Subjective Wealth and Power Status, Status Inconsistency, and Psychological Health in China

Friday, 3 July 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
TW2.1.04 (Tower Two)
Lei Jin, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, Hong Kong
Tony Tam, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, Hong Kong
Background: Stratification is multi-dimensional, involving economic resources, power and status. Previous research has found that people’s overall subjective evaluation of their social positions is consequential to their psychological health. However, these studies have not differentiated among dimensions of social stratification, and therefore it is unclear how people’s subjective positions in different hierarchies influence their psychological health. Moreover, people may hold inconsistent positions across various hierarchies. Although theory suggests that status inconsistency may influence mental health, recent research on this topic is scarce. This study seeks to contribute to filling these gaps by examining, in the social context of China, how people’s 1) subjective social status in terms of wealth and power and 2) status inconsistency among the two hierarchies influence the negative and positive aspects of their psychological health.

For the past thirty years, China has experienced robust economic growth that lifted the living standard of the whole population. But the distribution of economic gains has been highly uneven. As China underwent marketization reforms, some social groups, such as low-skill workers in state-owned enterprises, lost out, while others, such as the educated and those with social connections and political capital, were able to prosper. It was estimated that the Gini coefficient rose from 0.28 in 1985 to 0.53 in 2010. In contrast to the dynamic changes in China’s economy, during the same time period, the authoritarian state, dominated by the Chinese Communist Party, has continued to hold tight control over the access to political power. Ordinary citizens have little opportunities to influence the policies that govern their lives. When they feel that they suffer injustice, there are few institutional channels to address their discontent. Economic resources and power are therefore the two primary and distinct dimensions of social inequality in China. It is important to examine whether and how people’s subjective positions on the two hierarchies are consequential to their psychological state. Moreover, commentators of transitional China have long suspected that the imbalance between growing economic resources and lack of access to political power among a substantial segment of the Chinese population may spawn dissatisfaction and anxiety. This study provides an empirical test of this argument by examining the psychological consequences of the discrepancy between subjective positions in the power and wealth hierarchies.

Data and Method: The data come from a nationally representative survey, the 2011 Chinese General Social Survey. The analytical sample includes 5,529 subjects. Four variables gauging psychological deficits are summed to index the negative aspect of psychological health. Happiness and life satisfaction are used to measure the positive aspect. To measure subjective status, the respondents were asked to place themselves on 10-rung ladders with regard to wealth and power. To measure status inconsistency, a variable is constructed to indicate how many levels higher a respondent is on the wealth hierarchy than on the power hierarchy and another variable indicates how many levels higher a respondent is on the power hierarchy than on the wealth hierarchy. When both variables are included in an analysis, the reference category is those who reported holding the same positions in the two hierarchies.

Since the difference between the two hierarchies is collinear with the hierarchies themselves, we choose to use the diagonal mobility model (DMM) instead of conventional regression models. The DMM was developed to simultaneously assess the relative importance of two variables with identical categories, which in our analysis, are subjective wealth and power status, and variables indicating the differences between the two variables.

Findings and discussion: Most Chinese people placed themselves at the bottom of the power hierarchy, lower than their positions on the wealth hierarchy. For example, 41% of the respondents reported that they were on the lowest level in the 10-rung power ladder, whereas 19% said that they were on the lowest level in the wealth ladder. The average ranking is 2.54 in the power ladder and 3.34 in the wealth ladder. The pervasive feeling of powerlessness probably reflects the lack of access to political power for ordinary people in an authoritarian state. Subjective wealth status is a significant predictor for both the negative and positive aspects of psychological health; people who reported higher positions on the wealth hierarchy also reported less mental deficits and greater happiness and life satisfaction. Subjective power status is only consequential to the positive aspect of psychological health, with those higher in the power hierarchy also enjoying greater happiness and life satisfaction. Our models show that subjective wealth status has greater predictive power than subjective power status of psychological outcomes, although perceived powerlessness is a significant determinant of less happiness and lower life satisfaction.

Almost half (49%) of the respondents felt that their wealth status was higher than their power status and 15% reported that their power status was higher than their wealth status. However, contrary to our expectation, people whose subjective power status was lower than their wealth status in fact reported less mental deficits and great happiness and life satisfaction than those who perceived similar power and wealth status. There are no significant differences in the indicators of psychological health between those whose subjective power status was higher than their wealth status and those who reported the same positions on the two hierarchies. Sensitivity analysis using different specifications of the discrepancies between the two hierarchies produced qualitatively similar results. Our preliminary findings therefore do not support the suggestion that the imbalances between greater economic resources and lack of political power have generated negative psychological consequences. Rather, when it comes to psychological well-being it seems that greater economic resources may have more than compensated for the lack of access to political power.