Sunday, September 14, 2008

Social structure of China

The social structure of China has a very long history, going from the feudal society of imperial times to the industrializing and urbanizing society of today.

Social structure in Imperial China

Prior to the creation of a Chinese empire by Qin Shi Huangdi, the Zhou Dynasty instituted a series of laws that defined the rights and obligations of the king, rulers of vassal states, high officials, and the literati. However, the political situation was so unstable that little consideration was given towards formal law.

From the to the late , the Chinese government divided Chinese people into four classes: landlord, peasant, craftsmen, and merchant. Landlords and peasants constituted the two major classes, while merchant and craftsmen were collected into the two minor. Theoretically, except for the position of the Emperor, nothing was hereditary.

During the 361 years of civil war after the Han Dynasty , there was a partial restoration of feudalism when wealthy and powerful families emerged with large amounts of land and huge numbers of semi-serfs. They dominated important civilian and military positions of the government, making the positions available to members of their own families and clans. After the Tang dynasty's emergence, the government extended the Imperial examination system as an attempt to eradicate this feudalism.

By the 1880s, China's population was between three hundred and fifty million and four hundred million, or about seventy million households. In Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, the industrial working class emerged in response to the greater usage of modern machines . Although the industrial revolution had created a blue collar working class worldwide, it still remained a significant minority amongst China's working class, which mainly included traditional craftsmen and laborers. This meant that the majority of people remained peasant farmers.

However, the small upper class changed dramatically. This was due in part to military reforms carried out in the late Qing. At the beginning of the Qing dynasty, the Manchu conquerors instituted the Eight Banners military system, which organized Han Chinese, Manchus, and Mongols into a bureaucratized military system that atrophied over time. In the nineteenth century, the Qing social system was challenged from within and without. Natural disasters and exorbitant taxes and levies led to peasant rebellions, most notably the Taiping Rebellion. Defeat at the hands of the British and French in the Opium Wars further demonstrated that China was weak militarily and the Eight Banners were not up to the challenge of maintaining order and defending the country.

During the 19th century, the military began a gradual restructuring that would theoretically enable it to fight rebels and foreign invaders alike. Generals Zeng Guofan, Zuo Zongtang, and Li Hongzhang became both field marshals and governors, instituting military schools throughout the provinces. In keeping with traditional practices, their associate generals inherited positions as provincial governors. In 1867, during a period of massive modernization of the educational system, the first naval academy was founded, and by 1910 national military exams were obsolete, as national military schools were institutionalized in the provinces. By 1911, seventy such schools existed.

These military reforms helped to bring about the fall of the Qing dynasty. In late Qing, Yuan Shikai enacted a second generation of military leadership, and later Yuan Shikai was in office as the second president of the Republic of China.

Before his death, Yuan Shikai opened a complex of six exemplary military schools at Baoding , and Jiang Jieshi was one of its graduates.

Social structure in modern China

1911 to 1949

After 1911, China entered the Warlord Era. During this time, industrialization was slow to non-existent; between the years 1920 and 1949, the industrial sector had only increased by less than three million members, mainly women and children working in cotton mills. The main changes in social structure were military.

In 1924, the Soviet Union helped Sun Zhongshan rebuild the Nationalist military force , most notably through the training school at Huangpu, a small town near Guangzhou. Many military leaders of the following decades were Huangpu graduateis, including Lin Biao, who later rose to fame with Mao.

After the allied forces of the Guomindang and the Communists reunified China, Jiang Jieshi, with the help of underworld forces such as the Green Gang, attacked the Communists. This had the effect of suppressing labor unions.

1949 to 1976

After 1949, the revolutionaries became the ruling class. The Communist Party cadres became the new upper class. The misuse and manipulation of the ration system by members of the cadre class threatened to change them into a new class of privileged bureaucrats and technicians, mere descendants of the pre-revolutionary ruling class of cadre technocrats and selected representatives of the old proletariat. Whereas in the past, their position had been accessed primarily through acceptance to the best schools, now cadre status came to give them access to materials and options not fairly distributed amongst all. Housing had always been in demand in China, particularly in the larger cities, and cadres were protected from the intense competition for living space.

In the countryside, the landlord class was eliminated during the land reform. In 1959, there were ten million state cadres, thirty-five million state workers, and two hundred million peasants. Chinese society was typical of agrarian societies because the peasant class composed the majority of the population.

Following the implementation of land reforms, Mao instituted a process of collectivization in response to the a few selling of land by peasants to the new generation of rich land owners. Afraid of creating a new landlord class, Mao instituted a system of communes where land was supposed to be worked equally by peasants. His idea was to capitalize on the sheer number of peasants and effectively produce a surplus harvest that would help industrialization. This was known as the Great Leap Forward, which was a failure that resulted in the deaths of twenty to thirty million peasants.

Just as farmers were put into communes, state workers were placed in large work units called danweis. Since urban education reform was growing at a rate much faster than in rural areas, more and more workers were high school graduates. The slowing down of state industries and the increasing number of qualified middle class candidates contributed to the fact it became more and more difficult to obtain a position as a state worker.

At this time, the hukou system was implemented, which divided the population into urban and rural residents. This was done to make distribution of state services through danweis and communes easier and to better organize the population in preparation for a possible invasion from the Soviet Union. The hukou system makes it illegal to migrate from the countryside to the city.

During the Cultural Revolution, the composition of society changed again. Schools were closed and many youth were sent down to the countryside, putatively to learn from the peasants. Concern for peasants was reflected in the rural medical and educational services known as barefoot doctors and barefoot teachers. The life expectancy of peasants increased from less than forty years before 1949 to more than sixty years in the 1970s. At the same time, peasants were still the most illiterate, most powerless, and poorest social class.

After 1979

After the Gaige Kaifang policy was implemented in the late 1970s, the Communist system Mao had instituted disintegrated in the face of economic development. In the countryside, communes disappeared by 1984. State-run enterprises known as danweis began to lay off workers, "smashing the iron rice bowl" because of their expense and inefficiency.

Although technically illegal under the hukou household registration system, peasants began to look for jobs in cities and TVEs in other rural areas. Although state workers and urban collective workers did not decrease absolutely, their percentage dramatically decreased within the Chinese working class. In 1991, the number of the peasant workers was 113 million, surpassing the number of state workers. In 1993, the number of peasant workers was 145 million, almost equaling the combined numbers of state workers, urban collective workers, and urban non-state workers. As of 2006, there are 150 to 220 million peasant workers, also known as migrant workers or the floating population. Migrant workers have become the main body of the Chinese working class.

The huge growth of the floating population is due to the Reform and Opening policy. After 1979, capitalist-owned enterprises became responsible for most Chinese economic growth and job creation. There are several important reasons for the dramatic development of the non-state sector after 1979. First, before 1979, the Chinese economy was a shortage economy with a demand much higher than the supply. Second, after 1985, there was a huge amount of surplus rural labor. Third, there was a serious shortage of services in urban areas. Fourth, in 1978, Deng stopped Mao's policy of "up to the mountains and down to the countryside." A need was fulfilled by illegitimate private sectors willing to hire migrant workers, and the government made no move to stop it. Even with the systematic ignoring of the residence permit law, it is still a barrier to urbanization it allows for discrimination against migrant workers.

The Chinese Communist Party has adapted to this new system. From 1979 to 1993, the number of cadres increased from 18 million to 37 million. After 1993, the cadre class increased by several million members until finally reaching a plateau of 40 million due to the central government's actions to freeze membership. Cadres, party members, and state professionals have become the main body of the capitalist class. According to official statistics, in February 2003, 29.9% of capitalists were Communist Party Members. This is interesting in light of the fact that capitalists are now involved with between 70-85% of China's GDP.

Despite this, there is tension between capitalists and the Communist state, most notably caused by taxes, lack of access to state bank loans, and the capitalist connection with the underworld. The capitalist class manages three-fourths to four-fifths of mainland China's GDP, but only pays one-third or less of aggregate taxes. The state enterprises pay the other two-thirds. Most capitalists successfully evade taxes, helped by local governments.

Access to state bank loans . In all the annual meetings of the national congress and national political consultative conference, capitalist legislators and representatives always complain about the difficulties in getting loans from state banks. Most of them said that during the process of their development they never got one cent in loans, and complained that in their localities the standard bribe for a loan is as high as 20 to 30% of the loan.

China is still an industrializing agrarian society and has a long way to go to realize an industrial society, so the overwhelming majority of the people do not have access to the best of China's recent improvements.

Most modern Chinese young adults do not go to college, to which entrance is obtained by passing the Gaokao, a standardized test at the end of the year. In the year 2000, less than 50 percent of the population finished junior high, and less than 15 percent finished senior high or vocational school. As recently as 2000, only 3.6 percent of the population went to college. Amongst high school and vocational school graduates, less than one tenth had the chance to go to college.

There is one private car per 120 people. In China, people with associates' degrees and above comprise less than 5% of the population.

Further reading

*Ch'u T'ung-tsu, ''Han Social Structure''


The original content was provided by Li Yi author of ''The Structure and Evolution of Chinese Social Stratification''. It closely parallels the content of that book which is copyrighted by University Press of America.


1) China Cadre Statistics Fifty Years, 1949-1998, 1.
2) China Labor Statistical Yearbook 1998, 9.
1. China Cadre Statistics 50 Years, 1949-1998, 1.
2. China Labor Statistical Yearbook, 1998, 9.
Note: 1. The figures of cadre from 1966 to 1970 are estimated.
2. From 1958 to 1977, the figure of peasant worker was up and down around 20 million. However, all the China's official statistics began to count them only from 1978.
From 1979 to 1993, the number of cadres increased from 18 million to 37 million.

1. China Cadre Statistics 50 Year, 1949-1998, 1.
2. China Statistical Yearbook 2002, 120-121.
3. China Labor Statistical Yearbook 1998, 17.

1. China Cadre Statistics 50 Year, 1949-1998, 1.
2. China Statistical Yearbook 2004, 126-127 and 150.
3. People's Daily Overseas Edition, 10/11/2002, 1.
Note: The numbers of cadre in 2002 and 2003 are estimated.

Further reading

*Duara, Prasenjit, , in ''Comparative Studies in Society and History'', Vol. 29, No. 1 , pp. 132-161, Cambridge University Press

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