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By the mid-1980s the pace of social change in China was
increasing, and, more than in any decade since the 1950s,
fundamental changes in the structure of society seemed possible.
The ultimate direction of social changes remained unclear, but
social trends and tensions that could generate social change were
evident. These trends were toward greater specialization and
division of labor and toward new, more open and loosely structured
forms of association
(see Rural Society;
, this ch.).
The uniform pattern of organization of work units in agriculture,
industry, public administration, and the military was beginning to
shift to an organization structured to reflect its purpose.
Education and technical qualification were becoming more
significant for attaining high status in villages, industries, the
government, or the armed forces. Opportunities for desirable jobs
remained limited, however, and competition for those jobs or for
housing, urban residence, or college admission was keen.
The primary tension in Chinese society resulted from the value
political leaders and ordinary citizens placed on both the social
values of security and equality and the goals of economic growth
and modernization. China remained a society in which all desired
goods were in short supply, from arable land to secure nonmanual
jobs, to a seat on a city bus. Crowding was normal and pervasive.
Competition and open social strife were restrained by the public
belief that scarce goods were being distributed as equitably as
possible and that no individual or group was being deprived of
livelihood or a fair share. In the mid-1980s Chinese authorities
feared that social disorder might result from popular discontent
over price increases or the conspicuous wealth of small segments of
the population, such as free-market traders. The press frequently
condemned the expressions of jealousy and envy that some people
directed at those who were prospering by taking advantage of the
opportunities the reformed economy offered. The rise in living
standards in the 1980s may have contributed to rising expectations
that could not be met without considerably more economic growth.
The tension between security and economic growth was reflected
in the people's attitudes toward the work unit and the degree of
control it exercised over their lives. There was no apparent reason
why even a socialist, planned economy had to organize its work
force into closed, insular, and sometimes nearly hereditary units.
People generally liked the security and benefits provided by their
units but disliked many other aspects of "unit life," such as the
prohibition on changing jobs. Limited surveys in cities indicated
that most people were assigned to work units arbitrarily, without
regard to their wishes or skills, and felt little loyalty toward or
identification with their work units. People adapted to unit life
but reserved loyalties for their families at the one extreme and
for the nation and "the people" at the other.
Rural reforms had essentially abolished the work unit in the
countryside, along with its close control over people's activities.
State and party control over the rural economy and society
persisted, but individuals were accorded more autonomy, and most
rural people seemed to welcome the end of production teams and
production brigades (see Glossary).
The success of these rural
reforms made modification or even abolition of work units in the
urban and state sectors a possibility.
By the mid-1980s the Chinese press and academic journals were
discussing recruitment and movement of employees among work units.
Although the discussion initially focused on scientists and
technicians, whose talents were often wasted in units where they
could not make full use of them, the questions raised were of
general import. Such blocked mobility was recognized by China's
leadership as an impediment to economic growth, and a "rational"
flow of labor was listed as a goal for reform of the economy and
the science and technology system
(see The Reform Program
, ch. 9).
But few concrete steps had been taken to promote labor mobility,
although government resolutions granted scientists and technicians
the right to transfer to another unit, subject to the approval of
their original work unit. The issue was politically sensitive, as
it touched on the powers and perquisites of the party and of
managers. Managers often refused permission to leave the unit, even
to those scientists and engineers who had the formal right to apply
for a transfer.
Similarly, foreign-funded joint ventures, on which China's
government placed its hopes for technology transfer, found it
impossible to hire the engineers and technicians they needed for
high-technology work. There may have been personnel at other
enterprises in the same city eager to work for the new firm, but
there was no way to transfer them. In 1986 the State Council, in a
move that had little immediate effect but considerable potential,
decreed that henceforth state enterprises would hire people on
contracts good for only a few years and that these contract
employees would be free to seek other jobs when their contracts
(see The State Council
, ch. 10). The contract system did
not apply, as of late 1986, to workers already employed in state
enterprises, but it did indicate the direction in which at least
some leaders wished to go.
The fundamental issues of scarcity, equity, and opportunity lay
behind problems of balance and exchange among work units, among the
larger systems of units such as those under one industry ministry,
or between city and country
, this ch.;
, this ch.;
Reform of the Economic System, Beginning in 1979
Lateral Economic Cooperation
, ch. 8). One of the major goals
of the economic reform program in the mid-1980s was to break down
barriers to the exchange of information, personnel, and goods and
services that separated units, industrial systems, and geographic
regions. National-level leaders decried the waste of scarce
resources inherent in the attempts of industries or administrative
divisions to be self-sufficient in as many areas as possible, in
their duplication of research and production, and in their
tendencies to hoard raw materials and skilled workers. Attempts to
break down administrative barriers (such as bans on the sale of
industrial products from other administrative divisions or the
refusal of municipal authorities to permit factories subordinate to
national ministries to collaborate with those subordinate to the
municipality) were often frustrated by the efforts of those
organizations that perceived themselves as advantageously placed to
maintain the barriers and their unduly large share of the limited
goods. Economic growth and development, which accelerated in the
1980s, was giving rise to an increasingly differentiated economic
and occupational structure, within which some individuals and
enterprises succeeded quite well.
Economic reforms in rural areas generated a great income spread
among households, and some geographically favored areas, such as
central Guangdong and southern Jiangsu provinces, experienced more
rapid economic growth than the interior or mountainous areas. The
official position was that while some households were getting rich
first, no one was worse off and that the economy as a whole was
growing. Press commentary, however, indicated a fairly high level
of official concern over public perceptions of growing inequality.
The problem confronting China's leaders was to promote economic
growth while retaining public confidence in society's fundamental
equity and fair allocation of burdens and rewards.
The major question was whether the basic pattern of Chinese
society, a cellular structure of equivalent units coordinated by
the ruling party, would continue with modifications, or whether its
costs were such that it would be replaced by a different and less
uniform system. In the late 1980s, either alternative seemed
possible. The outcome would depend on both political forces and
economic pressures. In either case, balancing individual security
with opportunity would remain the fundamental task of those who
direct Chinese society.
* * *
Among the best works on China's traditional society and culture
are Derk Bodde's brief overview, China's Traditional Culture:
What and Whither?, and the American missionary Arthur H.
Smith's Village Life in China and Chinese
Characteristics, both written after many years in Shandong
Province and north China at the end of the nineteenth century. Late
traditional society is detailed in G. William Skinner's The City
in Late Imperial China. Chinese society during World War II is
presented in Graham Peck's Two Kinds of Time. Sociologist
C.K. Yang's A Chinese Village in Early Communist Transition
supplies a field study of a village just outside Guangzhou and an
account of the initial stages of the transformation of rural
society in 1949. Ida Pruitt's A Daughter of the Han is a
well-done life history of a servant woman from Shandong Province.
The changes of the 1950s are summarized in Franz Schurmann's
authoritative Ideology and Organization in Communist China.
Ezra F. Vogel's Canton under Communism and Lynn T. White's
Careers in Shanghai cover the transformation of urban
society. The Cultural Revolution is covered in William Hinton's
Hundred Day War and Stanley Rosen's Red Guard
Factionalism and the Cultural Revolution in Guangzhou. Susan
Shirk's Competitive Comrades illuminates competition within
urban schools and its consequences. Son of the Revolution by
Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro and To the Storm by Yue Daiyu
and Carolyn Wakeman provide autobiographical accounts of the
Cultural Revolution and its aftermath.
Two primary texts on modern Chinese society, based on
interviews in Hong Kong in the mid-1970s, are Village and Family
in Contemporary China and Urban Life in Contemporary
China written by sociologists Martin King Whyte and William L.
Parish. Also based on interviews in Hong Kong are Chen
Village by Anita Chan, Richard Madsen, and Jonathan Unger;
Chan's Children of Mao; and Madsen's Morality and Power
in a Chinese Village.
The most important English-language journal covering modern
Chinese society is the China Quarterly published in London.
Social trends and official policies are described in a range of
English-language journals published in China; the primary ones are
Beijing Review and China Daily. (For further
information and complete citations,
Data as of July 1987