Global popular anger against rising inequality: why is China an exception?

Contemporary China Seminar Series, Semester 1, 2017
University of Melbourne

Professor Martin K Whyte
Harvard University and University of Melbourne Asia Scholar

5.30-7.00pm Thursday 27 April, 2017
Old Geology Theatre 1, University of Melbourne, Parkville

Admission is free, but places are limited so registration is essential.

In recent years the world has witnessed spreading signs of popular anger against rising income inequality. Many analysts attribute the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and then the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States at least in substantial part to popular anger against rising inequality. One might have guessed that China would be swept into this populist tide. Most older Chinese grew up under the rule of Mao Zedong, where they were indoctrinated and mobilized to combat any appearance of status gaps based upon income and wealth. But after China’s market reforms were launched starting in 1978, China went from having relatively moderate income gaps nationally to gaps that are as large as, or even larger than, those in the United States, the most unequal of advanced capitalist countries. From this transformation emerged hundreds of thousands of new millionaires and even several hundred billionaires (in US$ terms), with lifestyles and privileges far beyond the reach of ordinary Chinese citizens. Yet a series of three high quality China national surveys designed to measure the attitudes of ordinary citizens in that country toward current inequalities, conducted in 2004, 2009, and 2014, doesn’t reveal any sign of widespread or rising anger against current income gaps. This public lecture will address three themes: 1. What is the evidence that ordinary Chinese citizens are not particularly, or increasingly, angry about rising income gaps? 2. Why is China an exception to this growing global pattern, and what might make Chinese citizens more angry in the future about the income gaps in their society? 3. Why should Chinese leaders nonetheless worry about the prospect that rising popular anger may eventually threaten their rule?

Martin King Whyte is John Zwaanstra Professor of International Studies and Sociology Emeritus and faculty associate of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University and Asia Scholar at the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne. He has two recently published books reflecting his ongoing research on inequality patterns and trends in China: One Country, Two Societies: Rural-Urban Inequality in Contemporary China (editor, Harvard University Press, 2010) and Myth of the Social Volcano: Perceptions of Inequality and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China (Stanford University Press, 2010). He has also published studies on China’s economic development patterns, continuity and change in Chinese family life, changing village and city social patterns, gender relations, and demographic and health trends, as well as on comparisons of the post-socialist transitions in China and Eastern Europe. He specialises in the study of grassroots social organisation and social change in the PRC in both the Mao and reform eras. He received his BA (in physics) from Cornell University and MA (in Russian studies) and PhD degrees (in sociology) from Harvard.