Rethinking Equality and Inequality in the PRC


Whyte, Martin K. 2005. “Rethinking Equality and Inequality in the PRC.” 50th Anniversary Conference for the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research. Harvard University. Copy at

Date Presented:

Dec 9, 2005


The Fairbank Center for East Asian Research has been in business nearly as long as the People's Republic of China, and the Center has played a key role in research on all aspects of the world's most populous society. During that period China has experienced extraordinary changes, and our understanding of that society has also been notably altered and deepened. I was not present at the creation, either of the PRC or of the Fairbank Center, but I was privileged to begin my own academic study of China here at Harvard forty years ago, in 1965, just as the Cultural Revolution was about to explode. So I was the beneficiary of the accumulated wisdom of scholars such as John Fairbank and Benjamin Schwartz, and I am pleased that two of my teachers then are still my colleagues today, Ezra Vogel and Dwight Perkins.

One of the topics I have struggled to understand over the course of my career of studying China is the changing contours of equality and inequality in the PRC, and particularly the contrasts between the Mao and reform eras. In my talk today I want to offer some of my current thinking on this subject. I will be arguing that there is a conventional wisdom regarding trends in equality and inequality in post–1949 China, and that that conventional wisdom is oversimplified and misleading at best, and in some respects dead wrong. Our understanding of the nature of Chinese society after the revolution and even today will be hampered unless we can recognize the flaws in, and overcome the influence of, this conventional wisdom. In advancing my alternative view I will be relying not only on my own research but on the work of many other scholars, and I will attempt to synthesize a variety of kinds of evidence and arguments into an alternative way of thinking about inequality trends in the PRC.


Last updated on 03/21/2015