Southern Weekend: “Only When We Do Away With Hereditary Hierarchy Will the Lower Class Have a Real Hope”

What follows is a translation of an article on class mobility published in Southern Weekend. The piece, written by Dai Zhiyong, has been republished on various news sites, and remained at the top of the ‘Most Read’ list on the newspaper’s website for several days.

Dai argues that the unfairness inherent in the ‘guanxi’ system has been compounded by the “self-perpetuating cycle” of money and power in effect since the late 80s, resulting in a widening wealth gap and an impending lack of talent in important positions. He calls for the abolishment of the “hereditary hierarchy” upon which Chinese society is built, which is not only unfairly impeding upward mobility for the lower classes of society (‘ants’), but also causing a “personnel mix-up” whereby those with power are not necessarily capable or deserving. This, he argues, is a “volcano” that will leave China “mangled” and “ineffective as a whole”.

It’s always interesting to see a frank piece of criticism in the mainstream media, albeit in a relatively liberal newspaper like SW. He may not be sounding a call to arms, but Dai’s grievances are likely to be heard by many who wouldn’t normally read such unharmonious stuff. The most-rated comments are also translated, possibly offering a further insight into how the story has been received, but it must be noted that these are not immune to manipulation by interested parties.


Put all your effort into studying your way out of the countryside, do a stint in university, and end up in a downtown village. This is the twenty-year life-track of the majority of ‘ants’. According to the Hubei Province ‘Ant Tribe’ Investigation Report conducted by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, eighty percent of ‘ants’ are born into impoverished families in the city or the countryside. At the same time, according to a report published towards the end of June, the degree to which close to a hundred million ‘post-80s generation’ workers have received education is low, their pay is low, and they are confused about the future. The scale of ‘second generation poverty’ is huge […].

This loop of going from village to village is no more exciting than a life of ‘tend sheep – earn money – get married – have kids – tend sheep’. At least shepherds can get married and have children; even this has become a difficult problem for [ants]. After working for five years, these young people can still only barely maintain simple reproduction, what they earn won’t only fall short of a deposit on a house, but they are left without spare money with which to study, boost their skill set, and plan a better future. Under the double pincer-attack of high living costs and low wages, they have basically been locked into a lower-level status in life; their upwards-channels are very limited.

The lot of ‘second-generation cadres’ and ‘second-generation wealthy’ is, however, altogether different. They are more likely to receive high-quality education from pre-school to university, and after graduating, most can smoothly step into the middle class of society, and become the managers of middle- and lower-class work units in industry, or public servants.

It was in the news recently that when recruiting industry workers, Wuning County in Jiujiang City, Jiangxi Province made it perfectly clear that those who were not the offspring of appropriate cadres “need not apply”. This previously unequivocal, unquestioned yet unofficial way of doing things has managed to become a regulation. The public are outraged, but it’s impossible to stop the children of nobility from using all kinds of methods to slip into the fertile land.  Trying to keep up with the trend, those of a lower level are also trying to go through their aunt’s cousin’s wife’s friend, to find a bright path for their own children. Naturally, this often ends in disappointment.

If you want to head up in the world, and to change your class, you can’t just follow the rules; this has become common knowledge of the modern age. The difference lies only in whether or not the route is there, and whether or not you have the capital to follow it. The lower classes are bound by unwritten rules, and a number of unpleasant power-holders have created and are maintaining these unwritten rules. […]

But it hasn’t always been like this. In the first half of the 1980s, the salary of peasants, workers and private entrepreneurs was rising quickly, and a number of people gradually said goodbye to the lower class, becoming entrepreneurs or professional managers. Also, the revival of the gaokao became an express channel by which a large group of lower-class youths entered the middle class. Because it acknowledged the rights of the lower class, and established comparatively fair rules, this period could be called one China’s most prosperous of the last hundred years.

In the mid-1980s, there began a dual-track system. Along with the daily broadening of the scope of the market, power also gradually became a money-making enterprise, through establishment of bogus fees, control of resources and direct participation in economic activity etc., the seeds of convergence between money and power were sown. These seeds were quietly growing in the financial market, state enterprise reform and property tarrifs of the 1990s, and finally became a great menace to the transformation of the Chinese economic society; power and wealth gradually became a self-perpetuating cycle. The so-called “second-generation phenomenon” is the unfortunate consequence of this passage of history. Its true nature is a new form of hereditary hierarchy for the post-class struggle era.

This type of hereditary hierarchy allows a pattern of “the powerful can win, the winners can eat” to flourish. Public finances pay out millions in pre-school fees, yet privately-run schools encounter layer upon layer of barriers to entry; at universities attended by Luo Caixias (a girl who attended university under someone else’s identity), there are over 300 ‘clones’ who arrived there by way of connections and family background. For the tidiness of the city, city management structures are used to deprive the lower classes of the right to earn a living…

In education, recruitment, employment and various other sectors, the pattern of power-retention by the powerful is solidifying, yet the rights of the lower classes often suffer encroachment. The hardening of the hierarchy is right before our eyes. The channel of upward mobility for the lower classes is narrowing by the day.

[When] the lower classes face all sorts of systematic exclusion, it isn’t only bad for the poor, but also for the powerful. The consequences of the rich remaining rich and the poor being eternally poor, aside from causing personnel problems by ‘using one’s connections to the fullest’ rather than ‘using one’s ability to the fullest’ (making China ineffective as a whole), also wreck the most basic fairness value of society, with ‘connections’ and backroom deals running riot. Whilst many are becoming more extravagant by the day, masses of others can’t see hope, and the final result can only be a mangled, hierarchical social antagonism. Who could feel safe while sitting on a volcano like this?

If we don’t wish to see society sink down into an ineffective and unfair path, we must do away with this kind of hereditary hierarchy. Whether or not a child can become a provincial governor or bureau chief should have little to do with whether or not his or her father is a high official or a millionaire. The success a Chinese person can achieve must depend only upon their talent, diligence, moral character and luck. Only this way can there be hope for the lower classes, and can China have a future.

Luckily, the Government is certainly not inactive towards this issue. Facing a real problem, releasing a research report could be the first step towards changing the situation.


xueer090905 (Comment rating: 92)

Only representatives of public opinion elected by voters can fight for [our] rights! So, NPC representatives and CPPCC members must reform, and adopt democratic election. The word ‘party cadre’ must also be reformed, it should be corrected to: ‘employee’. Financial budgets must be subject to the [opinion] of public opinion representatives before being paid out. This way, the whole of society can supervise government action, and bring power out into the bright sunlight. If this [word] ‘official’ has no advantage, it won’t produce ‘second generation officials’, and won’t be without consideration for the feelings of those fighting to become officials! Legalisation, systematisation and clarification are essential to the progress of society!!!

the great italian left-back (Comment rating: -37)


Not to spoil the fun, but let’s hypothesise a little, what if the country allowed democracy? Would the common people use it rationally and legitimately? Would everyone very conscientiously exercise those divine rights to elect and to be elected? Without freedom of information, can we ensure that the one elected really is the one we really need?

Just like the current village-level democratic elections, [which have] resulted in a large number of bribed votes and manipulation, many [of which] were not carried out by those standing for election themselves, have brought out many shadows of normal people’s participation in them, they themselves have used this supposedly divine right as a scheming tool for profit!

So, in terms of this confusing country of ours, democratic elections are still a very longroad! After all, the so-called elite who have sufficient democratic consciousness are still not in the mainstream in this country.

In a situation where legality, supervision and public consciousness are yet to find their place, be careful about mentioning democracy!

davidxin (Comment rating: 60)

This is the biggest problem we currently face. Not only have [those in power] themselves lost any mobility, becoming ‘red nobility’, unregulated by others and relying on their bloodline. Even the capitalist and middle classes have in recent years shown strong heredity and exclusionism. If we say that before –especially in the 80s and 90s, people could still make use of their own diligence to grasp the opportunity of ‘reform and opening’ to gain a higher position, then now, this route has basically already been jammed to death. Class borders are becoming more and more obvious, society is becoming stagnant water. I personally suspect that within a few years, this sort of ‘truth-against-truth’ class contradiction (different to the “class struggle” of the Mao era) will completely explode, throwing China into turmoil.


  1. Dai doesn’t make any explicit reference to anything illegal going on, and his fairly nonspecific incitement to “do away with hereditary hierarchy” is perhaps a little too nebulous to be taken seriously, both of which may be seen as reasons why this apparently incendiary article was given the go-ahead.
  2. Dai’s argument seems to be that when there’s a lot of money involved, people will be keener to hold onto power, and that this is unfair. Whilst that is certainly true, it must be considered that the protocols through which power is maintained have been in place in China for a long time; the practice of giving preferential treatment to those with whom you share a personal bond could be argued to have its roots in Confucianism. So, Dai’s tracing of the problem to the economic reform of the 70s and 80s appears a little shallow; the reforms merely put the imperfect system under the magnifying glass.

0 thoughts on “Southern Weekend: “Only When We Do Away With Hereditary Hierarchy Will the Lower Class Have a Real Hope””

  1. It’s frustrating to imagine how many good quality Chinese are going to get stuck in hai-ke-yi professions. I think about the young people in Hongkong who are busboys and mall cleaners and they have a permanent doomed facial expression. They are the working poor working in the midst of more fortunate people including small children. Some people will never move beyond a waiter because of lack of assistance. I think there should be a cycle of employment social program run as a job assistance, career support government agency such as the ones in NYC for disabled employees, female employees. If someone intelligent, just an average citizen is stuck in a customer service that is just a step above menial, I think that he should be cycled out of that job to a change of scenery employment, learning a new skill set even if that is entry-level because it is really screwing with silently desperate, decent citizens. It’s not just a glass of milk for every child in China. We have to stop the future Chinese generations from becoming invisible people. They have to be strong citizens like unionized craftspeople and postal workers. It’s not a bad life if you have a job like that. They make great parents. I can’t bear to remember cool gentlemenly Chinese who were permanent waiters, working for tips. I don’t want to see that sacrificed generation repeated in China. You’re never too old to learn a new skill, get a new job. We need decent citizens to be our food inspectors. We need a bio terrorism team. Important work at a decent wage in the service of strengthening China would be welcome work for good Chinese people.


  2. I skimmed through the article and he does seem to blame the sort of aristocracy on capitalist reform and money rather than the prevalence of ‘guanxi’. Not sure if this was to pass the censorship or Dai really thinks that.
    After all, money plays a huge deal in western countries. When he argues on expensive pre-schools and education – a better education normally equals higher fees. It’s more like the gaokao/zhongkao system gets distorted because kids who don’t get the mark get into the school through their parents.

    It will be interesting to see what the composition of the 2nd crop of millionaires/billionaires in mainland China would be like and whether they got there because of their relationships or actual talent.


  3. From what I’ve read the main problem here is the low-quality of Chinese university education. Most Chinese bachelor graduates are apparently unqualified for employment at many enterprises, and to have a reasonable chance of getting a job, a masters’ degree is necessary.

    Unfortunately, a masters’ degree is more expensive than merely a bachelors, so that extinguishes the chances of many impoverished students.

    Perhaps it would be ideal to funnel more students off to vocational schools or work-oriented courses. You could encourage this kind of thing by reserving a certain number of slots at university undergraduate programs for holders of associate degrees in order to encourage poor students to self-delude themselves into thinking that a vocational school is merely a stepping stone towards a full university degree.



    So said Honoré de Balzac, 19th-century French novelist. Do you agree with him? Many instinctively feel that class distinctions are wrong. Yet, even in this 21st century, human society is still divided into numerous social classes.

    CALVIN COOLIDGE, president of the United States from 1923 to 1929, was concerned with the problem of social class distinctions and spoke of “the ultimate extinction of all privileged classes.” Nevertheless, some 40 years after Coolidge’s presidency, the Kerner Commission, appointed to study race relations, expressed fears that the United States would inevitably become two societies: “one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Some claim that this prediction has already come true and that “the economic and racial divide is growing” in that country.

    Why is it so difficult to turn the idea of human equality into a reality? A major factor is human nature. Former U.S. congressman William Randolph Hearst once said: “All men are created equal in one respect, at least, and that is their desire to be unequal.” What did he mean? Perhaps 19th-century French dramatist Henry Becque said it more clearly: “What makes equality such a difficult business is that we only want it with our superiors.” In other words, people want to be equal with those above them on the social scale; but not many would be willing to limit their privileges and advantages by granting equality to those they consider to be below them.

    In past times, people were born as commoners, as part of an aristocracy, or even as members of royalty. That is still true in a few places. However, in most lands today, it is money—or a lack of it—that determines whether someone is of the lower, middle, or upper class. Yet, there are other class indicators, such as race, education, and literacy. And in some places, gender is a major ground for discrimination, with women being viewed as an inferior class.

    Glimmers of Hope?
    Human rights legislation has helped to break down some class barriers. Antisegregation laws were passed in the United States. Apartheid was outlawed in South Africa. Slavery, although still existing, is illegal in much of the world. Legal decisions have forced recognition of the land rights of certain indigenous people, and antidiscrimination laws have provided relief for some disadvantaged classes.

    Does this indicate the end of social class distinctions? Not really. While some social class distinctions may now be weakened, new divisions have begun to appear. The book Class Warfare in the Information Age says: “Generic classes of capitalists and workers seem inappropriate today, but only because these great classes have fragmented into smaller grouplets of angry people.”

    Will social classes forever divide people? Well, as the following article will show, the situation is not hopeless.


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