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Understandings About the Social Structure in Modern China

Over the last two decades, China’s social structure has undergone significant changes. While still largely an agricultural country with more than 70 percent of the population being farmers, China has evolved into a mixture of a quasi-capitalist economy combined with an autocratic communist government. Such development has brought about the reshuffling of the old structure and, at the same time, created new social classes.

At the forum of “Harmonious Society” held in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, from July 10 to July 11, 2005, some experts pointed out that the current social structure in China can be categorized into ten groups based on people’s occupations. The report was published by the mainstream media and widely referenced in other Chinese media as well.

In the past, the society in China was simply grouped as “workers, peasants, intellectuals and government officials (or cadres).” Such groupings no longer reflect the reality of today’s China. Despite the change, experts believe that the social structure is still far from a balanced one. Mid to lower layers with low income (groups 7-9 below) are disproportionately large, while mid to upper layers (groups 3-6, which represent the prospects of a middle class) are still under-developed. Described below are the ten groups:

1. Administrators and government (2.1 percent), which includes those in various organs of the government and the Communist Party who perform leadership and executive tasks.

2. Management (1.5 percent), which includes the middle- to upper-level management workers in mid- to large-cap state-owned enterprises, stock-ownership enterprises, foreign invested enterprises, and private enterprises.

3. Private business owners (1.0 percent), which includes the group of private businessmen who own private capital and hire eight or more people.

4. Technocrats and professionals (4.6 percent), which include the professionals engaged in scientific and technological work in various state and local governments, and various industries.

5. Assistant and help staff (7.2 percent), who assist the leadership in various governmental and Party organs and in various companies and institutions.

6. Private businessmen (7.1 percent), which includes the small business owners who own a small amount of capital and carry out small-scale production and businesses.

7. Service personnel (11.2 percent), which includes the workers in the service industry who perform labor or non-labor work.

8. Manufacturers (17.5 percent), which includes the workers in the construction and manufacturing industries who directly provide labor or conduct secondary work. Most of the people in this class are migrant workers coming from the countryside.

9. Farmers (42.9 percent), which includes the farmers whose major source of income comes from agriculture, forestry, raising livestock, and fishing.

10. The jobless and part-time workers (4.8 percent), including those who have lost their jobs, lost their land, or are unemployed.

The above classification represents a scholarly version of China’s social structure. In the Internet forum, a civilian version of these classifications was also widely circulated and spurred considerable discussion. Though it uses plain and sometimes sarcastic language, the civilian version vividly describes the life of each group and therefore can offer a candid picture of how ordinary Chinese looks at China’s society. Below is an excerpt from the translation:

1. Government officials and the upper noble class

This is a class whose business dealings gain little exposure. The media usually avoids reporting about them, which means that the general public gets its information about them mainly through gossip spread by word of mouth.

Who are the people in this category who benefit the most? Look no further than those who control the largest amount of capital in each area, the Chairmen and General Managers. Look no further than the boss when state property becomes private property following a restructuring of the state-owned company. These people have no interest in getting into the routine of running a business. Because they are in the position to determine the direction of policy changes, they can always use that means to get what they want.

2. Experts and professors

They are the most important guests of government officials at every level, helping cook up theories to validate their policies.

3. Gangsters, hooligans, and mafia-style organizations

When the rule of law is not in place, then there is a need of some sort of force to fill the void. In the current China, such force takes the form of a mafia-style organization. In many regions, the activities of various gangsters and mafias are at an astonishing level. Government departments are afraid of them, or even form alliances with them.

4. Private entrepreneurs

Economic reform has brought about the development of various kinds of private enterprises. In many southern and coastal areas, private enterprises are the main body of the economy. These people are young and knowledgeable, most of them have read Dale Carnegie’s Success Secrets and have a domestic MBA title. Most importantly, they all know the current situation of China. They have established all kinds of networks with local officials. They all understand the rules: Power is money; money also requires protection from power.

5. Urban white collar workers

This group works for riches, and includes domestic and overseas capitalists. They mostly reside in nice office buildings. They are well-trained and have good manners. These people earn high salaries and have a high social status.

6. Government workers (servants)

It is characteristic of China to have a large number of government-paid workers. Though they earn a mediocre salary and have very few privileges, the stability of the payments they receive is still very attractive. By looking at people’s passion to apply for such jobs and the dealings (lots of illegal ones) that occur in the process, you will understand.

7. Employees in privileged corporations

To become a privileged corporation in China, the company must either be a monopoly or have strong support. They are in such fields as communication, electric power, banks, teachers, doctors, and so on.

People in this group can lead a quality life. They also sympathize with the suffering of the general population, and sometimes offer a little bit of help. But that’s all.

8. Employees in ordinary corporations

Life is not at all easy for them. These people have the most complaints. On the positive side, they still, at least, have food in their plates.

9. Farmers

Waiting to grow up, then waiting for the kids to grow upthey are a group waiting to die.

Farmers comprise the vast majority, but altogether they are equal to nothing.

10. Urban laid-off employees and migrant workers

There are lots of laid-off employees in the cities, but nobody knows how they survive. They are a mystery to our society. Officials will visit someone during the New Year or big holidays, but that’s merely a decoy for the official to take a picture.

The dead last group is the farmer migrant workers. There are reasons why they are not farmers. The main reason for the farmers coming to the city is to improve their quality of life. But in reality, the quality not only does not get any better; it becomes much worse. In the countryside, they are at least counted as human beings. After coming to the city, they are no longer regarded as humans anymore.

Lily Qu is a correspondent for Chinascope.