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Four Major Changes in China’s Overall Social Structure
Senior Tsinghua social scientist explains urbanization results
This newsletter features the translation of the Chinese article 《我国整体社会结构四大变化》Four Major Changes in China’s Overall Social Structure. The author is 李强 LI Qiang, a senior Tsinghua social scientist who formerly headed the School of Social Sciences there. This is easy to understand and not long, and it gives a broad and good idea of the macro changes in China.
Four Major Changes in China’s Overall Social Structure
by LI Qiang, formerly Dean, School of Social Sciences, Tsinghua University
China has witnessed seismic changes in its overall social structure since the reform and opening up. The former social classes and strata, such as farmers, workers, and intellectuals, have changed, and many new social classes have emerged. Regarding these changes, Lu Xueyi put forward the view of “ten classes”, which is, in fact, an explanation of occupational stratification. Based on the International Socio-Economic Index of Occupational Status (ISEI) and national census data, this author uses a purely quantitative method to conduct quantitative research on the changes in China’s social structure. The study reveals that China’s social structure has shifted from an “inverted T-shaped” one to a “土-shaped” one (with an expanded middle class). This illustrates the basic status in two respects: First, the lower-middle class in China still accounts for a large proportion of the total population. Second, the proportion of the middle class has increased markedly. According to the calculations done by the research team led by the author, so far China’s middle class (including family members), with a population of over 300 million, accounts for 26%-28% of the total population. This author attempts to elaborate on the four major changes below.
Fundamental changes in urban and rural population structure
Regarding the overall social structure, China’s society has shifted from one that is dominated by the rural population in the early 21st century to one that is dominated by the urban permanent population. The urbanization rate is usually adopted to indicate this change. In 2001, China’s urban population was 480.64 million, accounting for 37.7% of the total population, and its rural population stood at 795.63 million, accounting for 62.3% of the total. According to the data from the seventh national census conducted in 2020, the population living in cities and towns registered 901.99 million, 63.89% of the total, while the population living in rural areas registered 509.79 million, 36.11% of the total. In other words, China has seen a complete change in urban and rural populations: in 2001, rural residents took up over 60% of the total population, while in 2020, urban residents accounted for 60% of the total population instead.
The urban-rural disparity has always been one of the biggest problems in China, but it now manifests new characteristics, namely the complexity and diversity in urban-rural disparity. Today, rural areas have also witnessed prominent wealth gaps. Some villages and farmers are impoverished, while others can be quite affluent. The relationship between urban and rural areas is far more complicated than before. In the past, the development of rural areas was mainly realized through urbanizing the rural areas and transforming farmers into urban inhabitants. Yet today, farmers now are unwilling to be transformed into urban residents as they will lose their land, which is the source of their wealth. Such cases abound. In many regions, after the land rights were confirmed, farmers may acquire the land certificate, homestead certificate, and property ownership certificate. In many villages, land use rights and collective property were transformed into stock shares, and farmers become shareholders and enjoy generous dividend benefits. This is especially true for rural areas not far from big cities, where villages are growing rich with newly-established mechanisms. Generally speaking, the rural areas in the vicinity of big cities are wealthier, whereas those far away from big cities lag.
The changes in the urban and rural population structure cause tremendous changes in the way the residents work and live
Such tremendous change in the urban and rural population structure brings about comprehensive social changes. For hundreds of millions of people, the way of production has changed from the labor in agriculture in rural areas to the labor in industrial, service, and commercial sectors in cities and towns. There is also a fundamental lifestyle change. In the past, people in rural areas had a self-sufficient lifestyle in which they “planted melons and beans near the house”, raised chickens and pigs, and did not need much extra spending on daily necessities. Now, almost all needs can only be met through commercial exchanges. On the one hand, many elderly people are not well adapted to this change. On the other hand, this has indeed improved people’s level of consumption significantly.
Following the transition to urban life, the housing is obviously far less spacious than before, but the people enjoy far more convenient life and mobility services than those available in rural areas. Those farmer-turned-urban citizens are entitled to social benefits like urban residents. In this sense, tremendous changes also took place in their rights and interests.
For many people, what is the most difficult is to change their living habits and mindsets. Urban life compels people to obey the codes of conduct in modern cities. While it is hard to quantify the changes in the way of production, lifestyle, rights and interests, and civil behavior, the tremendous social changes brought by these are real.
The occupational structure has undergone tremendous changes
In recent years, new occupational groups have emerged in China. First, deliverymen. According to the Analysis Report on Market Prospects and Future Investment Strategies of China’s Express Delivery Sector from 2020 to 2025, there are 10 million deliverymen for takeaway food and products in China, and the number is growing at a stunning rate as there were only 3 million deliverymen in 2018. Second, online ride-hailing drivers. According to a report in October 2019, there were 30 million online ride-hailing drivers in China. Third, online sales staff. The number of people involved in online sales in urban and rural areas is very large and no official statistics are available so far. According to our daily observations, many people of all age groups have the experience of selling online, and online sales are pretty common even in chat groups on WeChat.
For the aforementioned three occupational groups, many work part-time, and quite a few of them work several shifts for different jobs per day. This novel employment mode is also an innovation in Chinese history. A new trend is that laborers are lured into a labor market where they can make bucks fast and many people are working part-time. In this way, it is hard for researchers to distinguish their occupations.
The enormous division in socioeconomic status between people in big cities and small and medium-sized cities
In terms of China’s overall social structure, the relationship between urban and rural areas has undergone fundamental changes. Due to continuous policy changes in many respects, there are great differences between urban and rural areas. Many farmers start to buy houses in the city or town near their hometown and begin to live an urban life. At the same time, there are increasing differences between large cities, super-large cities, megacities, and small and medium-sized cities. These differences are mainly manifested in three aspects.
First, the difference in occupational status between cities. The occupational status is a comprehensive social status. It is very important as it indicates a person’s social status, economic income, reputation, and so on. Since China has not released the occupation data of its seventh national census, the data of the sixth national census are used here. It can be seen that there is an obvious difference in occupational status between super-large cities and small and medium-sized cities. That is why although many university graduates wish to go back to their hometown and contribute to its development, they choose not to do so as they found that the occupation structure in small and medium-sized cities does not match that of the major they studied. Consequently, more talent flow from small cities to big cities. However, as talent are essential for urban development, brain drain is likely to form the vicious circle for the development of small cities.
Second, the difference among megacities, large cities, and small and medium-sized cities is a regional difference of political, economic, and social priority. A so-called “political, economic, and social regional body” is a prominent phenomenon in China. As the government plays an important role in resource allocation, each region will basically receive allocated resources based on the administrative level they belong to. Therefore, large cities with high levels enjoy more political, economic, and social resources, whereas small cities, however dynamic their market is, cannot attain the full-scale resource allocation based on the administrative level.
Third, the difference is also embodied in property prices. The housing prices in super-large cities and megacities are always on the upward trend, despite the efforts to rein them in. In contrast, housing prices in small and medium-sized cities mostly show a downward trend, although they may climb up sometimes. Recent research by Peking University shows that 79.8% of Chinese urban residents' household assets go to house property. The fact that housing prices are growing in super-large cities and megacities but are falling in small cities itself indicates the differentiation in family property, which is an important cause for the polarization of wealth. Thus, how to address the cyclic and cumulative effect of rising property prices in big cities remains a hard nut to crack.
Source: Page 10, Beijing Daily, November 22, 2021