China’s stalled social mobility

In 2013, an anonymous story about the lives of some sixty interns at an unnamed bank in China, posted on the popular online forum Tianya, went viral on the Chinese Internet. The author, who claimed to work at the bank, highlighted the importance of family background and connections in determining a person’s fate. It wasn’t just that the well-off interns enjoyed financial security and social privileges but that with wealth came a gregarious self-confidence and optimism that made the rich far more appealing than their less well-off peers. Even if the story was apocryphal, its enormous popularity indicated that it had struck a chord with mainland readers.

In mainland intellectual circles, the ‘hardening of class differences’ 阶层固化 has become a popular topic of discussion. In 2010, Yu Jianrong 于建嵘, the prominent scholar-activist who researches rural development at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, introduced a new term when discussing the problem of entrenched inequality. He referred to ‘educated youth at the bottom of society’ 底层知识青年, to describe a diverse group of disadvantaged people who have received secondary or tertiary education but are excluded from the state system and who drift from one place to another. He identified three types of people using this term: urban-born and raised youth without jobs after graduation; rural-born and raised youth who attended urban colleges but are unable to find jobs after graduation; and urban-raised youth who had accompanied their migrant worker parents to Chinese cities as children and who lack both urban and rural ties. According to Yu, this underclass has become increasingly conspicuous, posing a real challenge to the hallowed idea in China that education leads to success.

Professor Cai Zhiqiang 蔡志强, from the Central Party School in Beijing outlines four reasons for the growing problem of entrenched inequality. He argues that:

1. Changes to the structure of ownership have produced both class stratification and class solidification. In a diversified ownership economy, there is uncertainty of allocation and production. There are factors that encourage the differentiation of interests. Reform should be understood as involving the adjustment of these differentiated interests but differentiation, coupled with alienation, has the effect of reinforcing the rich-poor divide. This has made it even harder for the underclass to attain equality of opportunity and development. The momentum for upward social mobility is being gradually lost;

2. The ’tilted policies’ adopted during the initial period of reform and opening up – a time when there was a shortage of materials – are now difficult to adjust…… During the initial period of reform and opening up, these policies enabled certain regions to become prosperous first, on the assumption that the prosperity for the rest would follow in time. However, after more than thirty years of reform and opening up, different interest groups have become established. With the deepening and further adjustments of reforms, those who have benefited from the policies are likely to oppose any reform they view as adverse to their vested interests. All of this impedes the will to implement reforms toward a common prosperity.

3. The current educational system is gradually losing the ability to facilitate inter-class flows…the competitiveness of the job market has produced a situation where ‘having a good dad’ has replaced ‘having a good grade’ as the essential ‘hardware’ in job hunting. Hereditary poverty has become a reality, one that many people face.

4. Class solidification originated from the increased challenges for government of managing a society where people hold diverse values…typically, those with higher social status ‘have more power and hence play a part in determining the social agenda, shaping policy and promoting social activities’… Having been the beneficiaries of the decades-long ‘efficiency first’ policy, people from the rich developed areas seem unable to understand the policy demands of those who are poor or who live in less developed areas.

Many Chinese scholars who have studied the lack of social mobility in present-day China agree that education plays an important part in redressing the problem. Li Huaiyu 李怀玉, a researcher from Henan Academy of Social Science, argues that changes must be made to the education of students whose parents are migrant workers:

First, most students whose parents are migrant workers attend schools in their hometowns and are taken care of by the elderly, which makes it hard for them to receive a good and systematic education. Moreover, they encounter enormous obstacles in their attempts to form a healthy personality.

Second, these students are constantly changing schools. In the schools attended by migrant workers’ children, this form of student mobility affects around thirty percent of the students at any given time.

Third, children of migrant workers are subjected to hukou policy restrictions. (These restrictions and different cut-off scores for university admission across provinces have led to the phenomenon of ‘gaokao immigrants’, a term used to describe students whose parents transfer their hukou to a different province in order to improve their child’s chances of getting into a better college. Children of migrant workers are generally not among this group.) They attend schools in cities where their parents work but do not have urban hukou. Thus, the current educational system prevents these children from achieving upward mobility through gaokao.

Ma Xiheng, 马西恒, an associate professor in the Party School based at the Shanghai Municipal Committee, has pointed out that stagnated upward mobility is also the result of the systematic failure and incompleteness of reforms:

Over the past thirty years… economic stratification has deepened to produce an inter-generational transfer of poverty. Class mobility is essential. People need an equal starting point, but the tax system we adopted to adjust income distribution is still not complete, and resources for advancing the interests of those at the bottom are very limited.

… Since the process of reform and opening up began, there have been more opportunities for workers and peasants to change their social standing. In this regard, urban workers and officials continue to enjoy benefits and social goods through the existing system and its hukou restrictions. Peasants however remain disadvantaged even if they have migrated to the cities. The only difference is that new distinctions have emerged in the category of the peasant.

Tang Hao 唐昊, a political scientist and columnist, observes:

It is true that ‘political elite’ circles are being consolidated but we must understand that this stems from the unequal distribution of social resources… The real crisis of China today is not only that public administration and services are inadequately staffed but that the equitable distribution of social goods has become an extremely urgent problem. This is evidently the result of social inequality. Many of our public resources are monopolised by a minority, leading the majority of people to fight each other for the little that is available to them.

In recent years, Chinese scholars have proposed a range of top-down reforms. Cai Zhiqiang has summarized these as: improvement of the distribution system for public goods, greater social equality, a more effective and equitable social security system capable of looking after the most vulnerable groups, the growth of grassroots organizations capable of playing an active role in improving society and coordinating social relations. In the story about the bank interns mentioned at the start, the author advised: be aware of your starting point and do not aim too high if you’re starting from a low point. If your parents are successful people, listen to them and marry wisely.

Useful links and sources 于建嵘:底层知识青年将改变中国
Study Times: 社会阶层固化的成因与对策 李怀玉:警惕农民工子女受教育过程中的贫困代际传承问题
Wenhui Bao: “阶层固化”折射改革尚不彻底 唐昊:“阶层固化”的逻辑与出路