Structural separation and social functions of white-collar workers

In the developed Western countries, the middle class, composed mainly of white-collar workers, functions as the “stabilizer” in social development, the "buffer layer” in social conflict and the "indicator” of social behaviors. To a considerable extent, this is not because this class has a larger scale, but more importantly because there is a relatively smooth communication mechanism between the middle class and the state’s social management system. Through this communication mechanism, the values, behavioral orientations and expressions of their interests have been positively reflected in the social management system. On the other hand, the foundation of civil society of the Western middle class and the political environment of elections also form the conditions that allow for the smooth operation of the social management system. In this process, the middle class develops a consciousness for participating in public social affairs, and the election-based political system allows the middle class, with its considerable voting power, to have its standards of behavior, ethics and interests to continually enjoy ample attention throughout the construction of the social management system in a given country.

In comparison, the Shanghai's white-collar group, which on the surface appears to be similar to the Western white-collar class, not only lacks communication with the social management system, but also lacks a deep understanding of its country's social management system. This can be summarized with the following three points:

First, there exists a discrepancy between the value orientation of the S white-collar group (at least for more than 90% of the group) and the core values advocated by the mainstream ideology adopted by the current social management system. Young people in this group have more or less accepted certain cultural values from the West, including notions about consumption and an emphasis on individualism. They pursue individual freedom. White-collars who work for for- eign-invested companies are more influenced by Western business ideas. They hold a reserved attitude toward such behavior principles as "dedication” and “obedience” that are emphasized by mainstream ideology.

Second, Shanghai's S white-collars have little influence on changes in the existing structure of social interests. This small influence is not conmiensurate with their proportion in the social class structure of Shanghai, especially when the structure of social interests is undergoing changes. Compared with some socially powerfiil groups, Shanghai's S white-collars are very weak in their ability to express and maintain their own interests.14

Third, the S white-collar workers in Shanghai have little influence on the decision-making and formulation process of public policy. Public policy is a very important part of the social management system, which can provide a foundation and support for the coordination of interests among various groups of society. In order for white-collar workers to have an effective influence on the decision-making and formulation process of public policy, two important prerequisites are probably needed: first, white-collars must be sensitive to changes in the domain of social life that are relevant to public policy; second, channels must be established on an institutionalized level to ensure their participation in public policy decision-making processes. At present, these two conditions have not reached a sufficient level of maturity, and this has directly restricted the effective influence white-collars are able to exert on the public policymaking process.

It may be said that the main components of the existing national social management system are constructed from the three aspects of “official values”, checks and balances of social interests, and public policies. Speaking from the current situation of S white-collar workers, they are situated in a relatively "marginalized” position in these three aspects. We call this phenomenon "separation”; which is to say that there is no actual connection between this group and the country's social management system, nor has a communication channel been established between them. In a certain sense, the reason for this "separation” is related not only to the value orientation and social mentality characteristics of the Shanghai white-collar workers, but also to the basic characteristics of the Chinese social management system and the lack of social managers' understanding of the ideology and behaviors of the white-collar group.

As mentioned above, a gap exists among the rapidly formed S white-collar group in the sharing of social experiences and values. As a whole, there is also a lack of stable behavioral norms, common knowledge systems and value recognition. These characteristics indicate that the S white-collar group has not yet formed a common sense of class or a stable sense of identifying with the class, which means that the white-collar group is unlikely to carry out collective action as a whole. This, in turn, restricts the white-collar group to a large extent in their participation in the social practice of checks and balances of social interests.

Shanghai's S white-collar workers were born during the development of the market economy. They tend to be "weakly politically involved”. In regards to many problems in the field of public policy, their sensitivity is relatively poor and their response is slow and lacking. They may understand some rules of the operation of the market economy, or make use of some professional skills, but they do not have a deep understanding of the actual operation of the economy and society. This feature further constrains the influence of white-collar workers on the public policymaking process. On the other hand, this feature is also closely related to the uniqueness of China's social management system. In the decades since 1949 to the begimiing of reform and opening up, the three major systems— the work unit system, household registration system and identity system—have constimted China’s basic social management system (see Lu, 1989; Li, 1999; Li and Li, 2000). For a considerable length of time, the management philosophy of this management system has been that the state manages and limits the behaviors and actions of members of the society from the top down by strictly controlling the distribution and operation of most resources. In the past 20 years, the economic system has been undergoing a continuous transition, and the Chinese social management system has entered a process of gradual reform. But in general, the social management system under reform still has yet to do away with some of the logic and thinking from the planned economy period. People can still observe and sense a management model based on resource control and methods that rely on traditional organization carriers for social supervision. Therefore, when the white-collar workers who are emerging from the modern market economy and not dependent on the country for resource extraction are found to be in a state of “collective action”, the existing social management system and its implemented often fail to respond effectively; their measures sometimes lead to unpredictable embarrassment, and can even demonstrate a lack of understanding of the functions and strengths of the emerging white-collar group in social integration. It is for precisely this reason that the emerging white-collar group is often alienated from social management system, and thus loses an opportunity for participation in the construction of mechanisms for social integration. This result is unfavorable for both parties.

The Shanghai white-collar workers who grew up during the rapid transition period have a multi-directional social function orientation. In the reality of social life, their rational choices are influenced by certain macro-structural factors (such as instimtional environment, social resource allocation mechanisms, embedded cultural adaptation), as well as some dependent variables from the micro-level (such as social mentality and social mood). Sometimes they are also influenced by political and social factors from abroad. Therefore, to objectively and effectively study and analyze the social function and space for collective action space of Shanghai's emerging white-collar group, it is necessary not only to have a clear understanding of their position and quantity in the social hierarchy, but also to form a basic judgment based on the characteristics of their time, the cultural heritage they recognize, their complex and ever-changing inner world, and the actual situation of their strucfliral relationship with the system; from an academic perspective, the formation of this basic judgment involves rethinking the relevance of the research, theories and methods related to it. This sflidy is merely an attempt to rethink, in hope of spurring a deeper discussion.

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