Socialist Insecurity

Socialist Insecurity

Pensions and the Politics of Uneven Development in China
Mark W. Frazier
  • A 2010 Noteworthy Book in Industrial Relations and Labor Economics (Princeton University's Industrial Relations Section)

Over the past two decades, China has rapidly increased its spending on its public pension programs, to the point that pension funding is one of the government's largest expenditures. Despite this, only about fifty million citizens—one-third of the country's population above the age of sixty—receive pensions. Combined with the growing and increasingly violent unrest over inequalities brought about by China's reform model, the escalating costs of an aging society have brought the Chinese political leadership to a critical juncture in its economic and social policies.

In Socialist Insecurity, Mark W. Frazier explores pension policy in the People's Republic of China, arguing that the government's push to expand pension and health insurance coverage to urban residents and rural migrants has not reduced, but rather reproduced, economic inequalities. He explains this apparent paradox by analyzing the decisions of the political actors responsible for pension reform: urban officials and state-owned enterprise managers. Frazier shows that China's highly decentralized pension administration both encourages the "grabbing hand" of local officials to collect large amounts of pension and other social insurance revenue and compels redistribution of these revenues to urban pensioners, a crucial political constituency.

More broadly, Socialist Insecurity shows that the inequalities of welfare policy put China in the same quandary as other large uneven developers—countries that have succeeded in achieving rapid growth but with growing economic inequalities. While most explanations of the formation and expansion of welfare states are derived from experience in today's mature welfare systems, developing countries such as China, Frazier argues, provide new terrain to explore how welfare programs evolve, who drives the process, and who sees the greatest benefit.