Many analysts consider China’s inequality as the major obstacle to China’s continued economic growth and geopolitical rise. Martin K. Whyte set out to address this concern in his analysis of what he called the Social Volcano Scenario through a survey analysis. In this scenario, he describes a hypothetical situation where public discontent erupts into change. For China in particular, he considers a social volcano scenario in which people become increasingly upset about the wealth gap. Whyte’s research is precipitated by the fact that between 1981 and 2007, China’s Gini coefficient, which describes income distribution increased from 0.28 to 0.49. Given that the Gini coefficient reads a value of 0 as complete equality and a value of 1 as complete inequality, China’s increasing inequality is a legitimate concern for policy analysts. In his analysis, he utilizes special probability samples as a more accurate interview and sampling process to account for the excessive internal mobilization characteristic of the target demographic.
The 2004 survey asked general questions regarding public opinion of inequality within the Chinese public. The conclusions from the 2004 survey revealed that the average Chinese was not that angry or discontent with their situation. In fact, the majority of harsh criticism was directed at inequalities that were rooted in foundationally socialist programs. For example, discrimination based on the hukou system was of primary concern of rural participants. Similarly, special privileges for the powerful drew particular criticism from all participants, regardless of location and residency.
In 2009, Whyte and his team performed a follow up survey with two main questions. The first was whether Chinese citizens were more, or less, angry about current inequalities than their 2004 counterparts. The second was whether the patterns of variation within China were similar or different than in 2004. Essentially, Whyte and his team were looking to see if the unexpected pattern of greater acceptance of current inequalities that was present in 2004 persisted in 2009.
Whyte identifies several changes that could have potentially influenced the participant’s responses. The continued growth and reduction in poverty, the smashing of the “iron rice bowl,” Hu Jintao’s equalizing economic policies, and national pride events such as the 2008 Olympics all were identified as potential favorable trends. On the other hand, the continued rise of income inequalities, the global financial crisis, prominent scandals involving high-level politicians, and the rise in mass protests were all cited as potential negative trends. Taking all these trends into consideration, the survey results showed that people generally accepted the government’s arguments and policies but wanted the Chinese Communist Party to do more. He concluded that despite these desire for the CCP to do more, there was no sign of a social volcano. Instead, he identifies Hirschman’s “tunnel effect,” which refers to two-way traffic in a tunnel. In this model, he argues that there is initial hope that eventually turns into bitter anger when people see the other lane moving ahead.