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Social Challenges of Transitions: Individual Narratives about the Impact of Transition on Self, Family, and Society

Abstract

The social dimensions of economic transition that make headlines -- unemployment, corruption, the reemergence of prostitution and drug use, a huge floating population, and the rise of new millionaires -- tend to sensationalize the changes taking place on the Chinese social landscape. Yet there are other changes that have been no less dramatic for the individuals who experience them, and economic transition could not be taking place without them. Many of these new features may seem so familiar to the Western reader that it is hard to understand what is new about them. However, when highlighted against the way things were before, even eight years earlier, it is clear that the changes are real and significant. Among the most striking social changes affecting ordinary Chinese is increasing social differentiation, an important dimension of which is the emergence of an urban middle class.

In this paper I will describe some of the signs of transition that are evidenced in interviews I conducted in China in 1997-98 among members of this emerging social class. These interviews focused mainly on the career paths of young English teachers and business managers, who had been my colleagues and students when I taught English at a business college in a major provincial city (the MPC), in a coastal province in China, from the fall of 1989 through the spring of 1990. I was interested in how economic transition had influenced their careers, including the value of their education, opportunities available, decision-making processes, career goals, and job satisfaction. I was also interested in what they thought about the changes in China in general. With the exception of one English teacher, this paper is about my former students, who are now managers in a range of companies and government departments at the provincial level, and will focus on concerns central to all of the interviews: the growing importance of money and income differences, mobility and travel, and personal conflicts and reassessments.

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