Handbooks of Research on Contemporary China series
Edited by Yingjie Guo
Chapter 7: Ethnic minority status, class, and the urban labour market
Beginning in the 1950s, jobs in China were assigned by the state in line with its declared intention to attain full employment for all. Individuals working in government departments, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and collectively owned enterprises (COEs) were given what appeared to be ‘iron rice bowl’ jobs (tie fan wan) – meaning that all employees were guaranteed job security for life, regardless of their ethnic background. The trade-off for secure employment in China’s institutionalized system of ‘organized dependence’ (Walder 1986) was a lack of job choice or mobility. The individual was thus tied to a danwei (work unit) for life, while the state dictated a salary structure with a minimal range. Although occupational prestige contradicted Maoist class theory – whereby all occupations were deemed to be of equal status – workers’ entitlements varied according to the type of organization employing them, hence a distinction between ‘high-prestige’ and ‘low-prestige’ jobs (Kraus 1981; Lü and Perry 1997). For instance, in addition to a guaranteed pension, jobs in government departments and SOEs came with the added benefit of free housing and medical care for both employees and their dependants. COEs, on the other hand, usually offered only a pension, with limited medical care. SOEs were therefore considered more prestigious than COEs. Perceiving these differences, many jobseekers did not wait for assignments but instead used their social networks or guanxi to secure a high-prestige job.
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