. Even in today’s cities, access to education for migrants’ children, housing subsi-dies helping employees to purchase their own homes, and even voting rights still hinge on having alocalurban hukou (Chan and Zhang 1999; Li 2006; Wu 2006). Second, while the unequal citizenship regime has existed since 1960, it has only been in the reform period since the 1970s that the implications of the wide disparities between rural and urban residents have been widely recognised in terms of discriminatory citizenship practices. This growing awareness is largely due to the palpable presence of a 120 million-strong liminal group, “migrant peasant workers” (nongmingong), in and around Chinese cities, and the blatant, at times even fatal, abuse sustained by migrants as a result of the hukou system. The death of Sun Zhigang in 2003 and the public outcry against discrimination of these second class citizens led the state council to abolish the regulation on detention and deportation, yet the legal system continues to discriminate against those lacking urban hukou. The combination of increas-ing income differential and conspicuous consumption during the reform era has made discrimination against rural residents and urban migrants palpable and blatant at a time when the Chinese state has retreated from direct responsibility for guaranteeing subsistence and welfare in favour of a market-centred approach. Reform of the hukou system and the emergence of a vast migrant population since the 1980s throw into sharp relief the mix of new and old mechanisms producing inequality in the reform period. If inequalities in the revolutionary period were largely products of state mobilisation and enforcement carried out under conditions in which domestic markets and interface with the world economy were tightly controlled, then the reform period is notable for the growing salience of domestic and global capital in restructuring inequalities and for adjustment in the political style of the party contingent on a shift in emphasis from mobilisation to the market, with new opportunities for translat-ing political position into wealth. Thanks to persistent political monopoly, party officials are well placed to “commodify” their bureaucratic position in the market economy, exacerbating the income and asset gap between cadres and citizens. The result is that class relations, rooted in ownership of property, money and various means of production have returned and have become sharply polarised and visible not only in the forms of ownership and authority relations, but also in income and benefit hierar-chies and even citizenship rights (On new patterns of intra-rural inequality see Zhou, Han and Harrell 2008). The transformation in citizenship regime is immensely complex. While social benefits have been drastically reduced for all, including former collective farmers and especially state sector workers, certain civilrights, including the right to work, sign contracts, and possess prop-erty, which have recourse to legal justice, and geographical mobility, have all increased. We discuss each of these dimensions briefly. The post-collective rural order pivoted on the combination of the household responsibility system in agriculture, that is, house-hold farming based on contracts on land distributed equally to households on a per capita basis, and the expansion of rural industry and markets. Rural per capita income more than dou-bled between 1978 and 1984, and real rural per capita consump-tion increased by 51% between 1978 and 1983. The ratio of urban to rural per capita income, by one informed estimate, fell from 2.37 in 1978 to 1.7 in 1983 (Khan and Riskin 2001: 4). This impres-sive improvement was the result not only of higher agricultural
CHINA SINCE 1978Economic & Political Weekly EPW december 27, 200831output, but also of labour productivity gains, favourable purchas-ing prices, and flourishing rural entrepreneurship in industry and commerce, and taking the form of both collective and private enterprises. Based on previously unexplored Ministry of Agricul-ture, bank and taxation data, Yasheng Huang (2008) has revealed a golden decade of rural entrepreneurship in the 1980s, fuelled by a veritable financial revolution in the country-side and centred in particular in poorer localities. The state councilencouraged rural credit cooperatives to source deposits, compete and lend across regions, authorising loans to villagers in industrial and commercial businesses that were the descendents of the former communes. If Huang slights the collective origins of the early township and village enterprises (TVEs) and their contribution to rural income gains in the years 1978-89, he rightly recognises the growing pri-vatisation of TVEs and of autonomous private and joint enter-prises in the course of the decade. The result was phenomenal growth of township and village enterprises, the absolute majority of which were private, with almost all new entrants being pri-vate. Among 12 million or soTVEs in the mid-1980s, 10 million were private. According to Huang, this decade of virtuous, entre-preneurial capitalism benefiting the poor, including many in the poorest regions of rural China, came to an end with the Tianan-men crackdown of 1989, spearheaded by leaders with strong career roots in major cities and SOEs. Rural political and fiscal management was centralised and private sector access to capital to engage in non-farm activities became very difficult to access. What Huang styles as China’s “commanding-heights capitalism” in the 1990s was state-led, biased towards urban areas, foreign capital and the official elite, corruption-ridden, and detrimental to rural interests in myriad ways including skyrocketing rural illiteracy and the decline of rural health services. “GDP growth in the 1990s increasingly was disconnected from the welfare of Chi-nese citizens. Surveys revealed that the ratio of household income per capita – relative to GDP per capita – declined continuously during the decade” (Huang 2008: 173).While Huang rightly notes the relative decline of the country-side vis-à-vis the cities in the booming 1990s, we emphasise regional patterns of differentiation within rural China and other forms of spatial inequality. Since the mid-1980s, fiscal decentrali-sation has spawned growing income disparities between industr-ialised and more prosperous rural areas on the one hand, and poorer predominantly agricultural rural areas on the other. In the simplest terms, the route out of the most extreme poverty for most rural people since the 1970s has been and remains contin-gent on obtaining non-agricultural employment for one or more family members. Despite the gains associated with expanded non-agricultural employment of the early reform period, other factors have worked to the detriment of villagers. In interior regions in particular, decentralisation weakened control by the centre over local cadres who no longer fear anti-corruption cam-paigns. The lack of political accountability and lack of market opportunity as the state slashed loans to private entrepreneurs in rural backwaters aggravated the burden on villagers in inland areas, even as the central government attempted to halt illegal levies and reduce agricultural taxes. By contrast, in enterprising coastal areas, rural industries draw on the entrepreneurship of local officials, forming “developmental communities” which prospered on a formidable alliance of local officials, foreign and domestic capital, and access to unlimited supplies of migrant labour on a scale exceeding even that anticipated by economic theorist Arthur Lewis (Zweig 2002; Friedman, Pickowicz and Selden 2005). The central government in the years 2004-06 eliminated the state agricultural tax and transferred additional funds to compensate local areas for the lost revenues (Lin, Tao and Liu 2006: 20-26). It remains to be seen, however, whether this will prevent the exaction of heavy illegal fees on villagers, particularly in poorer localities which have little benefited from the boom experienced in coastal and other core areas and which have largely been cut off from bank loans.Since the late 1980s, a new round of accumulation has been driven by the combination of domestic and global capital, and by an alliance of officials and private capital. Our attention focuses on the second class status of the approximately 200 million migrants living and working in the cities, but with rural household registrations, who remain locked into an exploitative “bonded labour system” (Chan 2000). Its features include the frequent non-payment of wages and the paucity of benefits, both facilitated by the marginal legal status of migrants. While significant numbers of rural workers have made income gains through employment in coastal and urban industry, the rural-urban dualism tends to hold down wage levels and maintain a subordinated labour force that is without union representation and with few rights or benefits. At the same time, privatisation by stages and widespread bank-ruptcy of state-owned enterprises in the 1990s led to devastating setbacks including the loss of lifetime employment and benefits for state sector workers, long the heart of the industrial sector. The numbers of laid off workers in different types of unemploy-ment, given euphemistic names like waiting for work, early retirement, and taking long vacations, quietly grew in the early 1990s. It then leaped from 3 million in 1993 to a cumulative total of 25 million by the end of 2001, with internal sources giving fig-ures as high as 60 million (Solinger 2005). By 2002, a new class of urban poor had emerged, estimated to be about 15-31 million, or 4-8% of the urban population (Tang 2003-4). Chinese official statistics placed the number of registered unemployed in cities at 8.35 million in October, 2008, a 4% unemployment rate, on the eve of the world economic downturn (AsiaNews 2008).Privatisation of SOEs has simultaneously produced both the urban poor and the new rich while transforming the character of the cadre elite. Taking advantage of their effective control over the assets ofSOEs and ambiguities in the reform measures, since the 1990s, managers and local officials have illicitly transferred public property into their own hands on a massive scale (Qian 1996). In this way, responsibility for loss-making state enterprises was placed on the shoulders of the workers while leading cadres enjoyed the opportunity to seize control of factories at bargain basement prices and lay off their employees, formerly extolled as “the leading class”. In the process of “commodifying”, privatising and frequently embezzling state assets, foreign direct investment (FDI) plays a pivotal role. From 1979 to 2002, $446 billion in uti-lisedFDI made China the second largest recipient of FDI behind
CHINA SINCE 1978december 27, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly32only the US, a position it would consolidate in subsequent years. In 2007, FDI increased by 14% to $82.7 billion (Jiang 2008). These were not simply capital infusions. In 1999, for example, 60% of China’s FDI inflows took the form of mergers and acquisitions (M&A) (Gu 1999).The “commodification” of urban and suburban land use rights has provided particularly fertile ground for the growth of the new bureaucratic-business elite. Urban land is totally “state-owned”, or owned by government administrative or economic units. In the reform period, however, China’s “socialist land masters” began establishing development companies. Selling land use rights to commercial developers and largely bypassing the villagers who tilled the land, they reaped huge fortunes (Hsing 2006). The loss of state assets through illicit land use transfers since the late 1980s has been estimated in the range of 10 billion yuan per year. Between 1999 and 2002, documented illegal land sales totalled 550,000 cases involving 1.2 billion square metres of urban land (Sun 2004: 36). Indeed, this is the land counterpart to the privati-sation of SOEs, in each case the public assets being transferredinto the hands of well-positioned cadres at the expense ofvillagersand workers who were left with token payment.In its high speed growth since the late 1970s, China has gene-rated substantial income gains that have been shared across city and countryside extending to most villagers and urban workers, officials, and investors. At the same time the gains have been highly skewed, with major losers including formerly protected workers in state industry and large segments of the peasantry. We have attempted to sketch some of the ways in which income differentials are rooted in fundamental class differences and in city-countryside differences that have restructured parameters of social, economic and political life and extended to core rights of citizenship during the reform era. New forms of income-and property-based inequality have re-emerged with the dismantling of collectives, privatisation of state enterprises, the triumph of market mechanisms, the end of lifetime employment in cities, and the growth of corruption at the interface of government and business. The persistence of egalitarian land distribution remains the last bulwark for rural security, but it too is under stress, with land seizure by officials becoming common, notably in suburban and urban areas where the potential for enormous profit exists, and with 2008 legislation easing the sale of household plots potentially easing the stripping of rural people of land rights. Citizenship continues to be conditioned by city-countryside divi-sions, with citizenship rights centred in and differentiated by hukou locations. Cadre privileges have been greatly augmented in the reform era as bureaucratic-business alliances in many guises hold the keys to wealth and power in both city and coun-tryside, resulting in exacerbating in new ways perhaps the most important gulf in social inequality in contemporary China. 2 Politics of InequalityAmong the weaknesses of the stratification paradigm when applied to China is its obliteration of the deeply political implica-tions of inequality through reduction of the issues to income dif-ferentials. But issues of equality and justice have always been the springboard both for regime mobilisation and popular resistance in both the revolutionary and reform eras. In this section, we underscore several features of this politics of inequality. First, while the party has repeatedly used the eradication of inequality as a means to consolidate political control over society, the proc-ess of mass mobilisation in the name of equality and justice had real effects in transforming not only structures of inequality but also people’s social consciousness and standards of justice, above all in a land reform programme that tapped deep social discon-tents. Second, the persistence of certain old forms of inequality, and above all the creation of new patterns of socialist inequality, has provoked societal resistance. This has frequently directed against local representatives of the party-state, with demands for equality and justice inspired in part by revolutionary ideology. Third, the scale and pattern of social activism in response to ine-quality have evolved through the revolutionary era to the reform era, with new targets emerging in response to changes in class structure and the nature of the party state. Fourth, the party has always deflected attention away from structured inequalities, particularly those associated with social class, for which its own policies bear responsibility. We illustrated this earlier with its use both of chengfen (class origin) and its call to class struggle as means of ordering society in ways that distracted from aware-ness of actual existing class and spatial inequalities. The communist revolution from the beginning proclaimed the elimination of class inequality among its historical missions. Despite the elimination of property-based “classes” in the years 1947-56, notably in land revolution, class struggle subsequently came to be employed in ways that obfuscated existing class rela-tions. Thereafter, the party repeatedly brandished class catego-ries to attack the old bourgeoisie and landlords, losers of the civil war who had long since been deprived of wealth, power and pres-tige. Maoists warned against the emergence of newly privileged groups within the party, but this was a conception largely devoid of analysis of social structure that became a tool of officials eager to obscure the existence of a privileged stratum (Kraus 1977). Deprived of an objective basis rooted in property or privilege, class designation and the content of class conflicts were reduced to political struggles among factions and individuals. Inherited family background, political virtue and behaviour, allegiance to certain policy lines were invoked to define classification as revo-lutionary or reactionary elements, good or bad classes, the ene-mies or the people. The China scholarship has documented the many campaigns led by the party to eradicate exploiting classes in city and coun-tryside (Hinton 1966; Schurmann 1968; Selden 1979; Friedman, Pickowicz and Selden 1991; Unger 2007). Notorious for their vio-lence, these campaigns were predicated on mass mobilisation of the entire population. Jonathan Unger (1984: 130), for instance, has noted of village campaigns that “not just the village cadres and young political activists participated but also, voluntarily, the bulk of the unambitious ordinary peasants. Theybelieved in the strict class distinctions and in the legitimacy of class anta-gonism. The party has provided the good-class peasantry with a complex set of emotional justifications and material reasons for discriminating against the bad-class households” (emphasis original). While the question of “voluntary” participation under
CHINA SINCE 1978Economic & Political Weekly EPW december 27, 200833conditions of political mobilisation is at best moot, there is abun-dant evidence of active participation. Other scholars (Perry 2000; Friedman, Pickowicz and Selden 1991 and 2005) have similarly underscored the emotional catharsis involved in staged public ritual of “speaking bitterness”, which effectively forged emo-tional identification among villagers with the communist regime while imbuing the former wretched of the earth with a new sense of pride and purpose. The political agency of the “revolutionary masses”, who were asked to turn their suffering and subordina-tion into power and responsibility for charting a better future under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, would later be eroded by leadership failures paving the way for nation-wide famine during the Great Leap Forward and cadre corrup-tion thereafter. In the predominantly urban-based movements of the Cultural Revolution among high school and university stu-dents, intellectuals and workers, activism from below created waves of struggle framed in the image of Mao and revolution, initially challenging the party to hew to its own principles, but subsequently reifying party authority and producing no material gains for poorer strata. And even decades after Mao’s death and with the party invoking a reform agenda, workers in the mas-sive labour protests that erupted in China’s north-eastern rust-belt since the 1990s still invoke the claims of “masses” and rev-olution (Lee2007). The gap between the ideology of and aspiration towards socia-list equality and the reality of entrenched societal inequalities has been at the centre of generations of popular resistance that began in the revolutionary era and extended beyond it to the present. In the cities, in the mid-1950s following the nationalisa-tion of industry and commerce, more than 10,000 strikes erupted across the country, by far the most important taking place in Shanghai, China’s industrial, financial and working class capital and the historic centre of the labour movement. In Shanghai in 1957, strikes at 587 enterprises involved 30,000 workers (Perry 1994). Since the 1990s, workers displaced or disadvantaged by nationalisation have been at the forefront of a strike wave decry-ing “bureaucratism” of cadres in the form of a vast increase in the number and power of managerial personnel following nationali-sation, and demanding the recovery of wages and benefits cut during nationalisation (Lee 2003, 2007). The sternest test of revolutionary leadership would come dur-ing the Cultural Revolution. The nationwide social movements that “crescendoed” and exploded violently during the Cultural Revolution originated, and may have had their most far-reaching impact, in the cities. While driven in part by national agendas choreographed by Mao and other party and military leaders, and by political struggles at the centre, in both city and countryside, rebellion was also spurred by popular grievances stemming from inequities born of policies and priorities associated with the revo-lutionary regime. In the initial stage of the Cultural Revolution, protests in schools and in factories usually began as a mobilisa-tion among students and permanent state workers with “good” class backgrounds (workers, poor peasants) and ties to the incum-bent party leadership hewing to loyalist positions, while those with weaker ties to the party or with vulnerable class backgrounds were yet again subjected to attack. Soon, however, students of compromised class backgrounds (landlords, capitalists and those who had been labelled as rightists or who had historical associa-tions with the Guomindang or secret societies), as well as disad-vantaged workers (temporary and contract workers), organised rebel red guard units and attacked the incumbent leadership. Illustrative of a level of militancy distinctive of that era were the national and regional organisations of temporary and contract workers that emerged in 1966 to demand the rights, benefits and security of permanent workers only to be crushed after receiving brief encouragement from Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife (Walder 1996; Perry and Li 1997). Perhaps no movement since land reform was so explicitly organised on principles that challenged class ine-quality and class privilege.In the countryside, behind banners proclaiming class struggle often lurked long-standing hostilities among families, villages and lineages over water rights, ancestral tombs, land or timber rights. Under the banner of the Cultural Revolution, cloaked in Maoist rhetoric, ancient and recent conflicts and inequalities could give rise to violence and vendettas within and between communities. Village officials who were victimised by previous political campaigns saw in the Cultural Revolution an opportu-nity to take revenge and regain power, while incumbent leaders sought to direct popular struggles against helpless bad class households and to link up with local and higher allies in factional competition (Unger 2002; Friedman, Pickowicz and Selden 2005). In the end, the Cultural Revolution did little to address the fundamental inequities of power, opportunity and income in city and countryside or between city and countryside. Rather, after moving to the verge of civil war in 1966-68, Mao and the party ended the mass movements in a wave of state violence in the Cleansing of Class Ranks Campaign of summer 1968 and subse-quent movements associated with re-imposing the power of the party and army through revolutionary committees (Unger 2007; Friedman, Pickowicz and Selden 2005). The grievances associated with corruption and structural inequalities went unaddressed.The reform agenda, notably the “commodification” of land and labour, the elimination of collectives and communes, and enter-prise privatisation as well as the growth of an indigenous private sector, but also international investment and export-oriented development, simultaneously stimulated economic growth and threatened the livelihoods and security of segments of the rural and urban working classes. Thanks to the central government’s promotion of legal reform, the rhetorical flourishing of “ruling the country according to the law” (yifa zhiguo) and fiscal decen-tralisation, popular resistance has frequently taken the form of legal activism and localised protest at the level of village or fac-tory. The regime has tolerated and sought to mediate these pro-tests, while acting to pre-empt the possibility for cross-locality lateral mobilisation characteristic of the revolutionary period. Until about 2000, the major grievances prompting mass action by villagers were “burdens”, including taxes, levies, extraction of funds (for building schools or roads), penalties (e g, fines for exceeding birth quotas), and compulsory assessments. By the early 2000s, land expropriation had become an additional incendiary issue in many provinces (Ho 2005: 16). Rural rebe-llionsfrequently begin when villagers acquire details of the laws
CHINA SINCE 1978december 27, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly34and regulations bearing on their interests and rights. When local cadres violate these policies, villagers write complaint letters, visit higher officials, expose local violations of central policies in the media, mobilise fellow villagers to withhold payment of ille-gal and arbitrary fees and taxes, and challenge such abuses as land theft. Confrontations between resisters and local cadres have resulted in protracted court battles and in small- and large-scale riots some of which provoke violent crackdowns by local and provincial governments. The great majority of protests are local struggles in a single village, even though there are occa-sional reports on activists building networks across villages, even counties (Bernstein and Lu 2003; O’Brien and Li 2006; Yu 2003).In the cities since the 1990s, reform of SOEs, bankruptcies, massive unemployment, and labour rights violations in global factories employing migrant workers have triggered a rising tide of labour activism. Grievances of workers in both the state and private sectors, and involving both urban residents and migrants, focus mainly on an array of economic and livelihood problems, notably unpaid pensions and wages, layoffs, inadequate sever-ance compensation, arrears of medical reimbursement, and non-payment of heating subsidies. Targets of worker grievances have been enterprise management and local governments. In numer-ous cases involving bankruptcies and privatisation, workers voice opposition to official corruption and illicit transfer of state assets. In contrast to the large-scale horizontal bonds formed by work-ers, students and villagers during the Cultural Revolution, the mode of organisation in contemporary labour protests is one of “cellular mobilisation”. Most urban protests are based on single work units or subgroups within those units, and rarely achieve lateral organisation across factories, industries, neighbourhoods, cities or beyond. In a few exceptional instances workers veered away from cellular mobilisation, displaying a capacity for broader class-based activism. Yet, once arrests of worker repre-sentatives from one factory occurred, popular support quickly collapsed (Lee 2007). Above all, once mobilisation extends beyond a singlecommunity or enterprise, the state steps in quickly to crush themovement. Faced with mounting resistance, the central government has sometimes allocated emergency funds to localities with social insurance deficits and sought to ensure more effective social pooling. Similarly, in the countryside, Beijing has issued edicts protective of the peasantry. The PRC Agricultural Law of 1993 gave farmers the right to refuse payment of improperly autho-rised fees and fines, and stipulated a 5% cap on income tax. In 2000, the centre inaugurated the tax for fee policy that aims to eliminate all fee exactions and retain only a unified agricultural tax. In 1998 the central authorities passed laws to firm up far-mers’ land rights by extending their land contracts by 30 years. The system of direct elections of village committees was inau-gurated in the early 1980s in a bid to enhance accountability. In 2008, a new land law recognised the increasingly common practice of villagers selling or renting land rights to others, but alsoperhaps facilitating actions which may deprive villagers of land rights.Despite its uneven implementation, the promulgation of these laws has the political effect of inciting a lively public discourse of legality and citizens’ rights, together with a surge in popular demands for legal justice. Rights activism (weiquan)has thrived among the many aggrieved citizens in both rural and urban China. The law and the court have become the new contested ter-rain on which the fight against social injustice is waged. We will turn to the various ways inequality and related issues of equity and justice have been framed by the government, academics and the Chinese public. 3 ContestedConstructionsofInequalityIt is a poignant irony, and one not without political consequences, that the paradigm of class analysis has disappeared in China just as property-based classes and class exploitation have returned with a vengeance during the past quarter century of market reform and opening to global capitalism. The CCP declared the end of class struggle at its historic Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee Meeting in December 1978. Since then, academics have also jettisoned the language of class, preferring instead the lens of differentiation and stratification. A landmark volume, written by a group of leading sociologists at the Chinese Academy of Social Science and based on a large national survey, proclaimed the formation of 10 major strata in Chinese society at the beginning of the new millennium. They explicitly rejected the terminology of “class”, noting that the term has roots in Marx-ism that emphasises conflict of interests, antagonism and strug-gles among social groups (Lu et al 2002: 6). In recent years, main-stream Chinese social science publications have invoked the par-adigm of stratification, with research designed to measure and document “stratum consciousness”, “occupational prestige”, social mobility, “the rich stratum” and “bottom stratum” (e g, Li et al 2004). In this analysis, there are few obstacles and no struc-tural impediments to upward social mobility while the role of the state in mediating and structuring class relations is elided. A var-iation of this approach is found in Huang (2008) who brilliantly dissects the myriad ways in which the Chinese state since the 1990s has skewed policy to the detriment of the countryside and tolerated extreme forms of corruption, but offers no structural analysis of the class consequences of the privatisation of SOEs or of the consequences for workers of the actions of private capital. Notwithstanding its efforts to de-politicise the phenomenon of inequality and class-based conflicts, the Beijing leadership con-tinues to see inequality as a central political threat to political stability, that is, to communist party rule. From the beginning of reform, the central leadership has always wrestled with the rela-tive priority of “efficiency” and “justice”. In 1985, Deng Xiaoping defined the twin goals of socialism as the development of produc-tion and common prosperity, making the famous injunction that “some regions and some people can become rich first and they can help other regions and other people, gradually achieving common prosperity” (Deng Xiaoping III: 149). Since then, the party leadership has drifted between four discernible positions on the relative priority of these two principles over the next two decades. The Resolution of the Fourteenth Chinese Communist Party Congress in 1992 stated that China should achieve “both” efficiency and justice. A year later the report of the Third Plenary Session proposed the principle “efficiency first, and also justice”.
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