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Myth of the Social Volcano: Perceptions of Inequality and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China

Myth of the Social Volcano: Perceptions of Inequality and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China

by Martin Whyte

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Is popular anger about rising inequality propelling China toward a "social volcano" of protest activity and instability that could challenge Chinese Communist Party rule? Many inside and outside of China have speculated, without evidence, that the answer is yes. In 2004, Harvard sociologist Martin King Whyte has undertaken the first systematic, nationwide survey of


Is popular anger about rising inequality propelling China toward a "social volcano" of protest activity and instability that could challenge Chinese Communist Party rule? Many inside and outside of China have speculated, without evidence, that the answer is yes. In 2004, Harvard sociologist Martin King Whyte has undertaken the first systematic, nationwide survey of ordinary Chinese citizens to ask them directly how they feel about inequalities that have resulted since China's market opening in 1978. His findings are the subject of this book.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Based on representative and high quality survey data, this study is a great example of how research on China can contribute to our understanding of the country and also the broader discipline."—Daniela Stockmann, Journal of Chinese Political Science

"[Myth of the Social Volcano] presented valuable new information on perspectives of inequality and distributive injustice in China. Whyte conducted the first systematic, nationwide survey of ordinary Chinese citizens on inequality and distributive justice . . . The book is well written and highly informative. Furthermore, it presents a fascinating account of how China transformed itself from a relatively egalitarian society to one of significant inequality in no more than three decades."—Alvin Y. So, China Review International

"Whyte's data and conclusions are based on sophisticated survey research . . . Whyte's book is extremely provocative, challenging the 'common sense' of most Western scholars and much of the Chinese leadership."—Richard Levy, Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

"A pioneering sociologist of China, Whyte takes on an immensely important yet long-neglected issue of how Chinese people feel about growing inequalities. He presents a systematic analysis of an original, carefully-designed national survey, offers contested interpretations, and makes a timely contribution to our understanding of a fast changing Chinese society."—Yanjie Bian, University of Minnesota & Xi'an Jiaotong University

"This path-breaking study answers the rarely touched question of how people feel about the newly emerging inequality in contemporary China. As one of the pioneers of survey research on China, Martin King Whyte presents unexpected and fascinating findings with solid empirical evidence. This book is a landmark study on distributive injustice."—Wenfang Tang, University of Iowa
"This book represents a hallmark of meticulous and thoughtful scholarship. Whyte cleverly situates the puzzling findings on attitudes toward inequality in a rich account of the historical transformations of the Chinese system of social stratification. A master piece of both historical depth and scientific rigor."—Xiaoling Shu, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, UC Davis

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Perceptions of Inequality and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China
By Martin King Whyte


Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6942-6

Chapter One

China's Post-Socialist Transition and Rising Inequality

Since 1978 China has carried out fundamental reforms of its economic system, transforming itself from a centrally planned socialist economy largely isolated from the outside world to a primarily market-oriented system fully integrated into the global economy. As noted in the Introduction, in the process of market reforms China has become much more unequal in multiple ways, and many of the forms of status differentiation, elite privilege, and disadvantages of the poor that China's revolution had attacked and abolished have returned with a vengeance.

The study reported in these pages analyzes the results of a national survey conducted in 2004 devoted to determining how ordinary Chinese citizens view inequality trends and distributive injustice issues. Do most Chinese feel that the overall improvements in living standards and increased opportunities to become prosperous make the heightened inequalities of the reform era acceptable, or perhaps even necessary? Or is it more common to feel angry about the inequalities and unfair distribution of opportunities in Chinese society today, or perhaps even nostalgic for the now officially repudiated socialist patterns of distribution? In order to set the context for later discussion of these and related questions, the current chapter describes the nature and importance of the socialist transition in general and then provides a description of the complicated steps and stages through which China first created its socialist system and then, after 1978, proceeded to dismantle it.


Arguably the most dramatic and important change in the global political economy in the last century is the rise and then collapse of the challenge to world capitalism posed by centrally planned socialist economies. After the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and then the establishment of a centrally planned socialist economy in the USSR in the 1930s, the Soviet Union proclaimed that socialism provided a route to economic development that was both more rapid and more equitable than capitalism could provide. That challenge remained provocative but isolated until after World War II, when a combination of the advance of Soviet troops into Eastern Europe and the victory of the Chinese Communist revolution in 1949 (as well as the establishment of socialist systems in Yugoslavia, North Korea, North Vietnam, Laos, and, after 1959, Cuba) produced a situation in which close to one-third of the world's people were living under socialism.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the challenge to world capitalism posed by this much enlarged group of socialist countries appeared formidable. Given the more rapid rates of economic growth of most socialist economies in that period, as well as such stunning accomplishments as the Soviet launch of the world's first artificial earth satellite in 1957, many observers found convincing the claim made by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that the USSR was poised to overtake the United States and lead the way to dominance of the socialist camp over the capitalist world. We all know that this is not what happened. For a variety of complex reasons that we cannot go into in detail here, by the 1970s and 1980s the world situation had changed dramatically, with capitalism again ascendant and socialism in retreat. Economic difficulties and slower growth rates in Eastern Europe and political turmoil and economic troubles in China, when combined with the revival of Western Europe and the dramatic rise of East Asian capitalist economies, helped negate the triumphalism of the advocates of socialism and hastened the eventual dismantling of most socialist systems.

Efforts to enliven faltering socialist economies by introducing markets and private enterprises as supplementary devices began in Eastern Europe in the late 1960s and early 1970s, led by Hungary (see Szelenyi 1988). These limited reforms were not sufficient to cure the growing problems of socialist economies, and China's launching of gradual but eventually much more extensive market reforms after 1978 gets credit as the beginning step that led to the collapse of socialist economic systems generally. Vietnam followed the Chinese example by launching its own program of market reforms (Doi Moi) in 1986, and 1989 saw the sudden collapse of Communist Party rule throughout Eastern Europe, followed in 1991 by the collapse of Communist Party rule in, and the breakup of, the Soviet Union, the latter two events leading to the dismantling of centrally planned socialism and a rapid and chaotic effort to create (or re-create) capitalism in the former Soviet bloc. As a result of these turbulent changes, within a decade and a half socialism as an economic system virtually vanished from the globe. Today a system that once organized the daily lives of close to a third of the world's population survives only in two marginal places with a combined population of less than 35 million: North Korea and Cuba. Even in these two countries, some timid experiments with market reforms have begun.

As already noted, China's path and experience in market transition have been substantially different from those of the countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Communist Party rule did not collapse, and in fact the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has led and guided the process of market transition throughout. Chinese leaders also rejected the advice (followed to some degree in Eastern Europe) that they needed to introduce market reforms and a full range of capitalist institutions quickly and more or less simultaneously (referred to as the "big-bang" approach to market reforms). China has instead introduced market reforms incrementally and gradually, as captured in the famous phrase of the leader of the reform effort, Deng Xiaoping, "crossing the river by stepping from stone to stone."

Despite these and other distinctive features of China's reform experience that will be discussed in greater detail in subsequent pages and chapters, China shares with all the other formerly socialist states undergoing market reforms a common set of challenges: how to create and gain acceptance of institutions, attitudes, and indeed an entire way of life necessary for a market-oriented economy in a historical context of a population indoctrinated for decades to believe that socialism was good and capitalism was evil. If the market transitions in formerly socialist societies are the most important change in the political economy of the world in our lifetime, the future prosperity and stability of the world depend to a considerable degree on the extent to which this market transition is successfully completed. Success entails not only altered institutions and rising prosperity, but convincing the populations that capitalism (or at least "market competition") is good, and that socialism, if not exactly evil, is at least outmoded and unworkable and not to be mourned. The current study is a detailed examination of the attitudes of ordinary Chinese citizens to see how successfully this challenge is being met in China. The remainder of this chapter provides background that is necessary to place this examination in historical context.


If one considers the personal histories of the oldest Chinese in the People's Republic of China (PRC) today, what is striking is that they have been through at least two wrenching, near-total social revolutions, each involving more pervasive changes in the political and social order and patterns of daily life than anything experienced in the entire history of the United States or most other nations. The first social revolution dates not from the political revolution of 1949, but from the launching of China's socialist transformation in 1955, and the second from the launching of China's market transition process in 1978. As already implied here, this second revolution could also be considered a counterrevolution, since it involved a gradual but eventually quite thorough repudiation of socialist institutions and practices and their replacement by the institutions prevalent in capitalist societies around the world.

The turning points in 1955 and 1978 involved changes in the economy first and foremost, but in reality almost everything about the way Chinese society was organized and people lived their daily lives was affected, including the institutions and values of distribution, stratification, and social mobility that are the central focus of the current study. Although the socialist transformation of the 1950s and the market reforms since 1978 represent the most comprehensive changes in the organization of Chinese society and in the accompanying official policies and ideology, they were not the only important disruptions of the status quo experienced by Chinese citizens in the last half of the twentieth century. It is important to briefly and in simplified form describe the major subperiods of recent Chinese history in order to comment on their potential implications for Chinese views about distributive justice and injustice.

Stratification in China Before the 1949 Revolution (Late Nineteenth Century to 1949)

The Chinese Communist Party came to national power in 1949 based in substantial measure on an influential critique of the inequities of the existing social order (both in the republican era from 1912 to 1949 and in the late imperial system that preceded it) and the pledge to create a more just society. Many different aspects of the prevailing social order were attacked by the CCP, including the huge gap between rich and poor, the pervasiveness of poverty, the privileges enjoyed by foreigners, and the exploitation of Chinese farmers and workers by rural landlords, urban capitalists, and foreign business owners. In many CCP treatments of the ills of the social order before 1949, that order was described as feudal or quasi-feudal, characterizations reflecting the Marxist conceptual scheme the CCP used to interpret the world.

While portions of this critique are unobjectionable, the use of the term feudalism is highly misleading. A striking fact about the nature of social order in late imperial China is that, with the exception of a small portion of the population at the very top (the imperial family and its relatives) and bottom (people engaged in a small number of "mean occupations" on a hereditary basis) of the social pyramid, there were few legal or other impediments to social and geographical mobility. The republican revolution in 1911 largely eliminated these minor inherited status barriers at the bottom and top of Chinese society. Given the huge size of the population and the small number of officials, wealthy merchants, and other elite positions, the odds against a poor rural or urban resident rising to the top were daunting. But it was not impossible, as one's station in life was not fixed at birth. On the other side of the equation, a wealthy rural landlord or merchant family enjoyed no legal claim or aristocratic pedigree that prevented the family, or perhaps its children or grandchildren, from falling back to the bottom of society. The greatest CCP animus was directed against rural landlords, but the latter were small potatoes in comparative perspective, definitely not feudal manor lords of the sort seen in medieval Europe or in Tokugawa-era Japan. Chinese rural landlords owed their ability to live privileged lives to their ownership of a disproportionate share of village land and to the resources that ownership allowed them to wield to protect their positions, but they had no special legal status granted by a monarch or any other authority, and any of their neighbors who managed to amass a similar amount of land could be transformed similarly from farmer into landlord.

What do these characteristics mean for how ordinary Chinese viewed the structures of inequality in which they lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Obviously we do not have any national surveys comparable to the one whose results are discussed in this book. However, a variety of kinds of evidence indicate that most Chinese saw their society, both in late imperial times and in the republican period, as very unequal but at the same time very open. Chinese had their own versions of American Horatio Alger success stories-of poor but talented and ambitious individuals and families who by dint of extraordinary efforts and taking advantage of opportunities managed to rise to the top ranks of society in terms of status and wealth. The most cherished avenue for such mobility in dynastic times was via the imperial examination system. Through years of diligent study and by passing multiple, highly competitive bureaucratic examinations, an individual could attain a career as an official, with resulting high status and potential access to considerable wealth (see Ho 1962; Elman 2000).

However, many more Chinese of humble origins rose to wealth and high status through other routes, particularly through market competition and commercial success, leading to purchases of land and the establishment of successful businesses (see, for example, Chow 1966). Throughout the country, Chinese families were famously obsessed with trying to rear their children to succeed in schooling and excel in market competition in order to become prosperous and bring their families along with them. In this sense, China's historical traditions before 1949 emphasized the diligent pursuit of opportunities and upward social mobility, not the sort of resigned acceptance of one's fate that one might expect in a genuinely feudal society (see Rawski 2007). These same tendencies dominated popular consciousness in the republican era between 1912 and 1949, although the much more chaotic and disorderly society of the time made figuring out what to do to be successful more risky and difficult.

Initial Changes After the 1949 Revolution (1949-1954)

When the CCP leaders came to national power in 1949, they introduced a large number of changes in institutions and policies that affected the structures of inequality and opportunities, but they did not initially begin to systematically eliminate private enterprises, private property ownership, and market distribution and replace them with public property ownership and central planning (socialism). However, considerable numbers of wealthy capitalists and other elites fled to Hong Kong and Taiwan, and for the most part their enterprises and other property were nationalized and run by the state. Most foreign owners were similarly forced out, with their firms taken over by the state. In the countryside the land reform campaign from 1950 to 1953 took much of the land away from those designated in the struggle as landlords, with large numbers of the latter physically abused or even killed. The land confiscated from landlords and rich peasants was given to, and farmed by, other rural families as private family farms. In the cities most enterprises and employment remained in the private and market-oriented sector, although with government controls and restrictions on markets and private enterprise steadily increasing.


Excerpted from MYTH OF THE SOCIAL VOLCANO by Martin King Whyte Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
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Martin King Whyte is Professor of Sociology at Harvard University.

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