Country Listing

China Table of Contents



Although much of the social structure of modern China can be interpreted as reflecting basic drives for security and equality, qualities in short supply before 1950, not all organizations and units are alike or equal. There are four major axes of social differentiation in modern China. To some extent they overlap and reinforce each other, but each rests on distinct and separate grounds.

The Work Place

Work units (danwei) belong to the state or to collectives. State-owned units, typically administrative offices, research institutes, and large factories, offer lifetime security, stable salaries, and benefits that include pensions and free health care. Collectives include the entire agricultural sector and many small-scale factories, repair shops, and village- or township-run factories, workshops, or service enterprises. Employees on the state payroll enjoy the best benefits modern China has to offer. The incomes of those in the collective sector are usually lower and depend on the performance of the enterprise. They generally lack health benefits or pensions, and the collective units usually do not provide housing or child-care facilities. In 1981 collective enterprises employed about 40 percent of the nonagricultural labor force, and most of the growth of employment since 1980 has come in this sector. Even though the growth since 1980 of individual businesses and small private enterprises, such as restaurants and repair services, has provided some individuals with substantial cash incomes, employment in the state sector remains most people's first choice. This reflects the public's recognition of that sector's superior material benefits as well as the traditional high prestige of government service.

"Security and equality" have been high priorities in modern China and have usually been offered within single work units. Because there is no nationwide insurance or social security system and because the income of work units varies, the actual level of benefits and the degree of equality (of incomes, housing, or opportunities for advancement) depend on the particular work unit with which individuals are affiliated. Work units are responsible for chronic invalids or old people without families, as well as for families confronted with the severe illness or injury of the breadwinner. Equality has always been sought within work units (so that all factory workers, for example, received the same basic wage, or members of a collective farm the same share of the harvest), and distinctions among units have not been publicly acknowledged. During the Cultural Revolution, however, great stress was placed on equality in an abstract or general sense and on its symbolic acting out. Administrators and intellectuals were compelled to do manual labor, and the uneducated and unskilled were held up as examples of revolutionary virtue.

In the mid-1980s many people on the lower fringes of administration were not on the state payroll, and it was at this broad, lower level that the distinction between government employees and nongovernment workers assumed the greatest importance. In the countryside, village heads were collectivesector workers, as were the teachers in village primary schools, while workers for township governments (and for all levels above them) and teachers in middle schools and universities were state employees. In the armed forces, the rank and file who served a three- to five-year enlistment at very low pay were considered citizens serving their military obligation rather than state employees. Officers, however, were state employees, and that distinction was far more significant than their rank. The distinction between state and collective-sector employment was one of the first things considered when people tried to find jobs for their children or a suitable marriage partner.

Data as of July 1987