Thu, Feb 27, 2003 - Page 8 News List

China confused over new classes

By HsuTung-ming 許東明

After Chinese President Jiang Zemin (江澤民) delivered his report entitled Build an all-round well-off society and create new vistas for building `socialism with Chinese characteristics' to the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) 16th National Congress last year, "well-off society" became a political slogan universally promoted by the Chinese media.

Ever since the founding of the PRC, however, China's social structure has been divided into "two classes and one stratum" -- the farming and the working classes, and the intellectual stratum. Even though economic growth and societal differentiation have begun, leaders and academic institutions have never expressed an opinion on the matter.

However, apart from electronic media using policy dissemination and news interviews to spread the concept, the print media are not only cold towards the term, but they also have their own social status designations.

How should one describe China's overall social structure after its uneven economic growth and development? And to what stratum does one belong, really? These issues are causing intense concern both in official circles and among the general public.

In late 1998, a translation of the 15-year-old book Class by Paul Fussell, an American professor of English, ignited a wave of intense debate. The book is mainly concerned with differentiating between the tastes of different social strata.

The problems discussed in the book could erupt in China at any time. Between 1999 and 2001, the print media created imaginary constructs of different social statuses due to the requirements of market segmentation. What they in fact did was nothing less than adapting Class to local conditions. The designations of social statuses that the media have begun using include "middle class," "petit bourgeoisie" and "core urban groups."

It should be noted that even though private media are pushing hard for the social statuses they have created, official circles only reacted by late 2001 when the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) published: A study on social strata in contemporary China."

This report promoted two main points. The first point was that the term "stratum" should replace the term "class." The second point was the proposition that contemporary China consists of 10 main strata, and that greatly increasing the size of the "middle strata" is a guarantee for social stability.

Since the beginning of opening up and reform in China, relations between the nation's left and right wings have always been strained. Faced with the serious rich-poor gap, the left-right conflict has increased further. The strain of this relationship has caused academics to view the study of social strata as being off limits.

Following the publication of the CASS report, the proposition that "strata" replace "class" soon drew a reaction from the CCP's old left wing. The dispute persisted until July 2001, when Jiang gave his "July 1 Talk." This talk, however, went no further than stating that "as a result of economic development, social stratification will continue."

Jiang also did not propose any concrete standards for the stratification of contemporary society. By the CCP's congress last year, Jiang acknowledged the way the 10 main social strata were defined in the report. He also proposed that the "well-off society" become the political goal for the nation's future development.

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