China’s Hukou, Education, and Durable Inequality

In preparation for a consultancy working with migrant children’s education in Chengdu, I reviewed the literature on inequality and came across one of the final works of the late Charles Tilly. I was already familiar with Tilly’s work on state-making ‘as organized crime’ and wanted to see his ‘relational’ analysis at work on inequality. I would note that this ‘relational’ approach seems to be a close sibling of the sociology prescribed by Actor-Network Theory. Tilly did not disappoint and I find it a strong theoretical foundation to explore the structures and overall durability of inequality in China.

Tilly’s starting point is one that I share: individual differences in human capital do not explain the huge discrepancies in resources. Approaches that focus on inequitable distribution of education implicitly back this endorse the opposite view. Their argument would seem to start with the position that the rich, or merely middle class, are so because they are endowed characteristics, like marketable skills, that need to be more evenly shared. 

Bounded Categorical Pairs

Tilly (1998) begins by focusing on what he calls ‘bounded pairs’, or “paired and unequal categories, consisting of asymmetrical relations across a socially recognized (and usually incomplete) dividing line between interpersonal networks [that] recur in a wide variety of situations, with the usual effect being the unequal exclusion of each network from resources controlled by the other” (p. 8). Some examples of bounded pairs are black-white, rich-poor, citizen-non citizen, and wage labor versus salaried labor. Tilly believes that inequality becomes extremely difficult to overcome when interior categories overlap with exterior categories, such as when ‘domestic helper’ becomes translated in practice as ‘poor, Filipino, woman’ or ‘wage workers’ are the same thing as ‘black men.’

There are two main points to this. The first is that these pairs are, for the most part, invented social constructions rather than intrinsic properties. These categories are constructed because “paired and unequal categories do crucial organizational work, producing marked, durable differences in access to valued resources.” This might be the most controversial aspect of his work, as he argues that the pairing itself is of more important than what is paired. This is to say race, gender, and poverty do not have important intrinsic characteristics that drive inequality, but are rather just tools for a more universal ‘opportunity hoarding’ and ‘exploitation’ that occur within and between localized categorical pairings. In this, he discounts the role of sexism and racism as -isms and asks us to instead turn our attention to structural relations that thrive on gender and racial distinctions.

In context to Chinese migrant workers and their children, the exterior pairs would seem to be ‘migrant-citizen’, rich-poor, and high-low ‘quality.’ At the most instrumental level, the categorical distinction of migrant-citizen does the ‘organizational work’ of deciding who gets access to what kinds of education, healthcare, and legal rights in which places. The very short version is that the poorest migrants lack the ability to enrol their children in urban public schools, so either leave them home as ‘left behind children‘ or enrol them in cheap, low-quality private schools in cities.

‘Quality’ is an interesting term that is used frequently in modern China and corresponds closely with Bourdieu’s ideas of habitus. This ‘quality’ consists of the distinctive social markers that seperate rich from poor, white collar from blue collar, cultured from uncultured, and urban and rural. In fact, to call someone a ‘farmer’ in modern urban China is an insult. These society-wide categories overlap significantly in schools and in the workplace. Migrants, overwhelmingly, are white collar workers with few social protections. This white collar work comes in the form of working in low-end service jobs, in factories, and as drivers. In schools, there is also a close correlation with these external categories and internal categories like ‘good/bad student.’ In fact, “63.9% of the population has rural residence, but in tertiary education only 31.6 % of students come from rural areas” (Ma, 2010).

English ability stands out as one of the primary boundary-makers. Without learning English, students have virtually no opportunity to advance their education. The first barrier is encountered in the Zhongkao examinations that determine who goes to college preparatory schools and who instead either drops out of school or is routed into vocational training. The boundary-making work of English is likely found in the relatively large amounts of time, effort, and money necessary to bring a Chinese person with little exposure to the language to fluency. This would contrast with the relative ease of learning English in places with more similar mother tongues and larger levels of exposure in media and in policy.

Mechanisms of Inequality

With these bounded pairs established, how does inequality then reproduce itself? Tilly asks us to look at four mechanisms: exploitation, opportunity hoarding, emulation, adaptation, and emulation. Tilly borrows from Marx the basic outline of exploitation: it “operates when powerful, connected people command resources from which they draw significantly increased returns by coordinating the effort of outsiders whom they exclude from the full value added by that effort” (p. 10). This is certainly a crucial element in China, as labor costs for constructing the iPhone account for less than 1% of the final retail value of the product. This labor is overwhelmingly that of migrant workers with limited rights in the political jurisdictions where they work.

This exploitation is reinforced by opportunity hoarding, emulation, and adaptation. Opportunity hoarding occurs, “when members of a categorically bounded network acquire access to a resource that is valuable, renewable, subject to monopoly, supportive of network activities, and enhanced by the network’s modus operandi” (1998, p. 10). There are two levels of opportunity hoarding at work in modern Chinese urban polity that are of note here. The first is that at the lower levels, many other categorical groupings come to occupy and fill niches in the Chinese economy. Young rural women, for instance, dominate factory jobs. In Shenzhen, middle-aged Hunanese men came to monopolize the taxi market. While their labor is being exploited, they find places where they can gain the most within the structure.

The second level of opportunity hoarding is within the middle class generally. For those at the top of Chinese society, success is all but guaranteed through their connections to wealthy and powerful networks. People compete for access to the middle class and upper middle class through the apparently meritocratic institution of schooling, where higher scores on standardized tests are said to correspond both with talent and spots in better schools. In the current socio-economic situation of China, there are far more worthy candidates than there are middle class ‘white collar’ positions. Thus, the middle class must work to exclude ever more from entering their ranks through categorical boundaries. The more students that sit for the Zhongkao, the more that will come to quality for the Gaokao, the less able the middle class is able to hoard white collar jobs.

Inequality is further reinforced by emulation and adaptation. Emulation occurs when, “managers of organizations often accomplish their work by importing  [social] configurations… with which new members of the organization already have considerable experience and therefore common knowledge” (Tilly 1999, p.59) Whether or not they can actually deliver the quality, schools managers and teachers in rural schools and private schools for migrant youth emulate the same curriculum and standards found outside the school. They copy the same configurations of good/bad student, prioritize elements like English, and employ similar teacher-student, teacher-school, school-ministry power dichotomies. Finally, people adapt. Adaptation here is, “the elaboration of daily routines such as mutual aid, influence, courtship, and information gathering on the basis of categorically unequal structures” (Tilly 1999, p. 10) While people might not like the structures and categories they are bounded into, they work within them and become reliant on them.

Paths Forward as Reinforcement?

Taken together, there are four possible paths forward. In the first case, the situation might continue as it has for some time and as is described here. There is a tremendous amount of wealth being generated in China and, as with most countries, there is a relatively small group of people harnessing the work of others to generate that wealth. Specific educational attainment criterion are used to construct boundaries between different degrees of exploitation. Working in an office guarantees one access to more resource, and a better life, than working with ones hands in a factory or mine. Those inside the offices, and those who aspire to those positions, reinforce the categorical distinctions between white and blue collar workers – even if those social distinctions are overwhelming social constructions of less value than the difference in renumeration.

A second path taken might be for the Chinese government to adopt policies similar to the ‘affirmative action’ policies found in the United States. This would mean that the children of urban migrants are granted special privileges because of their prior, or current, marginalization. In context to exams, this might mean waving the requirement for English-language competency for those who have not had access to the best schools. It might mean adjusting the weighting of tests to account for differences in educational quality. It is important to note here that this would mean validating the importance and meaning of distinctions like “migrant” in the same way that affirmative action has validated categorical distinctions like race and gender.

The third path forward could be called ‘flooding.’ In following the maxim, “all ships rise with the tide,” it would take emulation to the extreme in hoping to construct identical social and educational outcomes for migrants and rural youth as their urban counterparts have. There is little reason to think this would work, however, as categorical boundaries shift and change. This is to say that even if the government or civil society put themselves to the task of raising the quality of English of every disadvantaged youth, privileged urban actors would shift the boundaries either by raising the expectations of English competency or moving the boundary somewhere else.

The third path forward is by far the most difficult. It would involve dismantling mechanisms of opportunity hoarding and exploitation. It would strike at the categorical barriers erected that make certain jobs ‘migrant jobs,’ that come with pay and benefits associated with types of jobs. It would set up guarantees that ensure people get more of the value they add to a product no matter where they are on the value chain. It would also act to knock down the boundaries that separate the white and blue collar jobs. It would likely do this by de-emphasizing educational attainment in job selection.

Assessing Relational Inequality

If there is a weakness in Tilly’s framework, it is likely in its overly pessimistic viewpoint that can disempower those who wish to fight for change. Tilly shows how some types of redistribution and fights for social justice simply entrench categorical pairings. To fight for migrant rights entrenches the idea that this is a legitimate way of organizing society. Helping one marginalized group often comes at the expense of hoarding opportunities for another group, as race-based affirmative action sometimes privileges African-American families at the expense of poor white families.

His path forward seems, in some regards, almost nihilistic. It would seem to require massive, almost revolutionary, reconfigurations of society to overcome. What makes it nihilistic is that this revolution is less about imagined futures than destroying existing institutions. I don’t mean to say that Tilly is advocating revolution in his book, but that the thresholds he outlines for achieving equity seem monstrously high.

Yet Tilly’s framework is a powerful heuristic tool for understanding the origins and persistence of inequality. The strongest element of his idea is an insistence on looking at the structures of inequality rather than on personal elements – whether in the form of (individual) human capital differentiation or (individual) bigotry and discrimination. He shows that tackling inequality is largely a political, rather than educational, project.


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