iron rice bowl

iron rice bowl
Political concept
During the heyday of China’s socialist system, jobs in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) were highly secure and so were the goods and services that came with them. While wages were low, employment in SOEs was for life and the work unit (danwei) provided housing, medical care, education and certain foods to workers and their families essentially for free. The term ‘iron rice bowl’ (tiefanwan) is a shorthand reference to the indestructible nature of those jobs and, more generally, to socialism’s promise to look after the livelihood of its workers. During the Communist period public sector workers came to view the ‘iron rice bowl’ as an entitlement.
The system of lifetime employment in SOEs continues today but there is no longer a consensus within the government that it is sustainable.
Because most SOEs do not turn a profit but instead cost the Chinese government money, in 1997 the Communist Party committed itself to the elimination of all but the most indispensable of these enterprises. This task has become more urgent since China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in December 2001, which is certain to open up the country to the unforgiving forces of global capitalism. Massive lay-offs from SOEs have been occurring for several years and have led workers to accuse the government of ‘smashing the iron rice bowl’: that is, of reneging on its socialist contract with the people. In the eyes of many unemployed workers, then, the destruction of the ‘iron rice bowl’ has robbed the government of its legitimacy.
Hughes, Neil (2002). China’s Economic Challenge: Smashing the Iron Rice Bowl. New York: M.E. Sharpe.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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