Whyte, M. K. (2011). Myth of the Social Volcano: Popular Responses to Rising Inequality in China. The People’s Republic of China at, 60.
In “Myth of the Social Volcano: Popular Responses to Rising Inequality in China,” Martin Whyte discusses popular views in China over income inequality based on a 2004 survey he conducted in the mainland. Whyte explored the hypothesis that anger and resentment toward the Chinese government over social and income inequality would be widespread and building toward a critical point of mass protest movements, a situation he termed the “social volcano scenario” (p. 276). Whyte gives some background to this hypothesis: While Maoist socialism focused on social equality and devalued economic growth, the market era switched priorities to focus on economic growth at the expense of social equality. To see the shift, China’s Gini coefficient rose from .29 in 1981 to .53 in 2006, indicating serious levels of inequality in the market-reform era (p. 275). The rise in the Gini coefficient should correlate to mounting pressure in society, eventuating in an eruption of discontent.
However, Whyte’s survey findings challenged those assumptions. Whyte actually found relatively positive attitudes towards the inequalities of the market-reform era, especially among the peasantry. The reason for the relative lack of discontent owes itself to the background of the socialist period. The socialist period restricted peasants to a degree that left them bereft of economic and social mobility. Urban respondents to the survey actually expressed slightly more pessimistic views, however, probably due to greater exposure to the realities of inequality in the city. While inequality was relatively scarce during the socialist period, the rigid bureaucratic structures which confined most Chinese to a miserly fate offered nothing by way of attraction for those surveyed in 2004. According to Whyte, the opportunity for mobility and the rewards for skill and hard work in the reform era gave many Chinese a much more positive outlook than the social volcano theory would have predicted.
Whyte’s findings in the 2004 survey are intriguing. His rationale for explaining why the original hypothesis of the “social volcano scenario” was wrong also appears sound. Contrasted with the rigid bureaucracy of the socialist period, the social mobility and economic opportunities afforded in the reform era appealed enough to the average Chinese that they could abide with the reality of inequality. With the socialist period fresh in the minds of the Chinese surveyed in 2004, their attitudes were likely shaped by the relative comparison of the “old days” with their current experience in the more open economy. The attitudes captured by Whyte’s survey therefore reflected the impressions of respondents based on their experiences as well as their perceptions of both eras. It would be interesting to learn Chinese attitudes towards inequality as a countrywide phenomenon without the presumed internal comparative analysis that shaped their positive views. What did respondents think of inequality as a moral or sociological phenomenon independent of their own situations? Did their attitudes as recorded in Whyte’s survey reflect lack of awareness of the extent and meaning of inequality in China? Whyte’s research is thus limited by inadequately parsing out Chinese understandings of inequality. He could have framed his survey by first establishing common underlying assumptions, especially between peasants and urbanites, and also by distinguishing respondents’ experiences from their perceptions of inequality.
While the “social volcano scenario” may not have erupted as expected, as Whyte concluded, social unrest and political resistance have nonetheless surfaced across China. Civil unrest in differing sectors is a response to the same systemic shifts or structural problems that give rise to inequality. Deconstruction of state-owned enterprises, for example, led to massive unemployment in the 1990s, along with the loss of many social welfare benefits to workers. Land expropriation from peasants, migrant labor abuses in factories, environmental contamination from industrial polluters, mass-scale corruption, etc. are other factors that have led to broad unrest as a result of decentralization and marketization. Such phenomena occur within the same political and economic systems in which income inequality has reared its head since the Open Door policy. It is unclear whether the survey respondents understood this connection.
Whyte’s 2004 survey did not capture whether or not Chinese associated the relatively positive attitudes they indicated toward the phenomenon of inequality with the negative attitudes they likely held toward corruption and other systemic injustices mentioned above. Would their attitudes change with clearer understandings of the bigger picture of systemic problems that have arisen in the reform era? Perhaps Chinese attitudes towards inequality would be different if they understood its connection to other forms of social unrest or political resistance. Therein lies a deficiency and an opportunity in Whyte’s survey research. He could have elucidated a more nuanced understanding of Chinese attitudes towards inequality through personal experience as well as a phenomenon arising out of conditions which have resulted in widespread discontent in other sectors.
My research suggestions entail parsing out more nuanced dimensions of Whyte’s research. First, it would be helpful to assess Chinese understandings of income or social inequality in order to contextualize their responses. If, say, urban and rural Chinese fundamentally understand inequality in different ways (which they likely do, based on their unique experiences), then there is no longer a one to one correspondence in their survey responses. Their attitudes would reflect different concepts of inequality based on different experiences. A common denominator between them should be established before generalizing about Chinese attitudes towards inequality. Consciousness of inequality would need to be established and assessed before the common denominator could be determined and subsequently evaluated in the survey.
Additionally, I would suggest that Whyte establish criteria for gauging Chinese attitudes towards inequality as an objective phenomenon independent of their personal experiences or memories of the socialist past. This would include possibly giving examples of income inequality in other countries for respondents to evaluate, thus establishing critical distance with the topic. Looking at other countries would be a way of separating respondents from their own situations and would reveal their deeper concepts of social justice. Establishing criteria for inequality as an objective phenomenon would also help Chinese to see the connection between inequality and other forms of social injustice manifest in the same political economic systems. Attitudes towards land expropriations, for instance, could be connected to attitudes towards income inequality. These research suggestions would offer a more nuanced, critical apprehension of Chinese attitudes towards inequality.