China Table of Contents

The cellular structure of contemporary Chinese society and the Chinese Communist Party's single-party rule mean that almost all social organizations share common characteristics. The same general description (an all-embracing social unit, whose members are assigned to it for life and which is organized on bureaucratic principles, subordinate to higher administrative levels, and managed by a branch of the party) applies to villages, schools, administrative offices, factories, or army units. All of these are work units.

Work Units

In some ways, Chinese work units (danwei) resemble the large-scale bureaucratic organizations that employ most people in economically developed societies. The unit is functionally specialized, producing a single product or service, and is internally organized into functional departments, with employees classified and rewarded according to their work skills. Professional managers run the organization, enforce internal regulations and work rules, and negotiate with other work units and administrative superiors.

Chinese work units, however, have many distinctive qualities. Workers usually belong to the same unit for their entire working life. The degree of commitment to the unit and the extent to which the unit affects many aspects of the individual worker's life have no parallel in other societies. Chinese work units are highly corporate, closed, permanent, and all-embracing groups. In most cases, people are either born into their units (villages count as units) or are assigned to them when they enter the work force.

Units supply their members with much more than a wage. Housing in the cities is usually controlled and assigned by work units. Consequently, one's neighbors are often one's workmates. If childcare facilities are available, they will most often be provided by the work unit. Recreation facilities will be provided by the work unit. Political study is carried out with one's workmates. In the cities many people meet prospective spouses either at work or through the introduction of fellow workers. For most people, social mobility takes the form of working their way up within the organization.

If goods are in short supply, they will be rationed through work units. This was the case with bicycles and sewing machines in the 1970s. The same can apply to babies. As part of China's planned birth policy, unit supervisors monitor the fertility of married women and may decide whose turn it is to have a baby. At the other end of the life cycle, pensions and funeral expenses are provided by work units. Travel to another city usually requires the written permission of one's work unit before a ticket can be purchased or food coupons for one's destination issued. Every unit is managed by party members, who are responsible for personnel matters. Outside the farm sector, a written dossier is kept for every member of a unit. Units are often physically distinct, occupying walled compounds whose exits are monitored by gatekeepers. The unit is thus a total community, if not a total institution, and unit membership is the single most significant aspect of individual identity in contemporary China.

Since the 1950s the individual's political life too has been centered in the work unit. Political campaigns have meant endless meetings and rallies within the unit, and when individuals were to be criticized or condemned for political deviation or bad class origins, it was done within the work unit, by fellow workers. In the post-Mao Zedong era, many people were working side by side with others whom they had publicly condemned, humiliated, or physically beaten fifteen or twenty years before. Much of the quality of life within a unit derives from the long-term nature of membership and human relations and from the impossibility of leaving. Members seem most often to aim for affable but somewhat distant ties of "comradeship" with each other, reserving intimate friendships for a few whom they have known since childhood or schooldays.

The work-unit system, with its lifetime membership--sometimes referred to as the "iron rice bowl"--and lack of job mobility, is unique to contemporary China. It was developed during the 1950s and early 1960s with little discussion or publicity. Its origins are obscure; it most likely arose through the efforts of party cadres whose background was rural and whose experience was largely in the army and in the disciplined and all-embracing life of party branches.

The special characteristics of the Chinese work unit--such as its control over the work and lives of its members and its strict subordination to administrative superiors who control the resources necessary to its operation--make the unit an insular, closed entity. Units are subject to various administrative hierarchies; reports go up and orders come down. The Chinese Communist Party, as a nationwide body, links all units and, in theory, monopolizes channels of communication and command. Vertical, command relations seem to work quite effectively, and the degree of local compliance with the orders of superior bodies is impressive. Conversely, horizontal relations with other units are often weak and tenuous, presenting a problem especially for the economy.

Wages and Benefits

Much of any worker's total compensation (wages, benefits, and official and unofficial perquisites) is determined by membership in a particular work unit. There is considerable variation in the benefits associated with different work units. Although the wage structure is quite egalitarian when compared with those of other countries, wages are only part of the picture. Many of the limited goods available in China cannot be bought for money. Rather, they are available only to certain favored work units. Housing is an obvious example. Many collective enterprises may have no housing at all or offer only rudimentary dormitories for young, unmarried workers.

High-level administrative cadres and military officers may earn three or four times more than ordinary workers; in addition, the government often grants them superior housing, the unlimited use of official automobiles and drivers, access to the best medical care in the country, opportunities for travel and vacations, and the right to purchase rare consumer goods either at elite shops or through special channels. Although China is a socialist state, it is not exactly a welfare state. Pensions, medical benefits, and survivors' benefits are provided through work units and come out of the unit's budget. The amount and nature of benefits may vary from unit to unit. The state, through local government bodies, does provide some minimal welfare benefits, but only to those with no unit benefits or family members able to support them.

Retirees who have put in twenty-five or thirty years in a state-run factory or a central government office can expect a steady pension, most often at about 70 percent of their salary, and often continue to live in unit housing, especially if they have no grown children with whom they can live. In many cases, workers have been able to retire and have their children replace them. In other cases, some large state enterprises have started smaller sideline or subcontracting enterprises specifically to provide employment for the grown children of their workers. In contrast, peasants and those employed in collective enterprises generally receive no pensions and must depend on family members for support.

Informal Mechanisms of Exchange

In China formal exchanges of everything from goods and services to information are expected to go through official channels, under the supervision of bureaucrats. Administrative channels, however, are widely acknowledged to be inadequate and subject to inordinate delays. People respond by using and developing informal mechanisms of exchange and coordination. The most general term for such informal relations is guanxi (personal connections). Such ties are the affair of individuals rather than institutions and depend on the mutually beneficial exchange of favors, services, introductions, and so on. In China such ties are created or cultivated through invitations to meals and presentation of gifts.

Personal relations are morally and legally ambiguous, existing in a gray and ill-defined zone. In some cases, personal connections involve corruption and favoritism, as when powerful cadres "go through the back door" to win admission to college or university for their children or to place their relatives or clients in secure, state-sector jobs. In other cases, though, the use of such contacts is absolutely necessary for the survival of enterprises. Most Chinese factories, for example, employ full-time "purchasing agents," whose task is to procure essential supplies that are not available through the cumbersome state allocation system. As the economic reforms of the early 1980s have expanded the scope of market exchanges and the ability of enterprises to make their own decisions on what to produce, the role of brokers and agents of all sorts has expanded. In the countryside, village and township cadres often act as brokers, finding markets for the commodities produced by specialized farming households and tracking down scarce inputs, such as fertilizer or fuel or spare parts for agricultural machinery.

Although the form and operation of guanxi networks clearly has traditional roots, as well as parallels in overseas Chinese societies and in Hong Kong and Taiwan, they are not simply inheritances or holdovers from the traditional past. Personal connections and informal exchanges are a basic part of modern Chinese society, are essential to its regular functioning, and are in many ways a response to the specific political and economic structures of that society. They thrive in the absence of formal, public, and overt means of exchange and may be considered a response to scarcity and to blocked official channels of communication. In modern China, those with the most extensive networks of personal connections are cadres and party members, who have both the opportunity to meet people outside their work units and the power to do favors.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress