- Myth of the Social Volcano: Perception of Inequality and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China
China’s post-1978 economic reforms have been remarkably successful, producing close to 10 percent economic growth rates for three decades, rising income levels, massive inflows of foreign investment, and extraordinary success in exporting Chinese product overseas. However, there is at least one dark side to this successful story. During the reform period, China has gone from a society that was relatively equal to being a society that is highly unequal. In post-socialist China, the wealth and privilege that the socialist revolution set out to destroy have returned with a vengeance — for example, millionaire business tycoons, the exploitation of workers by foreign capitalists, and gated and guarded private mansion compounds. The downside of capitalism that socialism had eliminated has also returned with a vengeance — unemployment, company bankruptcy, loss of health insurance, and confiscation of housing and farmland in shady deals with property developers.
In Myth of the Social Volcano, Martin K. Whyte examines how ordinary Chinese viewed the growing inequalities that had been unleashed by China’s market reform after 1978. Do most ordinary Chinese accept the new market-based and highly competitive society China has become and feel that it offers improved opportunity for them to get ahead and to make better lives for their children? Or do they feel threatened by these changes and feel that most of the benefits of China’s prosperity are being monopolized by the well connected and corrupt, while ordinary workers and farmers are being left behind?
The so-called conventional view asserts that ordinary Chinese citizens believe that current inequalities are unjust; they are increasingly angry about rising inequalities; and their anger might eventually erupt in a social volcano of widespread protests against the distributive injustice unleashed by market reforms and hectic economic growth, thus putting China’s social and political stability at risk. The Chinese who are most angry about inequality patterns and trends are the losers and disadvantaged groups in the wake of Chinese reforms (such as the farmers), while those who have prospered as a result of the reforms tend to accept current inequalities rather than to feel anger. Perhaps stimulated by apparent sharp increases in local protest incidents in recent years, the social volcano argument has gained wide currency both in China and in the West.
However, Whyte questions whether this social volcano argument about China’s inequality patterns and trends is correct. Thus, Whyte carried out the first systematic national survey of the attitudes of Chinese citizens on inequality and distributive injustice issues to examine the social volcano argument critically. [End Page 247]
Chapter 1 presents an overview of China’s recent history, focusing on the nature of equality and social mobility patterns during the socialist era in order to provide a historical context for the post-1978 transformation of China from a socialist to a market society. This chapter argues that socialist China before 1978 was far from an egalitarian social order upon which Chinese citizens might look back with nostalgia. Instead, the socialist period was a rigid and unfairly stratified social order from which today’s market society might be seen as a welcome escape.
Chapter 2 describes the nature of the 2004 national survey, the sampling methods, and the questionnaire that Whyte employed. The national surveys were carried out in the fall and early winter of 2004. The response rate was 75.2 percent. The survey used spatial probability sampling and eventually ended up with 1,785 residents from urban areas and 1,482 from rural areas. The interviewers were locally hired individuals who were familiar with local dialects. Whyte is confident about the quality of his national survey because it followed accepted procedures, such as voluntary participation and assured confidentiality, designed to minimize biases that might distort responses of survey respondents.
Chapter 3 presents the feelings of Chinese...