Mending the Chinese Welfare Net: Tool for Social Harmony or Regime Stability?

China at the turn of the 21st century is gripped by waves of social discontent and popular protests. Surveys and reports regularly chronicle public frustration and anger over such problems as unfair income distribution, corruption, unemployment, urban rural disparity, environmental damage and social discrimination. Aggrieved groups like farmers, laid-off SOE workers, migrants, property owners, pensioners, and householders displaced by land resumption and urban development are becoming more vocal in rights talk and resistance action (Blue Book of China's Society 2008, 2009, 2010). Their tactics, both legal and non-legal, range from petitioning, protests, legal contest, and even collective rebellion (Zweig 2000, Hurst and O'Brien 2002, O'Brien and Li 2006, Goldman 2007, Lee 2007, Chen 2007, Chen 2008). It is plain that after three decades of stunning economic growth, Chinese society has become increasingly unequal and conflict ridden. Its social welfare system, an instrument to manage the social risks and failures of the market system, badly needs an overhaul. Among the key shortcomings are the lack of a safety net, a patchy social insurance system, exclusion from welfare of migrant workers, underdevelopment of non-state welfare, and unaffordable health care for the rural masses and the poor. These failures are acknowledged by the state. Since the late 1990s, the state has stepped up efforts to mend the Chinese welfare net. This paper discusses what these measures are and what drives the state to improve on welfare engineering. It begins by contextualizing welfare reform against the state agenda of enhancing social harmony. It then discusses policy innovation in five areas: introduction of social assistance; extension of social security; improving welfare provision for migrants; promoting, controlling, and assisting NGOs; and reforming health care to bring it accessible for all. In reviewing the drivers for welfare reform, the author argues that state welfare policies are mainly driven by concerns for social stability and regime preservation in an attempt to shore up the resilience of the authoritarian regime.