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China’s Evolving Oligarchy

Social Stratification: Class, Race and Gender in Sociological Perspective
China’s Evolving Oligarchy

Before the onset of its market reforms in the 1980s, the People’s Republic of China had a clearly defined elite typical of the single-party hierarchy and command economy that it inherited from the Soviet Union. Career paths into positions of power and privilege were controlled by the Communist Party organization, access to which required demonstration of loyalty through party membership and a record of loyal service. The only alternative career path was through higher education, a credential that could lead without party membership to relatively well-compensated professional positions (Li and Walder 2001; Walder, Li, and Treiman 2000). Material privileges that determined a family’s style of life were determined by rank in the hierarchy: housing standards, salary, access to scarce consumer items and higher-grade services, the ability to travel domestically and internationally, and the use of private automobiles. Enjoyment of these privileges was premised on continued good standing in the political hierarchy. Expulsion from the party or from leading posts led to a loss of privileges (Walder 1992). Because material living standards were so clearly linked to the political hierarchy, the elite could be defined very precisely, with reference to the number of positions at different ranks.