Handbooks of Research on Contemporary China series
Edited by Yingjie Guo
Chapter 5: Cultural politics of class: workers and peasants as historical subjects
The impact of socio-economic stratification over the period of three decades of economic reforms has been extensively documented in the work of sociologists, economists and political scientists. This scholarship makes it clear that the main beneficiaries and agents of the social economic growth in the economic reforms since the early 1980s are ‘cadres, managers, and entrepreneurs’, or what have come to be described as China’s ‘new middle class’, consisting of political and economic elites who are China’s new ‘ruling classes’ (Goodman 2008: 24). In contrast, the working class, consisting of workers and peasants, who used to be the political ‘mainstream’ and ‘backbone’ of socialist China (Zhao 2010: 5), is now ‘losing its subjectivity and legitimacy’ and ‘can no longer be called upon by national ideology’ (Lü, quoted in Zhao 2010: 6). What is still missing from this body of literature is an explicit articulation of the relationship between culture and class. How are class differences and class tensions managed and negotiated in cultural terms? How does culture operate as a category in class analysis? Knowing answers to these questions is integral to achieving a full and multi-dimensional understanding of class (trans)formations in China. This is because the unequal distribution of cultural resources is a result of, as well as further constitutive of, unequal distribution of economic resources among various social classes (Sun and Guo 2013).
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