Chinese have followed the lead by their former leader Deng Xiaoping to “become rich first”. But while hundreds of millions have indeed become more wealthy, social mobility has stalled, writes journalist Zhang Lijia, author of the forthcoming book on prostitution in China Lotus: A Novel in the New York Times.
But after decades of breakneck economic growth, the country’s wealth has ceased trickling down, bringing social mobility to a standstill. Chinese people have fewer opportunities to move up the socioeconomic ladder. State-controlled capitalism and corruption have led to the demise of the Communist ideal of a classless society.
A 2014 nationwide survey by a market-research company suggested that intergeneration mobility in China among the low- and lower-middle class has stagnated, and people from those groups had little confidence that they could improve their fate. Among those who self-identified as lower-middle class, 68 percent said their parents also belonged to the lower-middle class, and 87 percent of people in the lower class said their parents were in the same class. In short, the majority of lower class people in China are staying near the bottom of the class pyramid.
A Stanford report from earlier this year echoes what Chinese social scientists have found: China ranks high among countries in which citizens earn close to what their parents had earned. It is a country with low “intergenerational earnings mobility,” meaning China’s younger people are likely to be in the same socioeconomic class as their parents.
Research shows the bigger the income gap, the lower the social mobility. And the income gap has been widening steadily. A report from Peking University in January found China to be one of the most unequal societies in the world with the richest 1 percent holding a third of the country’s wealth.
When the rungs of the income ladder grow farther apart, it’s more difficult for people to climb upward.
While some 800 million people in China have been lifted out of poverty in the last few decades, the economic reforms have produced a new underclass of low-paid urban workers, including migrants from the country’s rural areas. The new lower class is stuck at the bottom.
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