Party, Capitalists and Class in China

Émilie Frenkiel, « Capitalists and Class in China. An Interview with David S.G. Goodman », Books and Ideas, 29 October 2015. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL : (consulté le 1er novembre 2015)

According to Australian specialist of social classes David S.G. Goodman, China is still far from a capitalist country. In this interview, he maps out the connections between the Chinese middle classes, the upper class and the Communist Party and their political implications.

Books&Ideas: You have conducted research on China’s new rich and its emerging middle classes for a great part of your academic career. Can you spell the reasons for this research orientation? Have you perceived a great evolution in China’s class structure over the last twenty years?

arton3114-b2d09David S. Goodman: My main reason for this research has always been a concern with the social sciences. They are intended to be universal, yet often the experience of the world away from Europe and North America is absent. So in looking at China I wanted to know if the patterns of class and social stratification were indeed the same there as in the textbooks, and to identify differences as well as similarities. And having done that, I wanted to feed the results back into new understandings that would apply equally elsewhere. My recent book on Class in Contemporary China does in fact go those extra yards, I believe, and the reviewers have agreed. Class in China is not just about the relationship to the means of production. It is about inequalities in wealth, status and power, their social base, and their intergenerational transfer. At the heart of these processes of class are families who reproduce class much more reliably than is often assumed, even in advanced industrial societies where social mobility is thought to be the norm and merit is treated as a secular religion.

Books&Ideas: How much social mobility is there in China? In your book, Class in Contemporary China, you stress the importance of intergenerational transfers of privilege, and even mention that pre-1949 local elites China managed to regain their local elite status after 1978. Can it help explain the prevalence of the notion of people’s suzhi (quality) [1] in China nowadays?

David S. Goodman Gregory Clarke in The Son Also Rises (2014) suggests that in all advanced industrial societies social mobility is lower than we think. He indicates an intergenerational transfer of privilege of about 73%. For China he suggests that it is higher at about 84%. Other research, including my own, suggests that is correct and may indeed be even higher. One study from Peking University indicated that a woman’s occupation and social status is determined by her father’s in about 95% of cases and that a man’s is in about 84%. My own work on local economic elites suggests as you say that a very high proportion of today’s economic elites are the direct descendants of the local elites of 1949. More remarkably perhaps, about two thirds of today’s local elites are the descendants of people who in 1949 were both members of the local elite and members of the CCP. Changing this and uprooting the bastions of wealth and privilege could be very difficult and possibly dangerous, as President Xi Jinping has been discovering. It’s difficult because of the entrenched position of people and their social networks in the system which Xi has said has to be reformed in order to ensure the continued legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, and it’s dangerous because those same social networks are a necessary bastion of resistance. Does this explain the prevalence of concerns with suzhi, you ask. Possibly. But there is another even deeper socio-cultural explanation. Unlike European or North American societies, Chinese society does not start from the expectation of equality being the norm or the desirable way. Chinese people accept inequality as natural, and it is part of Chinese philosophy and civilisation. Distinctions are made and understood. This is once again the function of suzhi – to keep the migrant workers in their place and apart from the educated middle classes.

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Liste des publications de David S.G. Goodman disponibles à la bibliothèque du CECMC

Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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