The Changing Face of China’s Local Elite: Elite Advantage and Path Dependence in Business Communities
The Changing Face of China's Local Elite: Elite Advantage and Path Dependence in Business Communities
David S. G. Goodman 0 1
0 Department of China Studies, Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University , Suzhou , China
1 & David S. G. Goodman
There has been considerable discussion about whether and how China's political economy will change with economic growth and development. The debate has focused for the most part on the possibilities for either market transition or continued path dependence, and in particular, research has centred on the emergence of business activities and the changing role of local business elites. The results of interviews with 469 members of the new economic elites in five cities suggest that while local politics may indeed have adjusted to the new environment, in elite formation, the market plays a role alongside and sometimes secondary to status and political power. There is a significant pattern of elite privilege that reaches back into the era of state socialism, with further origins for some to be found in the pre-1949 local elites. Even where there are reasons to be sceptical about long-term status claims, there can be no gainsaying the strength of such narratives as motivational forces in business and elite behaviour.
China; Local; Business elites
Four decades of reform in China have clearly wrought considerable change on
China’s political economy as it has moved away from the earlier system of state
socialism. For almost all that time scholars, both inside and outside of the People’s
Republic of China (PRC) have debated the political impact of economic change. For
many, there has been an expectation that the marketization of the economy will lead
to a fundamental change in the political system
(for example, most recently Minxin
. For others, the remarkable aspect of the era of economic reform has been
the maintenance and adaptation of the party state, leading even to discussion of ‘The
Beijing Consensus’ and ‘The China Model’ as alternative paths of modernization to
the once dominant ‘Washington Consensus’
(for example, Cooper Ramo 2004;
The debate on the respective merits of market transition and path dependence as
the interpretation of change has not unnaturally focussed on its impact at the local
level, particularly in the development of businesses and business cultures. Leading
the way has been the work of Victor Nee. Since the late 1980s, he has argued that
the impact of the introduction of market forces into China’s state-socialist economic
system has had a profound impact on the local elites, influencing not only class
formation, but also the exercise of power. By 2012, Nee was arguing that there had
been a market transition in which: ‘The market has replaced redistributed power;
political capital does not lead to economic success’
(Nee and Opper 2012, p. 55)
Others have argued that the impact of market forces has been more muted, with
the influence of the party state, and its participants, either continuing to determine or
at least remaining dominant in local economic development. Some have even
described the emerging political economy as one more characterised by crony
capitalism than determined by the operation of the market. In a recent example,
Bruce Dickson argued that there was now: ‘a system of interaction between
economic and political elites that is based on patrimonial ties and in which success
in business is due more to personal contacts in the official bureaucracy than to
entrepreneurial skill or merit’
This article is not so much concerned with the question of market transition
(though that is a useful starting point for analysis of change) as with the question of
elite advantage and its source(s). The evidence from research in Lanzhou, Nanjing,
Qingdao, Taiyuan, and Zhongshan suggests that the contemporary economic elite
has either emerged from the party state or been incorporated into it and that the
relationship between the two sources of wealth and influence remains so close as to
be almost inseparable. There are some ways in which the market has influenced elite
formation, but these are somewhat limited, and on the whole, there has been a high
degree of path dependence. Perhaps, even greater interest is the indication that path
dependence is not confined to the relationship between the era of state socialism and
the more recent period of economic reform. There is apparently a degree of family
continuity between the former pre-1949 local elites and the new economic elites of
the early 21st century.
2 Transition and Dependence
Nee’s arguments about market transition and the debates that have ensued around
them are a useful starting point for understanding the dynamics of change, not least
because they indicate key areas for the analysis of change (or otherwise) amongst
the new economic elites. These include considerations of class, of political
participation, of education and social mobility. To these have been added
considerations of family history, not simply in terms of factors generating elite
advantage, but also the importance of narrative motivating elite or would be elite
Nee’s starting point for the development of his ideas referred to Ivan Szelenyi’s
earlier research into still then Communist Party-Run Hungary and Poland, and the
observation that in a state-socialist economy, wealth and political power is a
function of redistribution not of the market
. State officials make
decisions about distribution that determine wealth and power. Nee’s initial
argument was that with the introduction of market forces, there would be a
‘transfer of power favouring direct producers over redistributors’
. He then set about undertaking a number of studies that demonstrated (inter
alia) that rural stratification had moved to market determination
cadres have incentives to move into the private sector because of market transition
(Nee and Lian 1994)
; and that cadres had indeed moved out of State Owned
Enterprise management and into private enterprises
(Nee and Su 1998)
inevitably, Nee began to argue that ‘The spread of markets erodes commitment to
the party and paves the way for regime change’ (Nee and Lian 1994, p. 285).
In the early 1990s, Nee’s views initially met resistance from those who argued
quite convincingly that politically based privilege was actually a structural matter: it
was embedded in the economy
(Bian and Logan 1996, p. 741)
. Nee’s response to
these criticisms was to acquiesce to some extent, accepting that especially in the
urban economy, there would necessarily be a high degree of path dependence.
Things were not able to change that quickly. Indeed, he went on to develop his ideas
further, arguing that each situation would be highly localised, determined by
different kinds of markets and dependent to a high degree on which sector was
dominant in any given locality. There was a clear difference between areas on the
coast, which were more exposed to the market reforms and the rest of the world’s
economic involvement, on the one hand, and those inland, on the other. Nee readily
accepted that even on the East Coast, there could be and was a clear difference
between the individual sector dominated economy of Zhejiang and the more
collective sector dominated Jiangsu developmental model
(Nee 1991, 1992; Nee
and Cao 1999)
Those who did not accept Nee’s explanation of market transition continued with
their skepticism. They argued that there had been little evidence of declining
political influence in either wealth creation or elite formation, and their replacement
by the power of the market. In their views, class background, CCP membership, and
political position remained crucial to the local level distribution of wealth and
(Xie and Hannum 1996; Walder 2002, 2003; Bian and Zhang 2004;
Gustafsson and Ding 2010)
. At the same time, there has been a greater awareness of
market forces alongside and intermingled with political factors in the determination
of local elites
(Walder, Li and Treiman 2000; Zang 2001, 2004)
Although Szelenyi’s identification of the political redistribution of wealth had
been the starting point for the development of Nee’s ideas, the former did not agree
with the latter’s analysis or arguments. Drawing on research into reforming East
European state socialism (before and after 1989), Szelenyi and Kostello came to a
different conclusion about the prospects for political transition. There, they argued
that it had been ‘the technocratic fraction of the former nomenklatura’ and the
children of former cadres who ‘would become the new system’s political and
economic elite, not the current private entrepreneurs’
(Szele´nyi and Kostello 1998)
Later still, Szelenyi went on to describe contemporary China’s political economy in
terms of state socialism, largely because of the continuing domination of the party
state (Szele´nyi 2008). This was a view more than somewhat echoed by those who
described China in terms of Crony Capitalism, as was the case with the
alreadycited case of Bruce Dickson.
These comments and criticism have persisted. Nonetheless, Nee has continued to
argue not only that market transition will come, if slowly, but that it is already here
in some respects. In 2002, he argued that ‘Market transition theory is not a theory of
radical change; instead, it turns on the cumulative causation of decentralized market
processes in promoting discontinuous change at the margins of the pre-existing
(Nee and Cao 2002, p. 36)
. According to Nee, the gradual
accretion of pressure for change has to lead to a tipping point, which most recently
in Capitalism from Below, his major study of enterprise development in East China,
he argues that has been passed (Nee and Opper 2012).
3 New Economic Elites
Members of the new local economic elites were interviewed across China during
2009–2013, amongst other things to investigate their demographic background,
level of education, and career, as well as their family history back to before the
establishment of the PRC. To provide markers of change, attention focussed on
family history in 1949 and 1979, not simply because these events were evenly and
conveniently spaced at the time of the first interviews, but also because of their
obvious historic significances: the establishment of the PRC and the start of its
Reform Era, respectively.
From these interviews, it is clearly the case that elite formation and wealth
creation are no longer exclusively dependent on the exercise of political capital as
was the case in the PRC before 1978. At the same time and by the same token, it is
equally clear that neither elite formation nor wealth creation is only explained as
resulting from market forces.
In discussing the relative merits of the cases for market transition and path
dependence, redistribution according to class, membership of the Communist Party
of China (CCP), and political position are said to be the key characteristics
indicative of the dominant exercise of political capital. On the other hand,
distribution of economic benefits according to skills, education, and enterprise is
held to be indicators of the market transition. Consideration of all these indicators
suggests not simply that the market transition is easily exaggerated, but also that
politics and economics are almost inextricably intertwined, and rarely
understandable as independent variables.
As much other research has long established
(for example: Solinger 1992;
, path dependence is clearly an important part of the explanation for
the formation of contemporary local economic elites. Many of those who are now
firmly established as new local economic elites had previously worked in the party
state, especially before the major restructuring of the state sector of the economy
that occurred at the end of the 20th century, and were able to translate their political
advantage to their economic benefit.
At the same time, there is also an apparent relatively high degree of family
continuity between the local elites of pre-1949 China and the contemporary local
economic elites. Over half of all those interviewed 60 years on claimed, at least one
member of their family had been local elite before the establishment of the PRC.
While the social revolution wrought by the party state during the 1950s would seem
to make this a remarkable finding, there are two obvious explanations. The first is
that many of the pre-1949 local elite had in fact been mobilized to the CCP cause
before 1949 and that many of those who had not found employment in the
management of the state sector of the economy with the establishment of the PRC
(Walder et al. 2000; Walder and Hu 2009)
. The second is that as was the case in
formerly Communist Eastern Europe after 1989, the social capital of families that
had previously been involved with business and entrepreneurial development before
the establishment of communist party rule in those countries came to the fore again
with the political changes of that year (Szele´nyi 1988). In the longer historical
dure´e, it becomes likely that social status is then also an explanatory factor in the
determination of the wealth and power of contemporary local elites.
469 entrepreneurs were identified with the assistance (usually) of tax officials in
Lanzhou (100 interviewees), Nanjing (78 interviewees), Qingdao (103
interviewees), Taiyuan (98 interviewees), and Zhongshan (90 interviewees). The
qualification for interview was that an individual had to have an annual income at least as
much as 12 times the local average GDP per capita. Interviews were conducted (for
the most part) with the help of postgraduate students from local departments of
Sociology. 84.4% of those interviewed were men and 15.6% female. There is no
suggestion that those interviewed for this survey were chosen randomly, and indeed,
the nature of the selection process may leave the study open to the criticism that
those who answered the call to be interviewed were by definition from established
‘within system’ families.
‘Class’ was operationally difficult to use in interviews in the PRC during
2009–2013. The first problem is that the Marxist term for class (jieji) is associated
very much with the CCP’s ideology during the now politically disgraced
Maodominated years. Asking about class with that term ran the risk of provoking
negative reactions from many of those being interviewed who may well have
suffered either directly or indirectly from the vagaries of 1957–1976. The second
problem, clearly related to the first, and notwithstanding the adverse impact of the
Cultural Revolution, is that there is a residual valorization to being ‘working class’.
Class identification necessarily depends on how the questions are put. Consistently,
surveys of the Chinese population since the end of the 20th century have indicated
that when faced by choices explicitly mentioning ‘middle class’ and ‘working
class’, the majority identify with the latter, but that when asked to self-identify with
no specific class labels offered for choice, the majority describe themselves as
(Bian and Lu 1996; Wang and Davis 2010; Boehler 2013)
To avoid these issues, interviewees were asked instead to determine their own
class in terms of the term for stratum (jieceng). Since about 2002, this term has been
used more popularly in the PRC to refer to class outside of the Mao-era usage of the
term and to avoid those earlier identifications. In justifying this change Lu Xueyi,
then, the Director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Institute of
Sociology, observed in 2005: ‘the theoretical meaning of the term ‘‘stratum’’ is
close to that of the term ‘‘class’’ in English’
(Lu 2005: 419)
The employment of a discourse of class as stratum as opposed to class as used in
the Mao-era should not be taken as automatically indicating the introduction of a
market transition. Certainly, the change suggests that the categories of class that had
been introduced in the early 1950s to ensure the revolutionization of society and the
establishment of the communist party state were no longer in operation in quite the
same way or at least no longer as important as had previously been the case. At the
same time, it would seem from the way members of the new economic elite
selfidentified that earlier categories of class had often played a positive role in their
career development and life opportunities and that for some those earlier class labels
were still important to the development of their status and wealth. In addition,
reactions from members of the new economic elite also indicate the influence of
other categorizations of class on their opportunities for wealth creation and status
formation. The notion of an established upper or ruling class, with its roots in
pre1949 China seems particularly strong among some if not all of the new economic
In the interviews, a substantial number of the members of the new economic elite
replied to the request to identify their own class (jieceng) in the political language of
pre-1978 China, describing themselves as workers or peasants (or sometimes both).
On the other hand, the majority adopted the new perspectives. Of those who
provided answers to this question (436), 9.1% described themselves as elite or upper
middle class, 51.6% as middle class, and 39.3 as working class or peasants.
The question also led to a range of less standard answers:
Which Class (jieceng) Do you Belong To?
• Better than peasants.
• Middle class: the mainstream of society.
• Economically middle class but have great reputation in the community.
• I do not know what class I am. I just know that I am needed by others.
• I am proud that I belong to a social stratum that could do something for the
country. Personal wealth does not matter so much.
• I am from a noble family.
• Middle class in America; not sure here.
• Happy family class.
• Humans are all equal and should not be classified by wealth or education.
5 Political Participation
Considerable research elsewhere has shown that both membership of the Chinese
Communist Party (CCP) and the holding of current positions in the party state
remain bankable factors of operation for entrepreneurs. Bank loans become easier,
as is access to labour and land
(Chen and Dickson 2010, pp. 80–81; Zhou 2009)
Redistribution may not operate as before, but nonetheless, CCP membership is seen
not least by the entrepreneurs themselves as a good move to support their
54% of those interviewed and who responded on this count (376 people) stated
that they were members of the CCP. Similarly, 71% of those who responded to the
question about involvement (410 individuals) indicated that they did hold a position
in the party state. Almost all those who responded positively in this way were
delegates to a People’s Political Consultative Conference (Zhengxie) at local, city,
provincial, or national level
The observation that only 43% of the total 2009–2013 contemporary local
economic elites interviewed were members of the CCP might seem like a rather low
participation rate. However, in terms of providing an indicator of political influence
and economic significance, this statistic is more than somewhat misleading. Age is a
crucial consideration. 29.2% of those being interviewed and who provided
information about their age had been born before the start of the Cultural
Revolution; 38.2% during 1966–1978; and 32.6% since 1978. Amongst those
interviewed, party membership was disproportionately higher for the first two
categories. Very few of those born after 1978 reported membership of the CCP.
Business people were not permitted to join the CCP until the end of the 20th
century, so this statistic actually represents more the extent to which those who later
became entrepreneurs and business people had earlier been employed in the various
branches of the party state—notably the state administration, the military, and
management of the economy and state economic activities—where they had become
members of the CCP. When the opportunity came to move into business and the
corporate sector, they retained their party status.
Equally as significantly, the parents and grandparents of those who were
interviewed during 2009–2013 had higher participation rates as members of the
CCP. As already noted, interviewees were asked questions about their family
history. In particular, they were asked question about themselves or their immediate
family members (usually parents) in 1979 and their immediate family members
(usually parents or grandparents) in 1949. Of those who responded about their
immediate family in 1979 (392 people), 79.3% (66% of all those interviewed)
indicated that at least one individual had then been a CCP member. There is then
more than a suggestion of inherited political influence regardless of formal
affiliation. As one of those younger members of the local economic elites who were
interviewed tellingly remarked, when asked why he had not joined the CCP: ‘Why
should I have joined the CCP, my father ran the town’.
Of those who responded about the circumstances of their family in 1949 (334
respondents), 80.1% (59% of all those interviewed) indicated that at least one
immediate family member had been a member of the CCP at that time. This final
observation is doubly important to an understanding of social change and the later
role of class (both as state-derived and as self-identified categories) in wealth
creation and elite formation. During the early 1950s, when the new PRC state
assigned class labels to its citizens, all those who had participated in the CCP and
the communist side during the earlier civil war were assigned a ‘red’ and positive
class label, often regardless of any earlier socio-economic background that might
suggest a less than proletarian identity. These identities then became crucial in the
PRC’s subsequent allocation of access to public goods until well into the 21st
(Goodman 2014, p. 13)
6 Education and Mobility
Class, CCP membership, and political position all then continue to play some role in
elite formation. In contrast, the information about both their education and mobility
suggests that local elites may owe some of their position to skills, education, and
enterprise, though here again, the evidence is not conclusive. Education, for
example, is rarely determined by merit alone. Opportunity and opportunity cost play
decisive roles in determining who gets what kind of education. There is, for
example, a huge difference between educational provisions in rural as opposed to
urban China. It is often not seen as important for women to continue their education
beyond the notional compulsory period, and in some parts of the country
(particularly, the Northwest where local religious observance conflicts with the
mixed classes of secular education), girls are even left out completely. In higher
education, there has been a massive expansion in provision since 1998, with student
numbers increasing from about 2 million to over 35 million; the number of colleges
increasing from just over 1000 to just under 3000; and the number of teachers
increasing from half a million to over one and a half million
even in that environment, parental social privilege remains the key factor in
entrance to higher education. In the words of one recent study, ‘College is still a
rich, Han, urban and male club’
(Wang et al. 2013, p. 469)
More than half of those interviewed who responded to the request for information
about their highest level of educational attainment (448 people) reported that they
had attended either a three or a 4-year higher education program. 56% indicated that
they had been to college or university, while 24.1% had received a middle or high
school education. 2.9% reported that they had gone overseas for higher education.
More interestingly, perhaps, in terms of a recognition of the greater influence of
skills and expertise in the determination of wealth and power, 15.2% of those
responding to this question indicated that while they had not undertaken a college or
university first degree, they had taken a professional postgraduate degree. These
latter degrees are those mostly in Business Administration, Management, and Legal
Affairs, offered by Party Schools, leading Chinese universities, and some
international institutions. They are targeted precisely at business people and
entrepreneurs who though having been successful in the growing economy had
missed out on an earlier education. Rather than suggesting that skills and education
are sufficient for elite formation the existence of these educational programs
suggests status issues beyond the creation of wealth or even the exercise of political
An attempt was made to discover whether the interviewed entrepreneurs had
moved for economic reasons, and if so the scale of the market in which their
mobility had occurred. Those interviewed were asked, where they had grown up,
and spent the majority of their childhood years before the age of fifteen. All but two
(467) responded to this question. Almost half (46.9%) had grown up in the locality,
where they were being interviewed, and most were proud to be local. As one
reported: ‘I have been to Shanghai and I felt like an outsider. I have been to Beijing,
and felt small. I like to work and stay here, where things are familiar’.
For those who were not local, the degree of economic mobility was not
particularly high. 28.5% had moved into the locality, where they now were from
elsewhere within the same province, and 23.5% from elsewhere in China. Five of
those interviewed had moved to China from overseas—they were all Chinese—for
business. Most of those who had travelled for economic reasons came from places
within closer rather than further travelling distances: West Hebei to Taiyuan,
Wuwei to Lanzhou, and Southern Jiangsu to Nanjing, for example. There were
remarkably few instances of people or families moving across the country. There
are social structures, such as language, that provide an explanation for this check on
migration. Where internal migration across the country was reported as part of the
discussion of family history, this was always as a result of participation in the CCP
and its forces before 1949, or of service in the party state after the establishment of
7 Family Histories
As already noted, those interviewed were asked about their family’s circumstances
not just in 1979 but back to 1949 and earlier. Their responses should, for fairly
obvious reasons, be treated with some skepticism, particularly when related to the
period before the twentieth century. The language is often magniloquent, many
stories do not (necessarily) reflect lived experience, and some of the comments
sound somewhat fanciful. Nonetheless, the stories that people tell themselves
provide motivation and explanation for behaviour even when they may only also
provide half-truths or no truth at all. Narrative after all plays an important role in the
construction of social status
(Rocca 2017, p. 9)
and the long sense of family and of
appropriate social status seems to be constant themes in the interviews.
Interviewees were asked questions designed to provide indications of their sense
of long-term family presence. Some had very little, but those who did were often
willing to talk at length. 94 of the entire set of those interviewed (20.0%) claimed
some history from before 1911, and there were several dramatic statements made.
Three examples are fairly typical:
‘We have a family book that goes back to the Warring States Period more than
2000 years ago’
‘I am a descendent of the 4th son of the Zhouwen Emperor of the Zhou
‘Grandfather’s grandfather had been Governor-General of Guangdong and
Statements about family books going back a large number of generations, to
famous ancestors, and to evidence of officials holding elite positions were frequent.
Only one of those interviewed mentioned a Manchu noble background, though
several mentioned that they were descendants of earlier nobility.
More usual though were references to the 20th century. Many of those
interviewed claimed to be a direct descendent of a member of the pre-1949 local
elite. Of the 307 individuals who provided information about their family’s 1949
social status, 81.3% (53.2% of all those interviewed) indicated that they had at least
one member of their family who had been part of the local elite at that time.
Whether accurate or not, it would seem that stories of the past wealth and economic
success have indeed been motivators for contemporary activity. One entrepreneur
told the interviewer: ‘Mother’s grandfather was Director of the Shanghai Bank of
Communications before 1949. The whole of Zhenjiang Road used to belong to her
family’. Another reported that ‘Uncle had been Head of the Finance Department in
the Provincial Government, Principal of the Finance and Economics University, and
Head of the Provincial Branch of the Construction Bank’.
There is also, inevitably, pride in the roles played by earlier generations in the
development of the PRC. As already noted, the percentage of later entrepreneurs
with at least one immediate family member before 1949 who had been then a
member of the CCP was 59% of the total of those interviewed (and more than
fourfifths of those who provided information on this score). The parents and
grandparents of those interviewed inevitably included many soldiers, particularly
from the 1947–1949 Civil War era. Unsurprisingly, this percentage is not much
lower than the similar statistic given for 1979 when 66% of all those interviewed
indicated at least one immediate family member had been a CCP member (79% of
those providing information about party membership) at that time. The generation
who came to power nationally in 1949 was generally young, and built the PRC after
that date not only politically but also in terms of the systems of economic
management, especially after 1955 with the socialisation of the means of
The family histories recorded by the members of the new economic elites also
bear remarkable witness to the apparent continuation of local elite family ties and a
family’s long-standing CCP membership both from before 1949. These key features
of those interviewed reinforce the importance of social status, as well as of social
capital in elite formation.
223 of those interviewed provided information about their family’s 1949 social
status and CCP membership. Of those, 62.6% (29.8% of all those interviewed)
indicated that at least one member of their immediate family at that time was part of
the local elite and that at least one member of their immediate family at that time
was a member of the CCP. Necessarily, these were not always the same person. One
reason was the significant gender difference. Amongst those 223 providing
information about both elite status and CCP membership in 1949, 24.2% (54)
reported that in their family, a female member of the local elite had married a
soldier or member of the CCP shortly after the establishment of the PRC.
Altogether, those interviewed provided 108 cases (23%) of an individual in their
immediate family who in 1949 had been both from the local elite and had joined the
CCP by that date.
Overshadowing even those continuities in elite formation are those with social
categories that might have been thought antithetical to the CCP before 1949, notably
landlords, Nationalist Party members, and supporters of the Wartime Japanese
regime in China. Many of the new economic elites interviewed reported that in
1949, one part of their family had been CCP, who had then married another part
associated before that time with (or even members of) the Nationalist Party. One
even reported that before 1945, his mother’s grandfather had been a commander for
the Japanese Army in China, before defecting and becoming a PRC cadre after
1949. Several of those interviewed spoke of grandparents who had been local
landlords before 1949, or who had grown up in elite families of that kind, who had
given their land away to poor peasants, joined the CCP, and later become a cadre.
This is of course not an unknown story
8 Economic Growth, New Politics, Old Society
It is often argued that economic growth and industrialisation leads to greater social
mobility. Recent research related to a number of countries, including China,
suggests that a high degree of social mobility is more an aspiration than an
established consequence. There remains a high degree of intergenerational transfer
of privilege—of political power, economic wealth, and social status—despite
economic growth. In most industrialised countries, privilege outperforms upward
social mobility into the elite by a factor of almost 6:1. Furthermore, it is estimated
that six generations are needed for elite privilege to be dissipated and that assumes a
total lack of reinforcement
Earlier studies of pre-industrial and Republican China suggest that elite positions
were on the whole skilfully maintained by families over time: one of the main tasks
of a local elite family was to ensure its continued position of privilege
. In the contemporary era, it would seem that little has changed. A 2004
survey undertaken by Peking University and the National Bureau of Statistics found
that a child’s socio-economic position when they go into the workforce is
determined by parents’ income, level of education, occupation, and CCP
membership. There was a near certainty that a daughter would follow her father’s
occupation and a 74% probability that a son would do the same (Gong et al. 2010,
Economic growth has certainly led to some political change at local level, and
indeed to adjustments in the configuration of the local elite, but it has hardly
revolutionized the system. Local governments often act like corporate entities
, and businessmen and company interests play a role alongside and in many
cases with local governments. At the same time the current elite are the children of
the state-socialist-era elite or they were part of that elite themselves, albeit in some
cases serving in different positions with the restructurings of the Reform Era.
Moreover, even that earlier state-socialist-era elite itself had emerged from within
and had ties to the earlier pre-1949 local elite.
Certainly, many of those new economic elites interviewed during 2009–2013 had
a sense of their social status that was both superior and permanent. Social status and
political participation legitimizes economic success, not vice versa. One highly
successful entrepreneur reported:
‘One grandfather was a New 4th Army Hero. The Family Tree goes back to
the Spring–Autumn Era. We share ancestors with Mao Zedong. We still keep
contact with that family and visit them.’
Another was even more straightforward about her inheritance:
‘I am an egg laid under the Red Flag. Both my husband and I are from the
privileged class. Before China’s reforms, we were masters. Now it is hard to
define ourselves. But we are still part of the upper class – we have never left.’
David S. G. Goodman is Professor of China Studies at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, where he is
also Vice President Academic Affairs. His research concentrates on social and political change at the
local level in China. His most recent publications are Class in Contemporary China (Polity, 2014) and
Handbook of Politics of China (Edward Elgar, 2015).
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