D. S. G. Goodman on Chinese elites


August 24, 2017 by AK

I first came across this finding by Prof. Goodman in a Kommersant opinion piece (Victims of Sexual Inequality, that is, Chinese men with low prospects of finding a female partner). It was a revelation; I couldn’t believe it at first. To quote from The Little Red Podcast:

Q: You said in an interview your research found between 82-84% of today’s elite are descended from pre-49 elite.

Here’s the interview (pdf). David S.G. Goodman is a prominent Australian Sinologist, the author of Class in Contemporary China (2014). He explains his methodology:

A:  In my most recent research, 469 high income business elites in five different cities (Lanzhou, Nanjing, Qingdao, Taiyuan, and Zhongshan) were interviewed during 2009-13, roughly 100 people in each location.  The interviewees were selected on the basis of having an income at least twelve times the average of the locality where they were operational… Of those interviewed, 307 provided answers about their family status in 1949. Of those 81.3 percent reported that a direct family member (a parent or a grandparent) was a member of the local elite at that time.

I hate to be a bore but 249 is 81.11% of 307 and 250 is 81.43%, so 81.3% doesn’t correspond to an integer. It must be a typo or a minor error so let’s forget about it for now. More interesting is the distribution of the 162 informants who couldn’t or wouldn’t report their family status as of 1949. The higher the pre-revolutionary status, the more likely the informant is aware of it – but she might also be reluctant to reveal a connection to the exploiter class. If none of the amnesiacs is descended from the old elites, we’re left with 53% of old-elite descendants in the full 469-people sample. If 20% out of the 162 have old-elite heritage, the total will be 60%; if 40% (half the rate in the long-memory group), then 67% or two-thirds. Which fits with Prof. Goodman’s estimate in this 2015 interview:

Gregory Clarke in The Son Also Rises (2014) suggests that in all advanced industrial societies social mobility is lower than we think. He indicates an intergenerational transfer of privilege of about 73%. For China he suggests that it is higher at about 84%… One study from Peking University indicated that a woman’s occupation and social status is determined by her father’s in about 95% of cases and that a man’s is in about 84%. My own work on local economic elites suggests… that a very high proportion of today’s economic elites are the direct descendants of the local elites of 1949. More remarkably perhaps, about two thirds of today’s local elites are the descendants of people who in 1949 were both members of the local elite and members of the CCP.

One is tempted to draw several hypotheses from this. First, the Communists won when regional elites started flipping over to them from the Nationalists. It was a deal, not a straight military victory like the Red Army’s in the Russian civil war of 1918-22. Second, descendants of the old elites – those who survived the various purges – were well-equipped to rise in the post-Maoist order, owing perhaps to their education or social connections. Moreover, if Goodman’s results are valid, the rate of survival must have been rather high.

Perhaps this only surprises me because I wasn’t paying attention. Andrew G. Walder of Stanford and Songhua Hu, his student, wrote in Revolution, Reform, and Status Inheritance: Urban China, 1949–1996 (American Journal of Sociology, 2009):

The middle classes were the only elite group to transfer status across generations during the Mao period – an advantage attributable in large part to parental education.

In the post-Mao era, members of old elite families were free to pursue administrative careers again but…

Their affinity for elite professional careers, however, endures. The strategy that they adopted in the Mao years… still leads to advantages in the professional career line, which depends very heavily on educational credentials. Middle-class family heritage is the only household category that still confers a net advantage in an elite professional career.

Goodman’s thesis goes much further than this, however. It raises new questions about the nature of the Chinese revolution and the insane experimentation that followed.


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