Myth of the Social Volcano: Perceptions of Inequality and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China

Myth of the Social Volcano: Perceptions of Inequality and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China

Myth of the Social Volcano: Perceptions of Inequality and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China

Myth of the Social Volcano: Perceptions of Inequality and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China

Synopsis

Is popular anger about rising inequality propelling China toward a "social volcano" of protest activity and instability that could challenge Chinese Communist Party rule? Many inside and outside of China have speculated, without evidence, that the answer is yes. In 2004, Harvard sociologist Martin King Whyte has undertaken the first systematic, nationwide survey of ordinary Chinese citizens to ask them directly how they feel about inequalities that have resulted since China's market opening in 1978. His findings are the subject of this book.

Excerpt

A house may be large or small; as long as the neighboring houses are
likewise small, it satisfies all social requirement for a residence. But let there
arise next to the little house a palace, and the little house shrinks to a hut.

—Karl Marx, 1847

Some people in rural areas and cities should be allowed to get rich before
others.

—Deng Xiaoping, 1983

Because many people believe that wealth flows from access to power
more than it does from talent or risk-taking, the wealth gap has incited
outrage and is viewed as at least partly responsible for tens of thousands
of mass protests around the country in recent years.

—Joseph Kahn, New York Times, 2006

China's post-1978 economic reforms have been remarkably successful in many respects, producing close to 10 percent economic growth rates for three decades, rising income levels, massive inflows of foreign investment, extraordinary success in exporting Chinese products overseas, and growing integration of the nation into the world economy. a society once known as the “sick man of Asia” and later as the site of the largest documented famine in human history has now lifted hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty and displays mushrooming skyscrapers, limited access highways, shopping malls, private automobiles, and all the other trappings of an increasingly modern and wealthy society. During this period China's sustained economic growth has surpassed the record of previous East Asian “tigers,” and this has been accomplished for a complex continental economy that currently counts more than 1.3 billion people. Even for those suspicious about the accuracy of Chinese economic statistics, there is no doubt that this is a record of stunning economic success.

However, there is at least one darker side to this story. During the reform period, China has gone from being a society that was relatively equal, at least in terms of the distribution of incomes, to being a society that is very unequal. As judged by the Gini coefficient that social scientists often use to measure overall inequality (with 0 equal to perfect equality and 1 equal to . . .

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