All FSI Projects

Social Stratification in China during an Era of Transition

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junk flickr sarah joy
A Chinese ship, "junk," sails in Victoria harbour.
Photo credit: Flickr/Sarah Joy


Andrew G. Walder
Principal Investigator

In collaboration with sociologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the People's University of China in Beijing, Professor Andrew Walder has worked to design and field a nationally representative survey of 6,400 Chinese households. The survey, which took place in 1996, was the first of its kind in China. It collected detailed information on occupations, income, and housing conditions for families, in addition to complete career and educational histories for respondents and less detailed histories for spouses, parents, and grandparents. This information makes it possible to address two broad topics: the impact of the Chinese Revolution and the 1949-1979 socialist system on patterns of status inheritance and individual opportunity, and the subsequent impact of post-1980 market reforms on patterns established in the Mao era. Because the survey was designed in parallel with a survey of Russia and five other east European nations (completed in 1993), direct comparisons with other nations are now possible. Professor Walder, his collaborators, and their students are now analyzing these data in a long-term effort to understand the social impact of the Chinese Revolution and subsequent market reforms from a comparative and historical perspective.

The team's findings thus far include five notable points. First, while higher education has always been a near-requirement for an elite professional position in post-1949 China, it did not improve the odds of becoming a leading decision-maker in government or industry until after 1988. Second, while Party membership has always been a virtual prerequisite for promotion into a decision-making position, it has never improved the odds of promotion into an elite professional position, not even in the Mao era. Third, rural political officials continue to enjoy large net income advantages over other rural households, well into the second decade of market reform. Their advantages do not come from their participation in family businesses - which they appear to avoid - but are due instead to the fact that salaries and bonuses for village officials have grown rapidly in a market-oriented rural economy. Fourth, private family enterprise has expanded enormously over two decades, and now over 25 percent of rural households enjoy heightened incomes from the private production of goods or services. Fifth, the advantages of rural cadres do not shrink with local economic development, but the returns to household entrepreneurship do - suggesting that wage and salary employment, rather than private family business, is the wave of the future.