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Chinese Social Welfare: Policies and Outcomes

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 February 2009


China in the 1980s is in the midst of a social revolution as far–reaching as either Land Reform or the early years of the Cultural Revolution. After four decades of championing the superiority of state monopolies and the evils of private ownership, the leaders of the Politburo have decollectivized agriculture, advocated commodification of land values, encouraged private trade and investment, and explicitly agreed that it is good if a few get rich first. Rural citizens in particular have responded with alacrity to this privatization of work and the retreat of the Party and the state from the daily management of agriculture. The household farm has become the basic unit of production for the first time since 1952, and private entrepreneurs have transformed the structure of rural commerce and manufacturing. Average incomes in rural areas trebled in the decade after 1977 and the economic gap between rural and urban citizens noticeably narrowed.

Research Article
Copyright © The China Quarterly 1989

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1. In 1977 the per capital xiaofei shuiping for rural residents not working for the state was 125 yuan, in 1987 it was 388 yuan, and the rural urban ratio had declined from 1:2.9 to 1:2–5. Zhongguo tongji nianjian 1988 (The Chinese Statistical Yearbook 1988) (Beijing: Zhongguo tonggji chubanshe, 1988; hereafter ZGTJNJ 1988), p. 800.

2. Selden, Mark, The Political Economy of Chinese Socialism (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1988), pp. 159–65.Google Scholar

3. In 1978 urban workers averaged subsidies worth 526 yuan per year, or 263 yuan per person correcting for the 1:2 dependency ratio of 1978. Zhongguo tongji zhaiyou 1987 (Key Extracts for Chinese Statistics for 1987) (Beijing: Zhongguo tongji chubanshe, 1987), p. 97. By contrast state subsidies to rural residents in that same year were less than 10 yuan per person. For a general review of this problem, see Selden, The Political Economy of Socialism, p. 160.Google Scholar

4. Renmin ribao (People's Daily), 14 August 1988, p. 8.

5. I first came across this argument in a recent talk by the Hungarian economist Marschall Miklos, “The non–profit sector in a centrally planned economy,” Yale University, 25 January 1989.

6. Szelenyi, Ivan, Urban Inequalities Under State Socialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).Google Scholar

7. Szelenyi, Ivan and Manchin, Robert, “Social policy under state socialism,” in Esping–Anderson, at. (eds.) Stagnation and Renewal in Social Policy (White Plains, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1987), pp. 102119.Google Scholar

8. Ibid. p. 103.

9. Martin Whyte, “Social trends in China: the triumph of inequality?” in Barnett, A. Doak and Clough, Ralph, Modernizing China (Boulder, Col.: Westview. 1986), pp. 103124.Google Scholar

10. In 1983, 93% of urban children and 78% of rural children between the ages of seven and 14 were in schools. By 1987 the percentages had dropped to 85% and 75% respectively. Beijing Review, 21 October 1985, p. 22; Renmin ribao, 25 October 1987, p. 2.

11. Ming Bao (Hong Kong), 29 October 1988, p. 9; Renmin ribao, 15 October 1988, p. 5; 10 July 1988, p. 2; 3 June 1988, p. 3; 31 May 1988, p. 3; Changjiang ribao (Changjiang Daily) (Wuhan), 31 May 1988, p. 3.

12. For an overview see, Boerge Bakken, “Backwards reform in Chinese education,” The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, No. 19/20 (January/July 1988), pp. 127–64.

13. From Renmin ribao, 27 August 1983, trans, in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, China–Daily Report (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce; hereafter FBIS–CHI), 31 August 1983, p. K16.

14. Guowuyuan gongbao (Bulletin of the State Council), 1984, pp. 1046–1047.

15. Regulations for Shaanxi province in FBIS–CHI, 17 October 1984, p. T2.

16. Renmin ribao, 23 October 1986; 17 June 1987; 31 May 1988.

17. In 1986 average per capita shenghuofei in rural China was 356 yuan, of which survey families spent approximately 300 yuan for food, clothing, shelter and heat. In an “average” family of five with two school–age children this would suggest a situation where random fees (zafei) and book fees would probably total 130 yuan, or 52% of the 250 yuan of discretionary income. ZGTJNJ 1987, p. 698 and Renmin ribao, 17 June 1987, p. 5 and 31 May 1988, p. 3.

18. Suzanne Pepper personal communication, 9 February 1989.

19. Between 1981 and 1983 20% of the total education budget went to higher education. Zhongguo jiaoyu nianjian 1982–84 (Chinese Education Yearbook 1982–84) (Changsha: Hunan jiaoyu chubanshe, 1986), p. 72. In terms of per student expenses for 1981–85 the pattern also indicated heaviest subsidies at the highest level of education:


Zhongguo shehui tongji ziliao 1987 (Chinese Social Statistics 1987) (Beijing: Zhongguo tongji chubanshe, 1987), p. 172.Google Scholar

20. Gail Henderson, “Increased inequality in health care in China” in D. Davis and E. Vogel (eds.), Social Consequences of the Chinese Economic Reforms (forthcoming).

21. Crude death rates:


ZGTJNJ 1988, p. 98.

22. ZGTJNJ 1988, p. 962.

23. Ibid. p. 963.

24. In 1978 there was one bed for every 206 urban residents, and one for every 709 rural residents. By 1986 this had risen to one for every 223 in urban areas, and one for every 649 in rural hospitals. Zhongguo weisheng nianjian 1987 (Chinese Health Yearbook) (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1987), p. 493.Google Scholar

25. Jeffrey Taylor, “Rural employment trends and the legacy of surplus labour, 1978–86,” The China Quarterly (CQ), No. 116 (December 1988), p. 757.

26. Gail Henderson, personal communication, 7 March 1989.

27. Beijing Review, 20 May 1985, pp. 8–9, wrote a glowing account of the 80,000 private practitioners who had gone into practice since 1978. William Hsiao in a paper, “The economics of health financing,” given at the 39th annual meetings of the Association of Asian Studies (Boston, March 1987), noted that by 1986 this number had jumped to 126,000, or 10% of all doctors. Another, more recent visitor who spent many months doing participant observation noted in some detail the need for personal connections to gain admission to special wards. Joseph Sheridan, “Care work and family in an urban Chinese hospital,” paper at annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (Atlanta, August 1988).

28. Henderson, “Increased inequality of health care.”

29. Gail Henderson et al., “High technology medicine in China.” New England Journal of Medicine, 14 April 1988, pp. 1000–1004.

30. Increased problems in seeing a doctor were explicitly mentioned in the 1988 State Statistical Report on infectious disease, Guowuyuan gongbao, 1988. p. 177.

31. Renmin ribao, 21 July 1988, p. 2.

32. Guowuyuan gongbao, 1986, pp. 739–750.

33. D. Davis, “Unequal chances, unequal outcomes,” CQ, No. 114 (June 1988), pp. 223–43.

34. Henderson, “High technology medicine.”

35. The urban rural gap is clearly documented in two government surveys of rural–urban differences in percentage of medical costs paid for entirely by the individual:


For 1987 survey, Beijing Review, 14 November 1988, p. 28.

For 1986 survey Zhongguo weisheng nianjian 1987, pp. 497, 524 and 526.

36. In 1982 after the initial breakdown in the collective health programmes, there was a significant rise in childhood diseases, but the Chinese medical profession reacted swiftly and by 1988 these programmes seemed secure. Henderson, personal communication 7 March 1989. Shu–min Huang, “Transforming China's collective health care,” Social Science of Medicine, Vol. 27, No. 9 (1988), pp. 879–88.

37. ZGTJNJ 1987, p. 628.

38. In some areas of Anhui, villages were replacing collective welfare funds with new taxes and contracts. Shehui baozhang bao (Social Security News), 3 July 1986. In a very rich area of Fujian in 1982 with the advent of zeren tian there were modifications in health–care financing, but the major shift came in 1984 when land was contracted out for 15 years. Shu–min Huang, “Transforming China's collective health care,” pp. 879–88.

39. Davis–Friedmann, Deborah, “The provision of essential services in rural China,” in Lonsdale, Richard and Enyedi, Gyoergy (eds.), Rural Public Services (Boulder, Col. Westview, 1984), pp. 205225.Google Scholar

40. Christine Wong, “Interpreting rural industrial growth in the post–Mao period,” Modern China (January 1988), pp. 3–30.

41. Guowuyuan gongbao, 1985, pp. 283–84.

42. Ibid. 1986, pp. 525–27 and 679–83.

43. Shehui baozhang bao, 5 June 1986; 31 July 1986; 13 November 1986; Zhongguo jiaoyu bao, 19 May 1987.

44. Renmin ribao, 19 April 1987, p. 1, reported a total of 38.4 million; Renmin ribao, 12 October 1988, p. 1, reported a total of 27–8 million.

45. Among the Five Guarantee households, the percentage of those qualifying who receive aid had dropped from 96% in 1983 to 74% in 1986. Chinese Social Statistics, 1987, p. 120; Renmin ribao, 17 October 1988, p. 4, carried a story about the collapse of the Five Guarantees; Renmin ribao, 8 November 1987, p. 1, announced that at the end of 1986, 40 million rural residents of all ages were near starvation and 100 million were at subsistence.

46. ZGTJNJ 1986, p. 799.

47. ZGTJNJ 1987, p. 834.

48. Beijing Review, 18 July 1988, p. 28;ZGTJNJ 1988, p. 203.

49. For an overview of pension reform after 1978, see D. Davis, “Unequal chances, unequal outcomes.”

50. For more detailed discussion see Davis–Friedmann, D., “Old age security and the one–child campaign,” Croll, Elizabethet al. (eds.), China's One Child Family Policy (London: Macmillan, 1985), pp. 149162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

51. For a copy of the legislation and a detailed discussion of the new labour system, see Guowuyuan gongbao, 1986, pp. 739–50, and Davis, “Unequal chances, unequal outcomes.”

52. Davis, “Unequal chances, unequal outcomes,” pp. 237–40.

53. E.g., in Beijing in the autumn of 1988, the city government will spend an additional 30 million yuan to subsidize the purchase of cabbage for all urban residents, paying farmers 14 cents per pound and charging urban consumers 7 cents. Beijing Review, 21 November 1988, p. 13.

54. Huang, “Transforming China's collective health care.”

55. Shijie jingji bao (World Economic Herald) (Shanghai), 18 February 1985, p. 3; Xu Yulong and Wang Yongjiang, Zhongguo shehuizhuyi laodong wenti (Labour Questions in Chinese Socialism) (Anhui chubanshe, 1985), pp. 314–34; Xue Muqiao, “Tantan...” (“Discussion of reform of the labour and wage systems”), Zhongguo laodong kexue (Chinese Labor Studies) (1986), No. 1, pp. 6–11.

56. Zhongguo jiaoyu bao, 8 August 1987, p. 1; Beijing Review, 24 August 1987, pp. 6–7.

57. This conclusion was originally suggested to me by Nelson Chow in a personal communication of 8 January 1989.

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