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China Table of Contents


Regional Distinctions

Regional distinctions in ways of life and standards of living were marked in traditional China and continue to have a strong influence on contemporary Chinese society. China's size, poorly developed transportation system, and state controls on migration mean that regional differences in income and in life chances remain large. Contemporary Chinese commentary, while certainly explicit on the role of class, has tended to ignore regional variation. This may reflect the characteristic emphasis on Chinese unity and uniformity, as well as the difficulty of fitting regional analysis into a Marxist framework. Nevertheless, both geographical position and a community's position in administrative and regional hierarchies act to limit income from sideline occupations, cash crops, village industries, and even such matters as marriage choices.

Incomes and educational standards in the 1980s were highest in the productive lower Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) Valley and central Guangdong Province regions and lowest in the semi-arid highlands of the northwest and the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, as they had been since the late nineteenth century. The lowest incomes and living standards were in the peripheral areas inhabited by minority nationalities. Within all regions, there were distinctions between urban cores, intermediate areas, and peripheries. Villages on the outskirts of major cities had more opportunities for production of cash crops such as vegetables, more opportunities in sideline occupations or subcontracting for urban factories, and easier access to urban services and amenities. Higher village incomes were reflected in better housing, higher school attendance, wellappointed village meeting halls, and a high level of farm and domestic mechanization. For settlements on the periphery, however, even if only a short distance from urban centers, transportation was difficult. Such settlements had changed little in appearance since the 1950s and devoted most of their land and work force to growing staple grains. Many children in these villages dropped out of school before completing primary education, as physical strength and endurance were more highly regarded than book learning.

There is clearly a degree of overlap in the four fields of social differentiation (work units, party membership, urban-rural distinctions, and regional distinctions). The top of the hierarchy is occupied by those who work in state organizations, belong to the party, live in a major city, and inhabit a prosperous region. Correspondingly, the least favored inhabitants are peasants whose villages are located in the remote parts of poor regions. What is most impressive about social differentiation in modern China is the extent to which key variables such as region and rural or urban status are ascribed, and not easily changed by individual effort. This is the negative side of the security and stability that attracted China's populace to the party and its programs.

Data as of July 1987