Income Distribution

China Table of Contents

Income differences in China since the 1950s have been much smaller than in most other countries. There was never any attempt, however, at complete equalization, and a wide range of income levels remained. Income differences grew even wider in the 1980s as the economic reform policies opened up new income opportunities. More than two-thirds of all urban workers were employed in state-owned units, which used an eight-grade wage system. The pay for each grade differed from one industry to another, but generally workers in the most senior grades earned about three times as much as beginning workers, senior managers could earn half again as much as senior workers, and engineers could earn twice as much as senior workers. In 1985 the average annual income of people employed in state-owned units was -Y1,213. An important component of workers' pay was made up of bonuses and subsidies. In 1985 bonuses contributed 13 percent of the incomes of workers in state-owned units; subsidies for transportation, food, and clothing added another 15 percent. One of the most important subsidies--one that did not appear in the income figures--was for housing, nearly all of which was owned and allocated by the work unit and rented to unit members at prices well below real value. In 1985 urban consumers spent just over 1 percent of their incomes on housing.

The 27 percent of the urban labor force that was employed in collectively owned enterprises earned less on average than workers in state-owned units. The income of workers in collectively owned enterprises consisted of a share of the profit earned by the enterprise. Most such enterprises were small, had little capital, and did not earn large profits. Many were engaged in traditional services, handicrafts, or small-scale, part-time assembly work. In 1985 workers in urban collective units earned an average annual income of -Y968. In the more open commercial environment of the 1980s, a small but significant number of people earned incomes much larger than those in regular state-owned and collectively owned units. Employees of enterprises run by overseas Chinese, for instance, earned an average of -Y2,437 in 1985, over twice the average income of workers in state-owned units.

The small but dynamic domestic private sector also produced some lucrative opportunities. Private, part-time schools, which appeared in large numbers in the mid-1980s, offered moonlighting work to university professors, who could double or triple their modest incomes if they were from prestigious institutions and taught desirable subjects, such as English, Japanese, or electronics. Small-scale entrepreneurs could earn considerably more in the free markets than the average income. Business people who served as a liaison between foreign firms and the domestic economy could earn incomes many times higher than those of the best-paid employees of state-owned units. A handful of millionaire businessmen could be found in the biggest cities. These people had owned firms before 1949, cooperated with the government in the 1950s in return for stock in their firms, and then lost their incomes in the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when these businessmen were politically rehabilitated, their incomes were returned with the accrued interest, and some suddenly found themselves quite wealthy. Although the number of people earning incomes far beyond the normal wage scale was tiny relative to the population, they were important symbols of the rewards of economic reform and received a great deal of media attention. In 1985 most of these people worked in enterprises classified as "units of other ownership" (private rather than state- or collectively owned enterprises). These enterprises employed only 440,000 people out of the total urban labor force of 128 million in 1985 and paid average annual salaries of -Y1,373, only slightly higher than the overall urban national average.

In China, as in other countries, an important determinant of the affluence of a household was the dependency ratio--the number of nonworkers supported by each worker. In 1985 the average cost of living for one person in urban areas was -Y732 a year, and the average state enterprise worker, even with food allowance and other benefits added to the basic wage, had difficulty supporting one other person. Two average wage earners, however, could easily support one dependent. Families with several workers and few or no dependents had substantial surplus earnings, which they saved or used to buy nonessential goods. An important positive influence on the per capita consumption levels of urban families was a decline in the number of dependents per urban worker, from 2.4 in 1964 to 0.7 in 1985. In farm families the dependency ratio fell from 1.5 in 1978 to 0.7 in 1985. Farm incomes rose rapidly in the 1980s under the stimulus of the responsibility system but on average remained considerably lower than urban incomes. Household surveys found that in 1985 average net per capita income for rural residents was - Y398, less than half the average per capita urban income, which was -Y821. The value of goods farmers produced and consumed themselves accounted for 31 percent of rural income in 1985. The largest component of income in kind was food, 58 percent of which was self-produced.

Farm family members on average consumed much less of most major kinds of goods than urban residents. For instance, a household survey found in 1985 that the average urban dweller consumed 148 kilograms of vegetables, 20 kilograms of meat, 2.6 kilograms of sugar, and 8 kilograms of liquor. At the same time, a survey of rural households found that the average rural resident consumed 131 kilograms of vegetables, 11 kilograms of meat, 1.5 kilograms of sugar, and 4 kilograms of liquor. Differences of a similar nature existed for consumer durables.

Another indication of the gap between urban and rural income levels was the difference in personal savings accounts, which in 1985 averaged -Y277 per capita for urban residents but only -Y85 per capita for the rural population. There was great variation in rural income levels among different provincial-level units, counties, towns, villages, and individual families. While the average net per capita income for rural residents in 1985 was - Y398, provincial-level averages ranged from a high of -Y805 for farm families living in Shanghai to a low of -Y255 for the rural population of Gansu Province.

The fundamental influence on rural prosperity was geography. Soil type and quality, rainfall, temperature range, drainage, and availability of water determined the kinds and quantities of crops that could be grown. Equally important geographic factors were access to transportation routes and proximity to urban areas.

The highest agricultural incomes were earned by suburban units that were able to sell produce and sideline products in the nearby cities. Under the responsibility system, household incomes depended on the number of workers in each household and the household's success in holding down production costs and in supplying goods and services to local markets. Most of the rural families with the highest incomes--the "10,000-yuan households"--were "specialized households" that concentrated family efforts on supplying a particular service or good. Many of these families owned their own equipment, such as trucks or specialized buildings, and operated essentially as private concerns. An increasingly important influence on rural incomes in the mid-1980s was the expansion of nonagricultural rural enterprises, often referred to as "township enterprises." These were factories, construction teams, and processing operations, most of which were owned by collectives, primarily villages, towns, and townships. Some were owned by voluntary groups of families. Township enterprises were considered by the government to be the main source of employment for rural workers who were leaving agriculture because of rising productivity under the responsibility system. By the end of 1986, township enterprises employed 21 percent of the rural labor force. The movement of rural labor into township enterprises helped to increase average rural incomes because of the higher productivity in nonagricultural jobs. In 1986 industrial workers in rural areas produced an average annual value of -Y4,300 per person, compared with about -Y1,000 per farmer in the same year.

The change in farm production from primarily collective to primarily household operations is reflected in household survey data on the sources of rural incomes. Before the 1980s farmers received income in the form of shares of the profits earned by their production teams plus supplementary income from household sideline activities. In 1978 two-thirds of the net income of farm families came from the collective, and only 27 percent was derived from household production. With the shift to the responsibility system these ratios were reversed. By 1982 the collective provided only 21 percent of farm income, while household production provided 69 percent. In 1985 the collective share of farm income had fallen to just over 8 percent, and the family production share had risen to 81 percent.

Perhaps the most serious gaps in living standards between rural and urban areas were in education and health care. Primary schools existed in most rural localities, and 80 percent of the country's primary-school teachers worked in rural schools. Secondary schools were less widely distributed; only 57 percent of the total number of secondary-school teachers served in rural schools. Most rural schools were less well equipped, and their staffs less adequately trained than their urban counterparts. Health care had been greatly improved in rural areas in the 1960s and 1970s through sanitation campaigns and the introduction of large numbers of barefoot doctors, midwives, and health workers. Most modern hospitals, fully trained doctors, and modern medical equipment, however, were located in urban areas and were not easily accessible to rural families. In 1985 two-thirds of all hospital beds and medical staff personnel were located in urban hospitals. The economic reforms affected rural education and health care positively in places where farm communities used their higher incomes to improve schools and hospitals and negatively in localities where the reduced role of the collective resulted in deterioration of collective services.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress