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Education and Meritocracy in China: The Role of Degrees in the Intergenerational Transmission of Inequality

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Hong, Qilyu 


Despite increasing social inequality and declining social mobility, Chinese people exhibit a remarkable level of acceptance and optimism in the face of glaring disparities. This is largely because they hold an unwavering belief in education-based meritocracy, believing that socioeconomic success is largely determined by merit-based selection through the educational system regardless of their background. However, despite the symbolic power of education-based meritocracy, questions remain about whether the rising tide is lifting all boats together and truly promoting greater equality. China's unique and complex social context, characterised by rising inequality and expanding education, offers a unique case to explore issues of social mobility and to test the idea of educational meritocracy.

While a growing body of literature has analysed intergenerational and social mobility in China, a closer review reveals that there are significant knowledge gaps in our understanding of social mobility that this thesis aims to address. Firstly, existing research has predominantly focused on single-point estimates of mobility at the national level, which might obscure certain features regarding the strength and patterns of association at various points across the income or earnings distribution in either generation. Moreover, there has been comparatively less attention given to exploring the heterogeneity of mobility transmission across different social and geographical groups. Additionally, the empirical investigations of the meritocratic power of education in levelling the playing field has not thoroughly explored the dimension of horizontal stratification within higher education, making it difficult to uncover the underlying mechanisms that explain the remaining direct association between family background and labour market outcomes of graduates.

Against this background, this thesis aims to provide a more nuanced and contextualised perspective on the changing role of education in intergenerational transmission of inequality in modern China through rigorous quantitative analysis. The focus is to map patterns of the association of different dimensions between social origins, education, and socioeconomic destinations, using large-scale and nationally representative survey data. It poses three main stand-alone yet closely interconnected main research questions, each of which is linked to a hypothesis about the concept of educational meritocracy within the “Origin-Education-Destination” framework and will be addressed separately in the three empirical chapters.

Overall, the findings indicate a substantial origin-destination (OD) association in the first two decades of 21st century China, despite all the social and institutional changes and educational reforms that have the potential to promote upward mobility. On average, individuals with more advantaged backgrounds (with university-educated parents) earn over 40% higher income than those with parents educated up to middle school. This family related income disparity is comparable to that in the UK, but higher than that observed in Scandinavian countries. In particular, the observed intergenerational inequality is driven primarily by the perpetuation of the elite class rather than by the reproduction of poverty. This highlights the presence of strong inherited advantages, and points to the existence of an “elite second generation” phenomenon in China.

Moreover, in addition to the influence of family background, locally specific and unique environments are important determinants of individuals’ future socioeconomic opportunities in China, given the significant regional imbalances regarding various aspects of socioeconomic development. Western inland provinces, such as Yunnan and Sichuan, stand out as places where the educational prospects for the younger generation not only lag behind other regions but also rely heavily on their parents. This is particularly true for rural girls growing up in these regions, who face increasing challenges in accessing even compulsory education and in breaking the circle of educational disadvantage.

Regarding the role of education in social mobility, the key argument presented in this thesis is that despite the prevailing belief in education-based meritocracy, the role of education as a social equaliser to level the playing field and reduce socioeconomic disparities rooted in family background is limited. The results unveil discernible patterns of inequitable educational access and direct income effects of family backgrounds, which challenge the fundamental premises of education meritocracy and argue that the ideology of educational meritocracy in China is largely illusory. Education cannot entirely fulfill its expected promise of reducing the inequality of opportunities and promoting social mobility. Instead, the merit-based education selection system seems to provide an arena the reproduction of social and economic inequality, legitimising the existing socioeconomic inequalities. The observed social and economic disparities in China have manifested as inequalities in human capital development among different social groups, posing a significant challenge to the principles of educational meritocracy.





Gruijters, Rob


China, educational meritocracy, intergenerational mobility


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge