Chinese Political Science Review

, Volume 3, Issue 2, pp 115–128 | Cite as

The Changing Face of China’s Local Elite: Elite Advantage and Path Dependence in Business Communities

Original Article


There has been considerable discussion about whether and how China’s political economy will change with economic growth and development. The debate has focused for the most part on the possibilities for either market transition or continued path dependence, and in particular, research has centred on the emergence of business activities and the changing role of local business elites. The results of interviews with 469 members of the new economic elites in five cities suggest that while local politics may indeed have adjusted to the new environment, in elite formation, the market plays a role alongside and sometimes secondary to status and political power. There is a significant pattern of elite privilege that reaches back into the era of state socialism, with further origins for some to be found in the pre-1949 local elites. Even where there are reasons to be sceptical about long-term status claims, there can be no gainsaying the strength of such narratives as motivational forces in business and elite behaviour.


China Local Business elites 



Research for this project was supported by the Australian Research Council through Discovery Grant DP DP0984495. Interviews were undertaken in Lanzhou 13 July 2010–1 November 2011, in Nanjing 25 July 2012–7 May 2013, in Qingdao 26 July 2009–16 December 2010, in Taiyuan 23 April 2010–14 July 2011, and in Zhongshan 5 July 2010–23 May 2012.


  1. Bian, Y., and J.R. Logan. 1996. Market Transition and the Persistence of Power: The Changing Stratification System in Urban China. American Sociological Review 61: 739–758.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bian, Y., and H. Lu. 1996. ‘Reform and socioeconomic inequality: status perception in Shanghai. In Jixuan Hu, Zhaohui Hong, ed. E. Stavrou, 109–142. New York: Search of a Chinese Road Towards Modernization. Mellen University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Bian, Y., and Z. Zhang. 2004. Urban Elites and Income Differential in China: 1988–1995. Japanese Journal of Political Science 5 (1): 51–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Boehler, P. 2013. ‘The Chinese Dream in Surveys: A Happy Middle Class’ in the South China Morning Post, 18 December.Google Scholar
  5. Chen, M. 2012. Being Elite, 1931–2011: Three Generations of Social Change. Journal of Contemporary China 21 (77): 741–756.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Chen, M. 2015. ‘From economic elites to political elites: private entrepreneurs in the People’s Political Consultative Conference. Journal of Contemporary China 24 (94): 612–627.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Chen, J., and B.J. Dickson. 2010. Allies of the State: China’s Private Entrepreneurs and Democratic Change. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Chow, Y. 1966. Social Mobility in China: Status Careers Among the Gentry in a Chinese Community. New York: Atherton Press.Google Scholar
  9. Clark, G. 2014. The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Dickson, B. 2008. Wealth into Power: The Communist Party’s Embrace of China’s Private Sector. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Gong, C.H., A. Leigh and X. Meng. 2010. ‘Intergenerational Income Mobility in Urban China’ IZA DP 4811.Google Scholar
  12. Goodman, D.S.G. 1999. The New Middle Class. In The Paradox of China’s Post-Mao Reforms, ed. M. Goldman, and R. MacFarquhar, 241–261. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Goodman, D.S.G. 2014. Class in Contemporary China. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  14. Goodman, D.S.G. 2015. ‘China’s Universities and Social Change: Expectations, Aspirations, and Consequences’. Mexico y la Cuenca del Pacifico 18: 18–38.Google Scholar
  15. Gustafsson, B. and S. Ding. 2010. ‘New Light on China’s Rural Elites’, WIDER Working Papers, United Nations University, no. 108.Google Scholar
  16. Ho, P. 1962. The Ladder of Success in Imperial China: Aspects of Social Mobility, 1368–1911. New York City: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Lu, X. 2005. Social Mobility in Contemporary China. Montreal: American Quantum Media.Google Scholar
  18. Nee, V. 1989. A Theory of Market Transition: from Redistribution to Markets in State Socialism. American Sociological Revie 54: 663–681.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Nee, V. 1991. Social Inequalities in Reforming State Socialism: between Redistribution and Markets in China. American Sociological Review 56: 267–282.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Nee, V. 1992. Organizational Dynamics of Market Transition: Hybrid Forms, Property Rights, and Mixed Economy in China. Administrative Science Quarterly 37: 1–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Nee, V. 1996. The Emergence of a Market Society: Changing Mechanisms of Stratification in China. American Journal of Sociology 101: 908–949.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Nee, V., and Y. Cao. 1999. Path Dependent Societal Transformation: Stratification in Hybrid Mixed Economy. Theory and Society 28: 799–834.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Nee, V., and Y. Cao. 2002. Postsocialist Inequality: the Causes of Continuity and Discontinuity. The Future of Market Transition 19: 3–39.Google Scholar
  24. Nee, V., and P. Lian. 1994. Sleeping with the Enemy: A Dynamic Model of Declining Political Commitment in State Socialism. Theory and Society 23: 253–296.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Nee, V., and S. Opper. 2012. Capitalism from Below: Markets and Institutional Change in China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Nee, V., and S. Su. 1998. Institutional Foundations of Robust Economic Performance: Public Sector Industrial Growth in China. In Industrial Transformation in Eastern Europe in the Light of East Asian Experience, ed. J. Henderson, 167–187. New York: St Martin’s Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Oi, J.C. 1992. Fiscal reform and the economic foundations of local state corporatism. World Politics 45: 99–126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Pei, M. 2016. Transition in China? More likely than you think. Journal of Democracy 27 (4): 5–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Ramo, J.C. 2004. The Beijing Consensus. Foreign Policy Centre.Google Scholar
  30. Rocca, J.L. 2017. The Making of the Chinese Middle Class: Small Comfort and Great Expectation. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Shambaugh, D. 2009. China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  32. Solinger, D. 1992. Urban Entrepreneurs and the State: The Merger of State and Society. In State and Society in China: The Consequences of Reform, ed. Arthur Rosenbaum, 121–141. Boulder: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  33. Szelényi, I. 1978. Social Inequalities in State Socialist Redistributive Economies. International Journal of Comparative Sociology 19: 63–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Szelényi, I. 1988. Socialist Entrepreneurs: Embourgeoisement in Rural Hungary. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.Google Scholar
  35. Szelényi, I. 2008. A theory of transitions. Modern China 34: 165–175.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Szelényi, I., and E. Kostello. 1998. Outline of an Institutional Theory of Inequality: The Case of Socialist and Postcommunist Eastern Europe. In The New Institutionalism in Sociology, ed. M.C. Brinton, and V. Nee, 305–326. Redwood City: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  37. Walder, A.G. 2002. Markets and Income Inequality in Rural China: Political Advantage in an Expanding Economy. American Sociological Review 67: 231–253.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Walder, A.G. 2003. Elite Opportunity in Transitional Economies. American Sociological Review 68: 899–917.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Walder, A.G., and S. Hu. 2009. Revolution, Reform, and Status Inheritance: Urban China 1949-1966. American Journal of Sociology 114: 1395–1427.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Walder, A.G., B. Li, and D.J. Treiman. 2000. Politics and Life Chances in a State Socialist Regime: Dual Career Paths into the Urban Chinese Elite, 1949–1996. American Sociological Review 65: 191–209.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Wang, J., and D. Davis. 2010. China’s new upper middle classes: the importance of occupational disaggregation. In China’s Emerging Middle Class, ed. Cheng Li, 157–176. Washington: Brookings Institution.Google Scholar
  42. Wang, X., C. Liu, L. Zhang, Y. Shi, and S. Rozelle. 2013. College is Rich, Han, Urban, Male Club. The China Quarterly 214: 456–470.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Xie, Y., and E. Hannum. 1996. Regional Variation in Earnings Inequality in Reform Era urban China. American Journal of Sociology 101: 950–992.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Zang, X. 2001. Educational Credentials, Elite Dualism, and Elite Stratification in China. Sociological Perspectives 44: 189–205.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Zang, X. 2004. Elite Dualism and Leadership Selection in China. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  46. Zhou, W. 2009. Bank Financing in China’s Private Sector: The Pay Offs of Political Capital. World Development 37: 787–799.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Fudan University and Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of China StudiesXi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool UniversitySuzhouChina

Personalised recommendations