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Relative Pauperization and Involution in Contemporary China: A Survey of Jingzhou City

Cheng Yu, "<a href="" rel="noopener" target="_blank">Private sector firms in focus</a>," China Daily, March 7, 2019.

Cheng Yu, "Private sector firms in focus," China Daily, March 7, 2019.

Alex Witherspoon is a graduate student at Yangtze University’s School of Economics and Management in Jingzhou, China. Amir Khan is an associate professor of English in the Foreign Studies College at Hunan Normal University in Changsha, China. Yu Zhou is a graduate student in the School of Foreign Languages at China University of Geosciences in Wuhan, China.

Involution, an obscure term once known only to scholars in the social sciences, has perhaps now been spoken in every Chinese university and high school. In casual Chinese discourse, the term involution refers to the subjective feeling that increased investment of effort and other resources into personal development is yielding diminished returns.1 A college graduate performing work that does not require any educational background might be called a victim of involution, while the increased investment of time and money into education for middle and high school students is almost universally understood to be an example of involution. Thirty years ago, a poor peasant or worker could hope that their child’s participation in public education or civil service could allow them to secure a relatively high-paying job and superior social status. Today, the situation is quite different. China is currently undergoing some of the most widespread youth unemployment in its recent history.2 Intense competition for education and civil service opportunities has put considerable emotional and financial strain on working-class families. The poor personal economic outcomes of such competition have left many young Chinese adults deeply dissatisfied with the present labor market and education system.

Involution is a topic of massive public interest, yet the political-economic dimension of this phenomena remains neglected in academic discussion. Based on our original survey of 301 individuals in central China’s Jingzhou City and a review of both English- and Chinese-language literature, we situate involution in China’s larger political economy. We argue that the expansion of capitalistic production relationships in China has produced a situation of relative pauperization. It is precisely this situation of relative pauperization (that is, unequal income growth between different classes within capitalistic production relationships) that has heightened the subjective experience of involution. Reflecting on these realities, we conclude that there is a need to recenter class analysis in understanding the political economy of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

The Triumph of Capitalistic Production Relationships

Before we tackle involution and pauperization, the size and character of the private sector must be addressed. It is through capitalistic production relations that the overwhelming majority of China’s population makes their living. As indicated in Table 1, even if one counts every collective enterprise, semipublic institution, and company in which the government has a controlling share as part of the so-called public sector, this sector accounts for less than 10 percent of national employment among respondents of this massive 2018 pre-pandemic survey of China’s migrant population. It thus seems strange that certain scholars have tried to characterize China’s nonpublic sector as organizationally distinct from a capitalist country’s private sector, with the justification being that the Chinese case includes a wider range of collective non-private rural enterprises.3 Such an understanding is clearly out of date. Indeed, collective and semicollective cooperatives and township enterprises existed widely at the beginning of the Reform and Opening Up periods, but all these various organizational forms largely have melted into traditional private enterprises.

Table 1. Employment Breakdown of 2018 National Migrant Population Survey

Grouping Sample Size Sample Share
Private Employee 69,435 51.6%
Public Employee 10,901 8.1%
Self-Employed 46,145 34.3%
Private Employer 7,996 5.9%

Source: China Public Health & Family Planning Committee (2018).

Let us first address the collective sector. In the early Reform period, the collective enterprises run by communes and production brigades were formally transformed into township and village enterprises. In our own survey work in Jingzhou City’s Mishi Township, a relatively prosperous area in central China, we found that the growth of collective enterprises exploded between 1979 and 1985, with their combined industrial output growing 4.5 times in this period. Simultaneously, the local marketing cooperative network also prospered as never before, even being honored as one of Jingzhou City’s “red flag work units” for seven consecutive years for its exemplary operation. Virtually all of these enterprises became either private businesses or defunct in the 1990s. We found that only three of the twenty-eight village enterprises that were operational in 1990 within the Tianbao section of Mishi Township remained open in 2000. None survived beyond 2005. Once the pride of Mishi Township, the local marketing cooperative network found itself indebted, insolvent, and unable to pay its employees by 2002. Today, what are called “township and village enterprises” are usually for-profit businesses that are owned mostly or in whole by private individuals according to their capital contribution and worked by contract wage laborers.

It seems that material interests and a certain ideological mindset both conspired to kill the collective sector in Mishi. One half-retired tea shop owner recalls that she seldom went to work at her post in the township’s grain collection agency during the early 1990s. Instead, she used her connections to open a private grain business on the side. Her position in the collective enterprise was terminated formally when the agency shut down. Another retiree in Mishi’s Xinti Village relates how he leveraged his managerial position in the flour mill to privatize the business and become the sole private owner. At the Xinzhou Fish Farm, ostensibly one of the township’s final collective enterprises, we found that almost all the ponds had been divided among the households. The enterprise’s original office was abandoned, tended only by a worker who says they were hired personally by the original enterprise’s party secretary to raise “his” fish stock. This collective fish farm is now essentially just a rent-seeking organization. Farmers buy their own feed and fish, raising them completely independent of any collective work plan. The “fee” they pay for the use of what are still formally collective ponds is their only transaction with the ostensibly collective fish farm. In all of these cases, the degeneration of collective enterprises into private businesses or rent-seeking shell organizations is a change that interviewees were largely happy about. Private production meant fewer rules and fewer meetings for fish farmers; former cadres (public officials) were proud of their “business mindset” in privatizing collective assets at the right moment; and worker-owners in local collective factories report that they usually got one-time payouts then soon found work in Shashi, Wuhan, or a coastal city factory. For a time, it seemed socialized ownership could be exchanged for personal enrichment.

Looking at literature covering the national situation, it is clear that a constellation of other factors also played a role in undermining the collective sector. The mass emigration of the rural labor force increasingly made collective labor difficult to organize and ownership unclear at the village level. Hundreds of millions of people have left for the city, often leaving behind their land under the unofficial stewardship of fellow villagers.4 Migrants had (and have) good reason to leave. A manufacturing job or a small business in a big city often pays better than any combination of farming and work in a rural collective enterprise. Financing is also a problem. Large private firms benefited from government investment, preferential tax policies, and relative freedom in sourcing capital. Meanwhile, banking support for township and village enterprises dried up dramatically in the late 1990s.5 On top of all of this, capitalistic production relationships seemed to be subjectively normalized for almost everyone we interviewed. One Mishi cadre told us directly that he did not think it realistic to have worker- or peasant-led economic enterprises. For him, a private boss is indispensable for economic development. Many former collective enterprise workers also share this sentiment.

The normalization of capitalistic production relationships has also had a strong impact on the practical operation of cooperatives. On paper, China has more than two million professional farmer cooperatives. However, numerous national and regional surveys have found that most cooperatives have been “alienated,” degenerating into private agribusinesses.6 We find the term alienated to be somewhat misleading. In the course of our survey, we interviewed eighteen residents spread over five different cooperatives in Mishi Township. In only one of these cases did we hear of a situation where a professional farmer cooperative gradually devolved into a sole-proprietor business. Two cooperatives existed only on paper, and the other two were always understood to be private agribusinesses. Many farmers who participate in such so-called co-ops understand that the agribusinesses they work for are registered as cooperatives simply for financial or political reasons. No one we interviewed objected to such arrangements in principle. There can thus be no process of “cooperative alienation” if the firm in question never made any pretense of democratic member-ownership or management.

We now return to our original contention: the private sector dominates the “nonpublic sector” and, indeed, national employment overall. In Jingzhou, we found that the nonpublic and private sectors were basically synonymous. Everyone who was not retired or employed by the public sector derived their income from either household farming, rent, employment, or running a private business. Just as in any capitalistic enterprise, in most of these enterprises, capital could leverage its functionally absolute control over the means of production to suppress wages, lengthen the working day, and maximize the intensity of labor. Such enterprises are fundamentally the same as the capitalist firms that Karl Marx criticized in Capital.7 Just as in the private sector of any capitalist country, we found that most workers took home market-defined wages, did not elect firm leadership, or decide how the firm’s profits were distributed. Collective enterprise employment was virtually nonexistent and participation in a cooperative offered no reprieve from wage-labor relations. Acknowledging all of these facts does not preclude the existence of positive synergies between the party-state and private entrepreneurs. Workers and farmers in China’s private sector have seen their income increase substantially faster than countries that were at a similar level of per capita income in 1990 or 2000.8 The development patterns of China, Vietnam, and Laos are still meaningfully distinct from most developing market economies. This fact should be appreciated. Yet no meaningful conversation about involution can be had without clarifying the production relationships that are the basis of social reproduction in China.

Relative Pauperization Reborn

There is nothing novel about the observation that the expansion of capitalistic production relations has produced income inequality in China. Over the last thirty or so years, Michel Chossudovsky, William Hinton, Minqi Li, Maurice Meisner, and John Bellamy Foster all have commented on the increased economic polarization of Chinese society.9 The reality of such polarization is as clear to the Chinese public as it is to radical political economists. National surveys have shown that Chinese households on average rate domestic income inequality at 7.452 on a scale of ten in terms of severity.10 This subjective sense of income inequality reflects an objective growth in income inequality. Drawing upon national data, Li Junlin and Xu Yixuan argue that “the decline of public ownership and rise of private ownership is the fundamental cause of growing income inequality in China since Reform and Opening Up; the strong position of capital and weak position of labor affect different distribution systems such that the labor share of income has declined and domestic income inequality has grown.”11

Li and Xu go so far as to argue that there is today a capitalist class exploiting the proletariat in China. We tend to agree; a Chinese person’s position within capitalistic production relationships largely dictates his or her income. In our survey of Jingzhou City, we found that it was not age, education, location, or party membership that was statistically most correlated with higher income, it was ownership of the means of production (see Table 2).

Table 2. Income Distribution in Jingzhou City (2022)

Economic Group Sample Size Sample Share (%) Income Share (%)
Private Employer 23 7.6% 81.9%
Private Employee 70 23.3% 7.0%
Independent Farmer 79 26.5% 6.5%
Public Employee 14 4.6% 1.7%
Petty Producer 26 8.7% 1.7%
Dependent 69 22.9% 0.9%
Petty Rentier 20 6.6% 0.1%

Source: Authors (2023).

Individuals who derived the majority of their income from owning businesses—be they cooperatives, household farms, construction labor teams, or private factories—reported the highest monthly personal income. Just as in any capitalist country, personal income was synonymous with the share of enterprise income granted them via ownership. Private and public employees’ income was the selling price of their labor power, received in the form of wages.12 Petty producers and farmers, on the contrary, count their income as the net proceeds derived from selling their products or services independent of wage relationships. Petty rentiers, or shouzunong (收租农), are aging farmers who have quit agricultural production and now mostly live off of the income received from renting out legally non-sellable fields to private businesses. Dependents are everyone whose labor is not remunerated, living off of government or family assistance. The respective income of these groups is most reflective of their relationship to the means of production. Just as everywhere else in this world, class position and personal income are deeply intertwined in Jingzhou.

In Marxist political economy, modern income inequality is understood as a reflection of the pauperization (also known as “immiseration”) process inherent in capitalist production. Looking at nineteenth-century British statistics and public health reports, Marx reasoned that, despite temporary nominal improvements in wages for workers, capitalist ownership must generate an increase in poverty absolutely as the surplus army of labor, ruined farmers, and petty producers grew.13 Later Marxist theorists refined this idea as absolute pauperization, a pattern of polarization in which the real income of all laboring classes declined in absolute terms. In V. I. Lenin’s understanding, this meant the proletariat would “earn less, eat worse, and live in more squalid conditions as time progressed.”14 Conversely, the term relative pauperization referred to a situation in which the incomes of employed workers grew, but at a slower rate than the growth in productivity or capitalist profits (see Chart 1). Marx himself proposed that “in a good business year,” real wages might rise if there had been substantial profit growth, but only if the relative income of workers (that is, their share of a capitalist firm’s income) decreases.15 Both relative and absolute pauperization have been observed by political economists in a variety of locations and time periods.16 We are here attempting to frame the widespread feeling of involution as a subjective reaction to very real relative pauperization. The term involution serves to muddy the nature of capitalistic productive relations in relation to wealth inequality. The problem is not one of institutional malformation, demographic change, or Confucian cultural baggage; rather, the problem is in the nature of ownership of the means of production.

Chart 1. Absolute and Relative Pauperization

Chart 1. Absolute and Relative Pauperization

Source: Authors (2023).

In Chinese history, absolute pauperization was the form of polarization that founding Communist Party of China leaders knew quite personally. Republican Era China (1912–49) was typified by growing misery for the peasant majority. Too many farmers were working with land too scarce and infertile to meet their subsistence needs. As late as the 1930s, industrialization inched on too slowly to absorb rural surplus labor.17 In Xingguo Township, Mao Zedong found that 6 percent of the population—the landlords and rich peasants—occupied more than 80 percent of the land. In his own words, there could be but one conclusion to such a situation: revolution.18 Poor peasants went into debt to survive the winters, and went as far as to sell their own wives and children to survive. Idle landlords meanwhile continued to enjoy growing luxury from rent and interest on loans. To Mao and other researchers, absolute pauperization was an observable fact. Historical experience showed private owners, be they landlords or comprador capitalists, could not be expected to develop productive forces in China in a way that would let the country’s peasant majority thrive. Mao thought that the development of the Chinese economy through capitalism was an impossibility that the domestic reactionaries and foreign imperialists would never allow.19

The notion that “polarization” has not re-emerged in contemporary China is only true in so far as we understand this term to refer to the absolute pauperization that Mao found in Xingguo Township. Again and again, Deng Xiaoping expressed concern that the wealth of private business owners would grow in the absence of material gains for laborers. He admonished officials to avoid absolute pauperization for the working classes at all costs.20 Deng, however, did not ever seem to object to profits rising faster than wages, which, within a private firm, would necessarily mean a relative decrease in a laborer’s share of socially produced wealth. It was thought that so long as one could grow the pie fast enough and large enough through improvements in industrial and agricultural productivity, it did not matter so much how the pie was cut. If growth in productive forces meant growth in incomes for all classes and strata, perhaps some amount of temporary inequality would be acceptable. Would a rising tide not lift all boats?

As has long been known in the Marxist tradition, an absence of absolute pauperization does not mean there is an absence of polarization. Income polarization in China is lasting and growing, and it has everything to do with how the metaphorical pie is being made and cut. In Jingzhou City, we found the ratio of income between employers and all other income-earning individuals grew from a factor of five to one in 2000 to ten to one in 2010 and forty-three to one in 2020 (see Table 3). Despite all the public efforts to promote a more geographically dispersed wealth generation, the basic socialist principle of distribution according to labor contribution is no more a reality today than it was in Wenzhou or Shenzhen twenty years ago.21 Estimates of China’s national Gini coefficient, a widely used statistical index of income inequality, have ranged between 0.46 and 0.61 over the last decade, putting it well above the figures for contemporary Japan, most European nations, and any twentieth-century socialist nation.22 A problematic aspect of poverty reduction campaigns all along has been an emphasis on training local entrepreneurs or importing outside business owners. Private enterprise and wage labor have displaced domestic peasant production. Just as absolute poverty has been erased in the Chinese countryside, the production relationships that give birth to relative pauperization have been expanded and are today almost universal. Neither in China nor in any other developing country does an end in nominal absolute poverty mean that income inequality is decreasing.

Table 3. Jingzhou City Income Growth By Group

Real Income Income Growth
Group 2000 2010 2020 2000–2010 2010–2020 Change
Employees 41,369 58,047 70,320 40.32% 21.14% -19.18%
Independent Producers 25,059 35,390 45,467 41.23% 28.47% -12.76%
Employers 167,890 495,886 2,535,828 195.36% 411.37% 216.01%

Source: Authors (2023). Note: The category of “employers” includes the owners of private companies, cooperatives, and anyone else who derives most of their income from the labor of employees, whereas “independent producers” includes farmers who do not usually employ wage laborers, stall and small shop operators, and petty rentiers. “Employees” includes public- and private-sector workers. See note 12 for our rationale in grouping public and private employees together.

Involution Demystified

Reflecting on the qualitative results of our survey, we posit that the feeling of involution that youths in China now often express is fundamentally the result of the breakdown of class mobility mechanisms. The means by which one became wealthy in China twenty or thirty years ago are less viable for young adults today. In our surveys, private enterprise owners self-reported that attending college or entering the civil service were the two mechanisms that most helped them gain human or social capital, and, in turn, wealth. At least among our respondents, the social leveling that occurred throughout the Mao period seems to have genuinely limited the continuity of generational wealth from the pre-liberation period. Although the private-enterprise owners we interviewed were most likely to self-identify as descendants of an exploiting class, the majority of them gained control of the means of production only in the last thirty years. There is thus little sense among all survey participants of continuing intergenerational exploitation. On the contrary, most believe that, with the right amount of human and social capital, anyone can become rich. As a result, working-class parents today go into debt to hire tutors for their children, while students forgo sleep and the basic joys of childhood with the hope that a secure income is waiting for them at the end of the tunnel.

It is worth clarifying how education and civil service functioned as a means of class mobility in the Reform and Opening Up periods. One medical school graduate in Guangzhou opened a very lucrative private clinic in the late 1990s. After a stint as a doctor, he generated enough capital to enter the food transport business and ultimately launched one of the area’s largest grape cooperatives. Another local resident graduated from Wuhan’s prestigious Central China Agricultural University in the mid-2000s and later operated a large grain farm with the dual support of local government project funding and alumni networking. We also interviewed a worker in Mishi Township who had completed an electrician training program at a technical high school, which earned him a job in an international company and an income roughly twice the average of local workers in the private sector. For all three of these individuals, access to quality public education over the last thirty years had been crucial in their personal enrichment.

For others, however, civil service delivered more personal profit than education. One primary school educated woman in Mishi Township was a tailor and daughter of a local irrigation official. After becoming the vice secretary of her village’s party branch, she established a shrimp business in 2010 that was five times more lucrative than her work as an independent tailor. Another primary school graduate is a village chief. He is also now one of the area’s largest agricultural producers, with more than ¥2 million of gross annual income. Both of these cadre-entrepreneurs benefited from knowledge of government funding programs, inclusion in official promotion of local agricultural brands, and participation in government-organized entrepreneur networking. Neither of these recent experiences could compare, however, with the accumulation of wealth that cadres achieved in the 1990s and early 2000s. That is, cadres today are unable to walk off with collective assets. The private distribution of once collective assets is now largely complete.

Given how public education and the party-state apparatus was once so instrumental in allowing peasants and workers to gain access to human and social capital, it comes as no surprise that these institutions are issues of considerable public discourse in China today. Neutralizing public discontent and subjective recognition of polarization largely depends on the existence of class mobility mechanisms. Both the common residents and the local Chinese government representatives we interviewed are aware of real reduction in access even to these specific mechanisms. In Jingzhou City, as in other Chinese municipalities, the matriculation rate from public middle schools to high schools has been capped at 50 percent, funneling those with the grades below that mark into vocational schools. One independent female farmer in Mishi Township’s Paotai village reported a complete lack of hope for her son to attend university or even high school. The “Impoverished Student Stipend” that the government provided her was enough to cover books and other school supplies, but was far from sufficient to secure the private tutoring and online practice for her son that more well-off students in the city can afford. The son in question is also disadvantaged by attending Mishi’s rural middle school, which features an aging teaching staff, dated teaching aides, and some of Jingzhou’s lowest test scores. Meanwhile, we met a daughter of a private business owner who has benefited from many private tutors, as well as the opportunity to attend college in the United States after receiving a disappointing score on her college entrance exam. Education opportunities are far from equal, and are perhaps getting more unequal by the day. We can add to this the fact that none of these opportunities acts any longer as guarantors for social mobility.

Wealth building through the party-state apparatus has also become harder for the average worker or farmer. Party recruitment now often comes from the student body, as recruiters select young activists with good grades and strong performance in extracurricular activities. Assuming a poorer student is both lucky enough to meet such requirements and goes on to score well in the civil service exam, such a youth would have no guarantee of a personally lucrative position in the public sector. In the course of our survey, we met two graduate students working in village offices—one at a neighborhood office, and another at a township cultural office. These are all low-paying, entry-level positions. The ¥3000 or so they receive per month as a wage is only tolerable for well-off graduates who can lean on their families for assistance to cover housing and marriage expenses. Would-be cadres of humbler origin have less financial ability to stick with these resume-building positions. They simply need to support themselves. Thus, there is considerable incentive to seek a career in the private sector instead, potentially earning a few more thousand yuan a month right after graduation—albeit at the cost of any civil service ambitions. For those who stick it out as a cadre, there is still no promise of wealth. Civil servants today are under much more pressure to perform their assigned functions in a timely manner. The lucrative arrangements emerged as collective enterprises wound down in the late 1990s and will likely never be repeated. There are simply few collective assets left that can be distributed to even the most dedicated cadres. The officials whom we interviewed reported having growing responsibilities and increased top-down supervision. Wave after wave of anti-corruption campaigns, including very specific protocols on how funds are transferred, have also made things like traditional graft quite difficult. Neither the civil service exam nor village elections are the meal tickets they once were.

Framing the problem dialectically, involution is thus in a sense a result of the very real contradiction that exists between the dated consciousness of working-class parents and new economic and institutional realities. The reality of class mobility through education and civil service may have always been limited, but enough concrete examples occurred in the lived experiences of many Chinese people to make them willing to invest emotionally and financially in these historical avenues of personal success. Reform of the civil service and education system have all but closed these avenues, however, and generational wealth inequality has set up a new roadblock that is all but impassable for working-class families. Students who have spent considerably more time and money on education and training than their parents did in the early Reform Period have found very real diminishing returns. The dismal realities of historically high youth unemployment, inflated housing prices, and widespread violation of labor laws await most students after a decade or two of highly competitive education. Involution is the new word that Chinese youth have come to use in describing this situation, but the coexistence of overall wage growth with income polarization and decreasing class mobility are all outcomes of the capitalistic production relationships that Marxist political economists have observed for over a century.


The basic contradiction between widespread capitalistic production relations and socialistic policy goals must never be neglected when discussing Chinese political economy. The government has legislated to limit the private tutoring industry, rejuvenate collective economic organizations in rural work, promote an ecological transition in agriculture, and re-emphasize the nation’s commitment to “common prosperity.” These policy goals are on a collision course with powerful, vested class interests striving to maintain the status quo when it involves lax enforcement of collective land rights, excessive fertilizer application, and online private tutoring. Because most people today make their living in the private sector, the Chinese working class is experiencing relative pauperization and reduced class mobility. This situation is the root cause of subjective involution. It is precisely the sort of situation that Mao hoped to avoid, and is why he and others emphasized the need to center class analysis in socialist construction. A class-centric reappraisal of contemporary China is critical for the development of Marxian political economy both inside and outside of China. Our small, completely self-funded survey in Jingzhou can only serve as a provocation for more comprehensive investigations.


  1. Phillip Huang’s basic understanding of involution as “reduced marginal returns on labor” and “growth without development” in the Chinese countryside heavily informs the popular understanding of involution in China today. Ji Yaping, “Review of Involution Theory,” Journal of Changchun University of Technology, no. 3 (2010): 48–49 [in Chinese].
  2. Luna Sun, “China Jobs: Record Youth Unemployment ‘Unsolvable For a While,’ Fifth Job Crisis since 1978 Seen Only Getting Worse,” South China Morning Post, June 21, 2023.
  3. Roland Boer, “Understanding China’s Economic System: Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” interview with Ben Norton, YouTube video, Geopolitical Economy Report, 58:59, May 3, 2023.
  4. He Xuefeng, “For the Recollectivization of Agriculture in China,” People’s Voice, trans. Alex Witherspoon, April 24, 2020,
  5. Jianbo Chen, “Finance and Economic Development: Financing Township and Village Enterprises in the People’s Republic of China,” discussion paper no. 45, ADB Institute, March 2006.
  6. Li Yunxin and Wang Xiaoxuan, “The Phenomena and Explanation of Behavorial Distortion in Specialized Farmers’ Cooperatives,” Issues in Agricultural Economy 38, no. 4 (2017): 14–22 [in Chinese]; Hu Zhanping, Qian Forrest Zhang, and John A. Donaldson, “Farmers’ Cooperatives in China: A Typology of Fraud and Failure,” China Journal 78 (2017): 1–24.
  7. Zhang Haixia, “Political Economic Analysis of the Evolution History of Labor Capital Relations in New China,” PhD dissertation, Shandong University, 2022, 189, 203–4, 222, 231–33 [in Chinese].
  8. Sam-Kee Cheng, “Primitive Socialist Accumulation in China,” Radical Review of Economics 52, no. 4 (2020): 693–715; Jonathan London, Asia after the Developmental State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 388–428.
  9. Michael Chossudovsky, Towards Capitalist Restoration?: Chinese Socialism After Mao (New York: St. Martin’s, 1986), 208; William Hinton, The Great Reversal: The Privatization of China, 1978–1989 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990), 8, 136, 168; Minqi Li, “Capitalist Development and Class Struggle in China,” unpublished manuscript, 1994, 139,; John Bellamy Foster and Harry Magdoff, “China and Socialism: Editors’ Foreword,” Monthly Review 56, no. 3 (July–August 2004): 2–6.
  10. Chen Qiao, “Subjective Sense of Wealth Polarization’s Effect on Grading Government Performance,” master’s thesis, Henan University of Finance and Political Science, 2023, 17 [in Chinese].
  11. Li Junlin and Xu Yixuan, “Changes and Causes of the Chinese Domestic Income Pattern: An Investigation Based on Marxist Political Economy,” Nankai Economic Research 217, no. 1 (2021): 36–57 [in Chinese].
  12. Public employees include state enterprise employees, public school teachers, tax bureau officials, village- and township-level cadre, as well as street cleaners. It is important to note how heterogeneous and distinct these public employees are from their predecessors in the Mao era. In state-owned enterprises especially, the muddling of private and public capital has allowed for an organizational situation in which contract employment is common, worker democratic structures are weak and unpopular, and the wage-labor relationships of capitalist enterprises are basically replicated in full. See Sun Zongwei, “The Distribution and Status of SOE Staff Since the SOE Reform: A Survey,” Studies on Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping Theories 346, no. 7 (2016): 27–34 [in Chinese].
  13. Karl Marx, “Different Forms of the Relative Surplus Population,” in Capital, vol. 1, chapter 25 (1867),
  14. I. Lenin, “Impoverishment in Capitalist Society” (1912) in Collected Works, vol. 18 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975),
  15. Karl Marx, Wage Labor and Capital, chapters 5, 8 (1847),
  16. Qiu Qihua, Xie Deyuan, and Huang Su, The Theory and Reality of Proletarian Pauperization (Beijing: China Social Science Publishing House, 1981) [in Chinese].
  17. Hao Hu, Funing Zhong, and Calum G. Turvey, Chinese Agriculture in the 1930s (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 7.
  18. Mao Zedong, Collected Surveys (Beijing: People’s Publishing House, 1982), 26 [in Chinese].
  19. Mao Zedong, “On New Democracy,” section 7 (1940) in Selected Works, vol. 2,
  20. Wang Yaode and Ma Lingbing, “The Value and Practical Path of the ‘Second Leap’ of the Rural Collective Economy in the New Era,” Journal of Nanchang University 52, no. 4 (2021): 39–50; Deng Xiaoping, “There Is No Fundamental Contradiction between Socialism and the Market Economy,” (1985) in Selected Works, vol. 3 (1993),; Zhang Guangxing, “On Deng Xiaoping’s ‘First Rich’-‘Second Rich’-‘Common Prosperity’ Theory and So-Called Questions of Polarization,” Journal of Zibo College, no. 2 (1997) [in Chinese] .
  21. Wu Yaoguo et al., “Re-estimation of the Overall Income Gini Coefficient in China Since 1978,” Journal of Leshan Normal University 37, no. 8 (2022): 76–83 [in Chinese]; David S. G. Goodman, Class in Contemporary China (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014), 14–15.
  22. Yan Zhimin, Research on Classes and Strata and Contemporary China (Beijing: CPC Central Party School Publishing House, 2002), 302 [in Chinese]; Zhao Lijiang, The Political Participation of Chinese Private Business Owners (Bejing: China Economic Publishing House 2005), 98–99, 102 [in Chinese].
2023, Volume 75, Number 05 (October 2023)
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