Is China a welfare state?

busy Shoppping Street in Shanghai, China

Beatriz Carrillo looks at the history and development of China’s welfare system.

For some, China might seem like an unlikely candidate to have a dedicated 400+ pages Handbook on the topic of welfare. Most would also not associate developing or autocratic regimes with the pursuit of national welfare systems. And yet, the research tells us that over the last three decades or so developing countries, even some of the poorest economies, are pursuing just that. Similarly, recent comparative studies show that autocratic regimes are just as likely as democratic ones to pursue national welfare programs. The reasons behind this welfare expansion in the developing world are manifold; they are linked not only to political and economic considerations, but are also closely tied to the particular cultural and historical characteristics of individual societies.

While most may agree that safeguarding the wellbeing of all members in a society may be a universal concern, they may also tend to think of the welfare state as an explicitly European phenomenon. However, even in the European context, the use of the concept of welfare as an organized effort to provide for the maintenance of members of a group only really took off in the 19th century. When we look at China’s imperial history we find that the state’s concern for the welfare of the population was very much part of the political philosophy since the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC). According to Confucian thought, emperors could only maintain the mandate of heaven (tianming) if they also upheld a benevolent government (renzheng).

Satisfying the social welfare concerns of the population was – and continues to be – a key component of Chinese state performance and regime legitimacy.

Clearly, China’s imperial regimes were no welfare states (at least not in Esping-Andersen’s conceptualization of the modern welfare state), but as historian Bing Wang asserts, they nonetheless did dedicate substantial amounts to social spending. Even through the tumultuous years of the first half of the 20th century, the Nationalists, the local warlords and the Communists, all made sure at least a minimum of public services and welfare provision was kept in place in the areas they oversaw. The extended Chinese family did continue to bear the bulk of the burden of maintaining the wellbeing of its members, but the assumption was that the state would always be there for those too poor to fulfill those duties or who were without family support.

The socialization of the economy during the first three decades of the Peoples Republic, at least in the urban areas, tended to shift collective family allegiances towards the state. The ‘iron bowl of welfare’ provided urban citizens with ‘cradle to grave’ work and protection; though the countryside remained largely self-reliant. Fast-forward to 2017, after almost four decades of economic reform, and even the rural-urban divide cannot begin to describe the complexity of contemporary Chinese society and the magnitude and diversity of its welfare needs.

In the space of a mere two decades – between the 1980s and 1990s – China added close to 500 million people to an expanding urban system; marketization diversified the economy and the labour market; millions were raised out of poverty in the countryside, but poverty also emerged as a new phenomenon in cities; family planning policies drastically reshaped the composition of China’s population; while social inequalities became a key government concern.

In China’s economic reform trajectory inequality had not always been a bad word. Overhauling the socialist economy – it was accepted – would inevitably bring inequalities, but these same inequalities – it was argued – would become an incentive for more people to strive for a better life. Deng Xiaoping, the leader and initiator of the reform and opening policies, is said to have urged people to ‘let some get rich first’. And some did indeed get very rich, but for a growing number of people the ‘trickle down’ effect of economic growth would not materialize. The rising number of protests from the late 1990s by different social groups was a signal to the government that the Party-state’s mandate of heaven might be under threat. The welfare concerns of the people needed to again become a regime priority.

Since then China has been building a new social welfare system with universalistic aspirations. As the chapters in this Handbook attest, China’s social welfare policy efforts have been both impressive (e.g. the rapid and now almost universal coverage in social medical insurance) and seriously inadequate (e.g. provision of services for disabled persons). It is nonetheless remarkable for a country of over 1.3 billion people to have built (though with different degrees of success) a fairly comprehensive national welfare system – that includes social insurances, public housing, social assistance schemes, amongst others – in the space of around two decades. Nevertheless, as some of the chapters in the Handbook explain, the gaps and challenges to making the welfare system a true safety net for all citizens is still far from a reality.

The difficulties in meeting the welfare needs of the majority are to a great extent linked to the financial capacity of local governments – given China’s stark regional inequalities – but they are also related to the increased diversity and complexity of social groups, each with distinct welfare needs. Rural migrant workers, left behind rural children, the unemployed, working mothers, single mothers, the expanding elderly population, the disabled, environmentally displaced people, ethnic minorities, the middle classes; they all have specific welfare needs. The inadequacies and limitations of the existing welfare system mean that individual families remain primarily responsible for the welfare of their individual family members.

In the pursuit of a new Chinese modernity, and in tackling the contradictions that this process has brought, both society and the Party-state have looked to the past to find a common normative frame that can unite an increasingly diverse and fragmented society. The development of China’s welfare system has thus been deployed alongside a political discourse that draws heavily on Confucian concepts. Nowhere is the continued relevance of Confucian doctrine more obvious than in the China Dream posters of the current regime, where filiality and benevolence towards others are extolled as the lifeblood of the Chinese people and as the path towards the fulfilment of China’s prosperity. The ubiquity of these posters, however, may be interpreted as a sign that citizens are not so willing (or in reality, rather, not able to) to uphold filial responsibilities, and hence they need to be constantly reminded of them.

The chapters in this Handbook expand on the history, the changes, the successes, the shortcomings, the diversity and the future challenges of China’s contemporary social welfare system. In the process, they give us glimpses of the economic, social and cultural diversity of China, and of a modernization process that continues to defy thefamiliar linear trajectory.

Beatriz Carrillo is Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney (Australia) and Associate Professor at Xian Jiaotong Liverpool University (China).

Carrillo Hbk

Handbook of Welfare in China Edited by Beatriz Carrillo, Johanna Hood and Paul Kadetz is available now.


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