Myth of the Social Volcano: Perceptions of Inequality and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China; Accepting Authoritarianism: State-Society Relations in China's Reform Era

In This Review

Myth of the Social Volcano: Perceptions of Inequality and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China
By Martin Whyte
Stanford University Press, 2010
264 pp. $27.95
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Accepting Authoritarianism: State-Society Relations in China's Reform Era
By Teresa Wright
Stanford University Press, 2010
264 pp. $24.95
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The Chinese have become more passionate believers in the American dream than Americans themselves, to judge by the findings of a nationwide survey conducted by Whyte in 2004. Although China is one of the most unequal countries in the world, most Chinese believe that wealth goes to those who work hard and that everyone has a fair chance to get ahead. The consensus holds across most sectors of society and is strongest among the group that is objectively most disadvantaged: rural residents. Whyte conjectures that this is because all groups, and the peasants in particular, are so much better off now than under Mao. Widespread rejection of the past and faith in the future, he believes, help power China's economic dynamism and generate support for the political system.

Wright synthesizes existing research on why it is rational for each major sector of the Chinese populace to accept the political status quo. The better-off groups feel privileged and beholden to the system, the middle groups expect the rising tide to lift their boats, and the worst-off groups depend on the state for benefits, no matter how inadequate. Despite the farmers' inferior, castelike status, which has improved only marginally since Mao, these workers depend on the state for access to land, are drawn away from their home communities by the lure of factory jobs on the coast, and have no way to link their local protests to create a national movement. As Wright sees it, each group accepts authoritarianism for its own reasons. Whyte and Wright agree, however, that political stability is a tightrope act, vulnerable to misstep if and when the state ceases to deliver.