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People's Republic of China - Society

China, the world's largest society, is united by a set of values and institutions that cut across extensive linguistic, environmental, and subcultural differences. Residents of the southern and northern regions of the country might not understand each other's speech, enjoy each other's favorite foods, or make a living from each other's land, and they might describe each other with derogatory stereotypes. Nonetheless, they would regard each other as fellow Chinese, members of the same society, and different from the Vietnamese or Koreans, with whom some Chinese might seem to have more in common.

Chinese society, since the second decade of the twentieth century, has been the object of a revolution intended to change it in fundamental ways. In its more radical phases, such as the Great Leap Forward (1958-60) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the revolution aimed at nothing less than the complete transformation of everything from the practice of medicine, to higher education, to family life. In the 1980s China's leaders and intellectuals considered the revolution far from completed, and they intended further social change to make China a fully modernized country. It had become increasingly clear that although many aspects of Chinese social life had indeed undergone fundamental changes as a result of both political movements and economic development, the transformation was less than total. Much of the past either lived on in modified form or served to shape revolutionary initiatives and to limit the choices open to even the most radical of revolutionaries.

After the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949, the uncertainty and risks facing small-scale socioeconomic units were replaced by an increase in the scale of organization and bureaucratization, with a consequent increase in predictability and personal security. The tens of millions of small enterprises were replaced by a much smaller number of larger enterprises, which were organized in a bureaucratic and hierarchical manner. Collectivization of land and nationalization of most private businesses meant that families no longer had estates to pass along. Long-term interests for families resided primarily with the work unit (collective farm, office, or factory) to which they belonged.

Mobility in most cases consisted of gaining administrative promotions within such work units. Many of the alternate routes to social mobility were closed off, and formal education continued to be the primary avenue of upward mobility. In villages the army offered the only reasonable alternative to a lifetime spent in the fields, and demobilized soldiers staffed much of the local administrative structure in rural areas. For the first time in Chinese history, the peasant masses were brought into direct contact with the national government and the ruling party, and national-level politics came to have a direct impact on the lives of ordinary people. The formerly local, small-scale, and fragmented power structure was replaced by a national and well-integrated structure, operating by bureaucratic norms. The unpredictable consequences of market forces were replaced by administrative allocation and changing economic policies enforced by the government bureaucracy.

The principal transformation of society took place during the 1950s in a series of major campaigns carried out by the party. In the countryside, an initial land reform redistributed some land from those families with an excess to those with none. This was quickly followed by a series of reforms that increased the scale of organization, from seasonal mutual aid teams (groups of jointsupport laborers from individual farming households), to permanent mutual aid teams, to voluntary agricultural cooperatives, to compulsory agricultural cooperatives, and finally to large people's communes. In each step, which came at roughly two-year intervals, the size of the unit was increased, and the role of inherited land or private ownership was decreased. By the early 1960s, an estimated 90 million family farms had been replaced by about 74,000 communes. During the same period, local governments took over commerce, and private traders, shops, and markets were replaced by supply and marketing cooperatives and the commercial bureaus of local government. In the cities, large industries were nationalized and craft enterprises were organized into large-scale cooperatives that became branches of local government. Many small shops and restaurants were closed down, and those that remained were under municipal management.

In both city and countryside, the 1950s saw a major expansion of the party and state bureaucracies, and many young people with relatively scarce secondary or college educations found secure white-collar jobs in the new organizations. The old society's set of formal associations--everything from lineages (clans), to irrigation cooperatives, to urban guilds and associations of persons from the same place of origin, all of which were private, small-scale, and usually devoted to a single purpose--were closed down. They were replaced by government bureaus or state-sponsored mass associations, and their parochial leaders were replaced by party members. The new institutions were run by party members and served as channels of information, communication, and political influence.

The basic pattern of contemporary society was established by 1960, and all changes since then, including the reforms of the early and mid-1980s, have represented only modifications and adjustments to the pattern. The pattern is cellular; most people belong to one large, all-embracing unit, such as a factory, government office, or village. The unit is run by party branch, operates (or should operate) under common administrative rules and procedures, and reflects the current policies of the party. The consequence has been that most aspects of social differentiation, stratification, mobility, and tensions are now played out within an institutional framework. Most of the questions about any individual's life and prospects can be answered by specifying the unit--the social cell--with which that individual is associated.

The first major action to alter village society was the land reform of the late 1940s and early 1950s, in which the party sent work teams to every village to carry out its land reform policy. This in itself was an unprecedented display of administrative and political power. The land reform had several related goals. The work teams were to redistribute some (though not all) land from the wealthier families or land-owning trusts to the poorest segments of the population and so to effect a more equitable distribution of the basic means of production; to overthrow the village elites, who might be expected to oppose the party and its programs; to recruit new village leaders from among those who demonstrated the most commitment to the party's goals; and to teach everyone to think in terms of class status rather than kinship group or patron-client ties.

In pursuit of the last goal, the party work teams convened extensive series of meetings, and they classified all the village families either as landlords, rich peasants, middle peasants, or poor peasants. These labels, based on family landholdings and overall economic position roughly between 1945 and 1950, became a permanent and hereditary part of every family's identity and, as late as 1980, still affected, for example, such things as chances for admission to the armed forces, colleges, universities, and local administrative posts and even marriage prospects.

The collectivization of agriculture was essentially completed with the establishment of the people's communes in 1958. Communes were large, embracing scores of villages. They were intended to be multipurpose organizations, combining economic and local administrative functions. Under the commune system the household remained the basic unit of consumption, and some differences in standards of living remained, although they were not as marked as they had been before land reform. Under such a system, however, upward mobility required becoming a team or commune cadre or obtaining a scarce technical position such as a truck driver.

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Page last modified: 28-09-2019 18:50:04 ZULU