Every week there are new reports of popular upheaval in China—peasants driving officials out of villages in protests against corrupt land deals; migrant workers striking to demand living wages; laid-off workers occupying privatized state factories; ethnic minorities protesting Han encroachment; urban and rural residents fighting to shut down polluting plants, and so forth. According to figures compiled by the government, there were some 90,000 ‘mass incidents’ in 2006, up from about 9,000 in 1993. Although there are a range of immediate causes, commentators in the prc and abroad have linked growing unrest to rising economic inequality. Over the last two decades, as the Communist Party has implemented capitalist-style market reforms, the top echelon of Chinese society has grown incredibly wealthy, even by global standards in an age of neo-liberal excess, while the livelihoods of those at the bottom have become increasingly precarious. For over a decade, many journalists and scholars have suggested that anger about growing economic inequality could lead to serious social upheaval.

In his Myth of the Social Volcano, American sociologist Martin Whyte disputes this prediction. Based on a national survey, Whyte reports that while people in China think inequality has become too great, they are less concerned about it than are people in other countries; they generally accept inequality produced by market competition as fair; and they are not about to head to the barricades. In a scholarly career spanning more than four decades, Whyte has steered well clear of barricades himself. When he began doing research in China in the late 1960s, he notably avoided both the Cold War anti-Communism of many senior scholars and the enthusiasm for Cultural Revolution experiments of younger cohorts, and his current work neither celebrates the prc’s development path nor heralds the imminent demise of the ccp regime. He has instead concerned himself with extending to China the methods and interests of mainstream American sociologists, conducting survey-style research about work, family and everyday life. In the 1960s and 70s, when Western scholars could not yet conduct surveys inside China, he did a remarkable job of extrapolating from interviews and surveys of Hong Kong emigrants; his early books, Small Groups and Political Rituals in China (1974), Village and Family in Contemporary China (1978) and Urban Life in Contemporary China (1984)—the latter two co-authored with William Parish—remain classic accounts of Chinese society during the Mao and early post-Mao eras. More recently, Whyte has edited a collection on rural–urban inequalities—One Country, Two Societies (2010)—and has helped pioneer Western academic survey research inside China.

The book at hand is based on his first effort to carry out a national survey, in 2004. The topic on which it focused is clearly of great importance. While no one would argue that rising Gini coefficients directly translate into revolutions, there can be little doubt that economic inequality, and people’s ideas about it, often play an important role in producing social upheavals. Whyte’s survey included 2,300 individuals who were part of a randomly selected sample designed to represent the country’s entire urban and rural population. Although opinion polls are now common in China, this is probably the most systematic effort to date to gauge the population’s perceptions on questions of distributive injustice. In eleven short chapters, Whyte uses as a foil what he describes as the conventional view—that those at the bottom of Chinese society are increasingly angry about growing economic inequality. This line of thinking, he argues, is contradicted by the responses to his survey questions. First, he presents the general results of the survey. He acknowledges that most respondents considered income inequality in China to be too great, but quickly qualifies this with evidence that most also thought the system was generally fair. He found wide approval of market competition and toleration for the inequality it creates.

When asked about various factors that create income and wealth differences, most respondents indicated that they believed ability, hard work and education were the main reasons some people became rich, and that others became poor mainly because of lack of ability, insufficient effort, poor education and poor character. Thus, he reasons, respondents felt economic inequality was largely produced by merit, rather than by unfair advantages. Moreover, the advantages most widely condemned by respondents were remnants of the state-socialist era—privileged access for officials and restrictions faced by individuals registered in rural areas under the hukou system. Therefore, he suggests, if market reforms continue to diminish these remnants of the past, people should feel even less upset about the causes of inequality. ‘There is little evidence’, he concludes, ‘that most Chinese harbour misgivings about the market society in which they have to operate’.

Whyte then compares his results with survey data from several advanced capitalist and former state-socialist countries, and concludes that the Chinese populace is relatively content. Although 72 per cent of his respondents considered the income gap in China too big, this was lower than the corresponding figures for most other countries. (The most complacent were us respondents, 65 per cent of whom thought income disparities were too great; the least were in Bulgaria, where 96 per cent complained about the income gap.) Whyte, however, is most interested in comparing beliefs about fairness. ‘Chinese’, he writes, ‘appear to see current differences between who is rich and who is poor in their society as much more due to merit, and less due to an unfair social structure than do citizens of any other country’. Indeed, his survey data show that Chinese respondents were much more likely to agree with statements that attribute success to merit and embrace market competition. His data, he admits, do not explain why China stands out, but he suggests this may reflect a backlash against the heavy-handed policies carried out under the banner of egalitarianism during the Mao era. (Conversely, the data for Russia and Bulgaria are from 1996, when divergences of income were both novel and especially acute.)

In the second part of the book, Whyte returns to China to compare the attitudes of different sectors of the population. Even if discontent is not generalized, he acknowledges, if it is strong among members of key groups, the potential for social disruption might still be great. He considers many variables, including gender, age, education, marital status, ethnicity, income, party membership, geographic location and personal experience; but he is most interested in occupational groups. After presenting a complicated array of data, however, he is no less upbeat in his assessment, concluding that ‘feelings of anger regarding current inequality are not concentrated in a particular social group or locale’. Summing up his main point, he writes:

It is common to assume that respondents in groups and locations that have low status or who have lost out in competition for the benefits of Chinese reforms are angry, while those with high status and those who have benefited disproportionately from the reforms are satisfied with current inequality patterns. We find, in contrast, that current objective status is a very poor guide to inequality attitudes.