Anthony Giddens was right to emphasize that ‘[a] large part of the chequered history of the concept of class has to be understood in terms of the changing concerns of those who have made use of the notion, concerns which reflect changing directions of emphasis within sociology itself’ (1977: 99). It must be added, though, that those concerns also reflect value-ridden perceptions about the structure of societies and social models, and indeed the changing structures and prevailing political and social values in society. Even the shifting emphasis in social analysis that Giddens refers to may reflect emerging ideologies within the profession and within the broader context of social relations, notably paradigm shifts. This is certainly the case with the use of the class concept and methodologies of class analysis in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over the last two to three decades.
As social and political commentators in the PRC agree, the destratified Chinese society before 1978, which in official descriptions comprised of two classes (workers and peasants) and one stratum (intellectuals), has evolved into a much more complex structure as a result of three decades of reform. But they are divided over how to analyse the emerging social structure and patterns of stratification, whether stratification is creating relations of conflict, and how it is affecting the country’s socio-political order. Though their answers to these questions differ vastly, three broad interrelated trends have emerged: increasing downplaying of social polarization, the shift of interest from class analysis to ‘stratum analysis’, and the emergence of a middle class fetish.