Since the reform and opening up, especially since the start of the 21st century, China’s social structure has undergone great changes through all of rural, urban-rural and urban China.
Changes in seven aspects
To start with, the change in China’s population structure has mainly manifested in three aspects: population aging is getting increasingly severe; the education level of the population has been greatly improved; and after long-term rapid growth the scale of the migrant population has entered a stage of adjustment.
By 2018, while the number of new births had decreased, the aging population had increased, with 249.49 million people aged 60 or above, accounting for 17.95% of the total population. Since 1999, China has been expanding the scale of college enrollment. In 2017, the average length of schooling for China’s working-age population rose to 10.5 years. At the same time, although the total number of migrant workers in China had reached 288 million, their growth rate was only 0.6%, according to the 2018 National Report on Migrant Worker Monitoring and Survey released by the National Bureau of Statistics.
Second, since the reform and opening up more than 40 years ago, great changes have taken place in China’s urban and rural family structure, which are mainly reflected in family size, type and relations. Small-sized households have become the norm. In 2015, the 1% National Population Sample Survey indicated that the average number of people per household in China was 3.10.
At the same time, family types have diversified. The numbers of DINK (dual-income, no kid) families, singles and migratory families are increasing, and so is the proportion of empty-nest families, intergenerational families and separated families. Due to the rising divorce rate in recent years, the number of single-parent families is also mounting. Family relations tend to be more equal. Since the vast majority of families are nuclear families, the trend toward equality between husband and wife has been strengthened.
Third, since the 18th National Congress of the CPC, China has now entered a “new normal” of economic development. Under this new normal, China’s economy is coming under increasing downward pressure. To cope with the situation, China has carried out supply-side structural reform.
In the past decade, new technologies represented by the internet and artificial intelligence are also reshaping the socioeconomic pattern. The new technological revolution is a double-edged sword, producing both a “substitution effect” and a “creation effect” in China’s human resources market. While technological innovation and progress give birth to a number of new forms of business and jobs and while flexible and personalized employment become more popular, the risk of technical unemployment is increased in the short term. In general, the occupational structure tends to be more advanced, and there is a greater risk that jobs requiring physical strength and less intelligence will be replaced.
Fourth, in 2011, the urban-rural relationship in China took a major turn. That year, China’s urbanization rate reached 51.27%, and the urban population exceeded the rural population for the first time, which was a qualitative change. Since then, urbanization has continued, with the urbanization rate reaching 59.58% by the end of 2018.
The change in the urban-rural relationship is not fully reflected in the significant change in the number of people working and living in urban and rural areas, because the vast majority of farmers are unwilling to give up their rural hukou, a system of household registration in China. There are great differences in population between cities of different regions and sizes, including the first-, second-, third- and even fourth-tier cities. Rural areas vary greatly from region to region.
Fifth, with the development of urbanization and the increase in the migrant population, the number of households and the total population managed by urban communities are increasing.
Community refers to a community of social life composed of people living in a certain geographical area. Different types of communities differ greatly due to different property rights, geographical environment, infrastructure, demographic structure, social demand and resource endowment.
Generally speaking, the types of communities in large cities are more complex and diverse. Since the beginning of the housing commercialization reform in the mid-1990s, the living conditions of residents have been significantly improved and the urban landscape has undergone great changes. Various types of commercial housing have become the main forms of urban communities.
Sixth, since the start of the 21st century, China’s social mobility has been strengthened, and the social stratum structure has continued to develop toward an olive-shaped modern social structure. The status of workers has grown unprecedentedly, and migrant workers have become the main body, whereas agricultural practitioners make up less than a third of the total employment and are aging.
Finally, in recent years, the organizational mode of our society has been developing from “de-organization” and “self-organization” to “re-organization,” which causes the organizational structure of society to present new characteristics. Since the 18th National Congress of the CPC, in order to guide the healthy development of the growing number of “self-organizations” outside the state-owned enterprise system, the government has strengthened the building of urban and rural communities, the reform and development of mass organizations, and Party building at each level of Party organization.
Characteristics of social change
Industrialization, marketization, urbanization and technological development are the deep root causes of the evolution of China’s social structure, while the changes in population migration, employment and residential form are the direct causes. It is the large-scale migration and the ensuing changes in employment, residential forms, family types and values that have made China’s changed social structure exhibit its own traits, in comparison to its counterparts in developed countries.
In just over 40 years, China experienced the process of industrialization and urbanization that took two- or three-hundred years in developed countries. The change of social structure has the same characteristics of spatial and temporal compression as in many other areas. With the aid of modern technologies such as the internet and artificial intelligence, this feature has been more apparent.
The pattern of financial incentives is complex. While farmers are willing to work, do business and live in cities due to the great urban-rural changes, few are willing to give up their agricultural hukou. Young people in rural areas, especially the second generation of rural migrant workers, are more willing to work and live in the city, and they yearn for mental labor and decent employment. However, their social capital and personal ability are still far from what the city requires.
The coexistence of multiple forms of ownership and multiple industrial models and employment patterns, both within and outside the state-owned enterprise system, makes people’s position in regard to income gap, labor relations, rights protection, and career development more diverse and volatile.
Since the reform and opening up, China’s social demand structure has diversified and advanced. In 2017, the Engel coefficient for urban and rural residents was 29.3%, down 34.6 percentage points from 1978. Thanks to economic development and abundant material resources, the era of imitative consumption has ended, and people have begun to pursue personalized, differentiated, niche and branded consumption.
At the same time, people’s social awareness has been constantly enhancing and concepts such as democracy, fairness and justice, rule of law, participation, rights, and environmental protection have gained footing in people’s hearts. According to a research group with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in recent years, the main participants in social organizations have come from the younger generation.
As people’s living standards have improved, the objective social stratum status has improved based on occupational status measurement. To be specific, the size of the lower and middle group in terms of occupational status has shrunk, while that of the middle and upper group has expanded. However, a large number of surveys show that people’s subjective identification of their socioeconomic status appears to tell a different story.
Moreover, the social security system has been made more equal, and the gap between urban and rural residents in terms of basic public services and income has been narrowed. For example, in 2018, the total expenditure in the general public budget was around 2 trillion yuan, of which nearly 1.6 trillion yuan was spent on education, science and technology, culture, sports and media, social security and employment, medical and health care and family planning, energy conservation and environmental protection, and urban and rural community expenditure, accounting for 52.5% of the total budget expenditure, an increase of about 7.5% from 2017.
In sum, since the start of the 21st century, China’s social structure has reflected social progress and provided strong support for modernization. However, it should be noted that the changes in different aspects of the society are uneven and the adjustment of the social structure lags behind that of the economic structure on the whole. At present, the main risks are manifested in the aging population, unemployment, rural grassroots governance, social integration, upward social mobility, and stratum and group conflicts.
Gong Weibin is a professor from the Teaching and Research Department of Society and Ecological Progress at the National Academy of Governance.