Handbook on Class and Social Stratification in China
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Handbook on Class and Social Stratification in China

Edited by Yingjie Guo

This comprehensive, interdisciplinary Handbook illustrates the patterns of class transformation in China since 1949, situating them in their historical context. Presenting detailed case studies of social stratification and class formation in a wide range of settings, the expert contributors provide valuable insights into multiple aspects of China’s economy, polity and society. The Handbook on Class and Social Stratification in China explores largely neglected contemporary topics such as women’s social mobility in relation to marriage and the high school entrance exam as a class sorter, placing it at the forefront of progressive literature.
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Chapter 18: China’s rural migrant workers and labour politics

Jenny Chan and Mark Selden


With a shift in manufacturing from the developed countries of North America, Europe, and East Asia to the emerging economies, China has become not only the workshop of the world, but also the epicentre of labour unrest. Yet, even as the size and complexity of China’s working class grow, class contradictions sharpen, and social protest proliferates, the language of class has largely disappeared from Chinese discourse (Anagnost 2008; Lee and Selden 2008; Andreas 2009; Guo 2009; Chen, M. and Goodman 2013; Goodman 2014). As Ching Kwan Lee and Yuan Shen (2009: 110) demonstrate, under dual pressure from the state and academic institutions, many scholars who study workers in post-Cultural Revolution China ‘shun class analysis and define away labour issues as those of mobility, migration, and stratification’. In contemporary China the word jieji (class) connotes antagonism and confrontation in the Marxist sense, eliciting dark memories of violent social struggles throughout China from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s. It is an image that is out of step with the ‘harmonious society’ and the ‘Chinese dream’ that contemporary China’s leaders proclaim. Its replacement in social analysis, the concept of jieceng (strata) elides class conflict and highlights social mobility predicated on enhanced human resource capital through continuing education and skills training (Lu 2002). Policymakers and academics working in a social stratification paradigm analyse data on household income distribution, educational attainment, and occupational rankings to document the rise of a middle class, or various middle class strata, while downplaying durable and deepening structures of class inequality.

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