Making the Vulnerable: Role of the State in Creating Inequalities in Urban China
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In the sociological literature of stratification structure in post-reform China, the market transition debate in the 1990s has dominated this field by proposing competing arguments on who, redistributors or direct producers, had been and would be more benefited economically after the Economic Reform initiated since 1978. Sociologists participated in this debate framed their arguments into a state vs. market theoretical dichotomy, and used redistributors and direct producers as empirical representatives of state and market respectively. Therefore, the rise of economic statuses of people in these two groups indicates whether market mechanism or state redistributive power is more responsible for changes of stratification structure in China since the reform. I argue that there are two major flaws in the debate. First, only empirical evidence of upward mobility are used for supporting purpose. Downward mobility, which could represent the power of market and state from another direction since the less powered population is most likely affected by social environment, was largely overlooked. Second, these arguments took the theoretical dichotomy of market and state into empirical analyses, simply attributing economic success to linkages with either market or state, whose effects in reality are mostly combined. In this dissertation, I switched the empirical focus to the low-income population in urban China, and analyzed their economic statuses by ethnographical research in the city of Changchun in China in 2007. I argue that although market mechanism is the direct factor in pricing low-end labor, the state has never withdrawn its power before or after the reform to determine whether some people will be economically disadvantaged and others advantaged. The emergence of a group of people, which is officially recognized as vulnerable in terms of lower economic or jobless status, is attributable to certain policies maintained by the state. This argument is supported by evidence collected from participant observations through working in a Wal-Mart store, interviews with low-end workers, and a non-participant case study on laid-off workers of a state-owned enterprise.