Social Inequality and Conflict beyond Class: Developments in Contemporary China

  •  Jan Pakulski    


In order to understand the nexus between inequalities, conflict and change in contemporary China, social inequalities should be seen broadly (i.e. include both hierarchy and exclusion), and perceived from social actors’ perspective: as those aspects of social hierarchy and division/exclusion which are problematic because they violate the popular sense of justice. This is in line with the theoretical perspective derived from the works of Tocqueville, Durkheim and Weber. According to this perspective, social resentments and antagonisms increase at the time of the economic downturn, especially when this downturn follows the long period of growth, increasing affluence and rising expectations. The most politically consequential aspects of social inequalities in modernizing societies are privileges, discriminations and exclusions; hierarchies of income and authority, by contrast, are typically effectively legitimated by elites. However, the key factor of social stability is the effective management of social inequalities by political elites. Given the effective elite management of inequalities, mass egalitarian mobilizations in China are unlikely. This does not break the nexus between social inequality, conflict and change, but adds an intermediate – and crucial – variable of ‘elite management.

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