The perception of distributive justice refers to people’s awareness of equity in the distribution of important social resources and can be divided into the perception of microjustice and the perception of macrojustice according to differences at the analytical level (Wegener 2000). The former indicates one’s personal judgement of whether he or she obtains justice for his or her own resources, while the latter regards society as a whole and represents the justice values of social systems such as the income distribution system, tax system, and political participation system.
By comparison, as the evaluation objectives of the perception of macrodistributive justice have certain consistency, it is more likely to evolve into a social consensus or social mentality, which will instrumentally influence the overall social structure. Therefore, macrodistributive justice is of greater research significance. China's transition from a planned economy to a market economy has broken both the egalitarian commitment of socialist ideology and the egalitarian distribution model under the redistribution system, and while it has created a miracle of rapid and sustainable economic growth, social problems such as inequality of opportunity, disparity between rich and poor, and urban-rural disparity are becoming increasingly serious. In the abovementioned context, do the public show more unease or dissatisfaction with the level of social inequality? Does the trend of social struggles and mass incidents in recent years mean that the public think Chinese society is becoming more unequal and unfair? How did the factors that influence the perception of social justice change? In this regard, we focus on the overall perception of the macrodistributive justice cognitive difference model, reviewing the existing studies theoretically from three perspectives—social structure, values and institutional changes—and we advance the hypotheses of this study based on these three perspectives.
2.1 Social Structure
Social structure has always been considered an important factor affecting the perception of distributive justice. ‘Structural determinism’ based on self-interest theory holds that with higher economic status, a person becomes more likely to maintain the existing distribution pattern and recognize its justice (Kluegel and Smith 2017). However, ‘local comparison’, based on relative deprivation theory, gives more attention to people’s subjective perceptions caused by their change in status and holds that, through ‘relative deprivation’ in a ‘social comparison’, frequent class flow and status changes have a profound influence on people's perceptions of distributive justice (Adams 1965; Geschwender 1967).
Empirical research in China has shown that there is no linear correspondence between objective social status and the perception of distributive justice. First, many Chinese people agree that inequality is an inevitable consequence of economic growth and agree that traditional Chinese political ideology has promoted merit-based inequality (Xie 2010); second, reform and opening up have brought many new opportunities to lower-class groups, such as farmers, and people of lower social status, especially vulnerable groups, are not necessarily dissatisfied with the current inequality (Whyte 2009). This article agrees that in the early stage of the market economy transition, all social strata generally benefit from the situation, so the public tends to positively evaluate the social distribution. However, with the widening of the distribution gap and the gradual solidification of social classes, the influence of structural factors, such as economic status, on the differentiation of the perception of justice will become more noticeable. The higher the economic status of a person, and the more obvious the advantages of income and wealth, the more inclined the person is to recognize the established distribution pattern, while in contrast to the strong rise of the overall economy and the rapid rise of the nouveau riche, the experience of relative deprivation of status and relative damage to benefits will strengthen people's perceptions of social macro-inequality.
The unit system is an important structural feature with characteristics specific to China. Under the existing mixed economic system, differences in units represent different forms of property rights and distribution systems and the degree of market transition. Studies have found that members of the CPC (the Communist Party of China) and people who work in government offices, public enterprises and institutions with a lower degree of marketization are more receptive to the ‘equality principle’, while private sector employees with a higher degree of marketization and farmers favour ‘the principle of desert’ (M. Sun 2009); there are also studies showing that people who are working or have worked in state-owned enterprises are apt to think that the income gap is too large (Whyte 2009). However, with the deepening and advancement of the market transformation, the function of the redistribution system is continually weakened and the function of the market system is continually strengthened; state-owned enterprises have gradually established a market-oriented wage determination mechanism, and public institutions have gradually established and implemented a performance-based wage determination system. These factors will weaken the egalitarian mechanism in the redistribution system to some extent. Thus, the number of workers in the redistribution system who accept the ‘deserving principle’ will increase with the advancement of the market transition, and this will therefore encourage tolerance for an income gap.
Accordingly, the following hypotheses are formulated:
Hypothesis a1: Increased income strengthens the perception of macrodistributive justice.
Hypothesis a2: Increased family wealth strengthens the perception of macrodistributive justice.
Hypothesis a3: Increased status flow strengthens the perception of macrodistributive justice.
Hypothesis a4: The cognitive differences in the perception of macrodistributive justice between party and nonparty members and workers inside and outside the public economic system will contract.
Unlike ‘structural determinism’, cultural theory usually emphasizes that people’s attitudes towards stratification are influenced by mainstream social values and other specific beliefs (Abercrombie and Turner 1978). At the empirical level, Deutsch summarized three main distribution principles: the principle of equality, the principle of desert based on individual input and contribution (Desert, or Equity as Desert), and the principle of distribution according to individual needs (Need) (Deutsch 1975). At the individual level, four values of justice have been distinguished by scholars: the advocates of ascription theory regard the established distribution of resources as natural and self-evident; egalitarians contend that the distribution should ensure maximum social justice; individualists believe that a free and fair competition system does exist; and fatalists blame social inequality for their misfortunes. Among groups with various values, there are significant differences in the subjective recognition of a fair income gap (Verwiebe and Wegener 2000). Social transformation is not only the transformation of the economic level and social structural level but also the transformation of people's values. In summary, at least the three perspectives below can be used to discuss changes in values and their influence on the perception of justice.
First, cohort (generation or age) differences are an important reason for a divergence of values. Differences in the socialization environment for certain cohorts can lead to cognitive differences in their perception of justice. In the 1960s and 1970s, empirical studies of Western societies found that young people were more likely than older people to pursue justice because of egalitarian ideas, while post-socialist countries that have experienced market transformations have found diametrically opposed cohort effects. In post-transition Estonia, the older cohort is more critical of income inequality than the younger cohort (Saar 2008). For a long time, Chinese people were deeply influenced by the traditional idea that ‘inequality should be of more concern than insufficiency’, and before reform and opening up, Chinese people lived in a more equal and less hierarchical society (Whyte 2009); because of the distribution system of the planned economy, the ‘average principle’ was accepted by the public, emphasizing that resources should be allocated on average or on demand to members of society. The economic reform in the late 1970s introduced market mechanisms, emphasizing breaking the “iron bowl” (lifelong job) and widening the income gap. From then on, ‘the principle of desert’ began to be accepted and people gradually began to adapt to distributional disparity and inequality, which is more evident in the post-transition (i.e., after the 1980s) cohorts. Since young cohorts did not experience the era of the egalitarian planned economy, as they grew up in the years of rapid economic development and the gradual promotion of market rules, they are more receptive to “the principle of desert” that one’s rewards should be consistent with one’s contribution, input and cost. They recognize that “the greater the contribution, the higher the remuneration”, and they have greater tolerance for the inequality of the macro income distribution.
Second, education has an enlightening effect on attitudes towards inequality. Regarding how education affects people's attitudes, there are different understandings in academia. Education has long been regarded as an important part of human capital, and the influence of income and education has been used to confirm self-interest theory. Consistent with the expectations of self-interest theory, the higher the level of education, the more inclined people tend to be toward the principle of desert (M. Sun 2009), and the more educated people are, the more they tend to have a positive attitude towards social inequality (Zhang 2004). However, in recent years, scholars have begun to re-examine and test this opinion, and another diametrically opposed theoretical hypothesis, the principle of enlightenment, has attracted the attention of the academic community. This theory holds that the enlightening nature of education conveys a value of compassion for poor and vulnerable groups, and therefore, there is a positive correlation between educational level and the tendency to support equality (Robinson and Bell 1978).
Under the specific background of Chinese society, the influence of education on attitudes toward social inequality should be more consistent with the theoretical expectation of the principle of enlightenment. In enlightenment theory, ‘cognitive development theory’ and ‘socialization theory’ provide two theoretical paths to explaining the correlation between education and liberal attitudes (Phelan et al. 1995). According to cognitive development theory, education can improve people's knowledge accumulation and cognitive ability, making people more likely to understand the real situation of growing social inequality in the transition period; additionally, more educational experience will lead people to develop critical thinking and analytical habits. From socialization theory, the core values conveyed by China's education system are collectivism and socialism, which may also make more educated people more sympathetic to the plight of the poor and more concerned about the overall situation of social development. Therefore, more educated people will pay more attention to social polarization, and in turn, they will become more critical of inequality (J. Li and Wu 2012).
Third, internet media communication has strengthened people's perception and evaluation of social inequality. The ‘cultivation theory’ holds that people who have more exposure to mass media are more likely to accept the social world depicted by the media. First, regarding internet media, unlike traditional media such as newspapers, radio and television, its self-organization is relatively strong, and thus everyone can use the internet to participate in the discovery, collection, processing and dissemination of information, making traditional media’s “gatekeeper” power collapse and transfer (Lu and Quan 2015), possibly leading to an increase in the amount of negative information disseminated by internet media. In fact, on the internet, although bold ‘wealth flaunting’ can usually be seen, poverty and suffering avoided by traditional media can also be exposed. Therefore, internet media show great differences between the resource distribution and lifestyle of different groups, which strengthens people's perception and evaluation of the current situation of social inequality. In addition, based on people’s perception, internet media provides people with a broader social comparison basis and reference group range. According to the relevant research, in the information age and through the influence of the internet and mass media, the information acting on intergroup comparison has increased greatly, the public has become more familiar with the income and consumption patterns of the upper classes in society and the impact of the relative deprivation of groups on people's perception of justice has been increasing (Hamilton 2002; Schor 1998, 1999).
In summary, based on the influence of cohort, education and internet media on values and subjective perceptions, the following hypotheses are advanced:
Hypothesis b1: Young cohorts have a higher perception of social inequality.
Hypothesis b2: With the advancement of marketization transformation, education has become more critical of social inequality.
Hypothesis b3: The greater the usage of the internet, the more critical one is of social inequality.
Hypothesis b4: With the development of information technology, the influence of the internet on the perception of justice has increased.
2.3 Institutional Changes
Based on the study of social attitude change in developed societies, scholars summarize the trends of social attitude change in three basic forms (L. Li and Wang 2018; Schreiber 1978). The massification/consistency hypothesis holds that modernization leads to increased homogeneity and decreased heterogeneity among people, so the differences in attitudes and behaviours between various groups in society will gradually narrow with the development of modernization (Glenn and Simmons 1967). In contrast, the disequilibrium/structure hypothesis contends that changes in social attitudes occur first in specific groups of people and then in others. In this process, the change in social attitudes will gradually permeate from some groups to other groups with a certain social structure, so the rate of attitude change will be different due to structural factors (Schreiber 1978). The polarization hypothesis holds that social attitudes are becoming fragmented or even polarized, especially in the area of political issues (DiMaggio et al. 1996).
In our opinion, although the gap between the rich and poor has widened in the past decade, the general public's assessment of macrosocial justice will not deteriorate significantly for this reason. In fact, the advancement of marketization transformation will probably increase people's tolerance of social inequality to some extent. There are at least three reasons: first, despite the significant increase in income inequality, economic growth is always maintained at a high rate, and people's living standards have generally improved effectively. According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, real growth in disposable income per capita remained above 10% in 2005–2015 (“The growth of per capita disposable income of rural residents from 1978 to 2019”, n.d.), and this was the most significant increase in income since 1978. At the same time, livelihood projects are gradually becoming the primary task of the government, and the result of economic development leads to the improvement of people's livelihood level; the livelihood development index of nearly half of the regions in China ranked above the per capita GDP ranking, and the public has enjoyed an economic development dividend. A study shows that China has had broader beneficiaries from its economic growth than the United States and European countries (Piketty et al. 2019, pp. 1978–2015).
Second, the effective promotion of poverty alleviation and the gradual improvement of the social security system have set up a safety net for the lowest economic groups, which has compensated for the relative interest loss in the reform to some extent. Although the concept of distribution justice of the average principle exists widely at the bottom of society, which may easily lead to the recognition of inequality regarding the distribution gap (Ming 2009), since the turn of the century, the government has vigorously promoted poverty alleviation and accelerated the construction of a social security system. This has brought remarkable results, enhancing the sense of gain of the bottom and vulnerable groups and playing a positive role in bridging the social divide caused by the disparity between rich and poor.
Third, as the principle of desert is gradually becoming accepted by the public with market-oriented promotion and the legitimacy of the market-oriented resource distribution system has been confirmed by more than 40 years of successful experience in reform and opening up, the rapid accumulation of market wealth and the competitive market atmosphere have made people more aware of the established rules of resource distribution and have led to an acknowledgement that greater ability deserves higher returns. Based on the above judgement, despite the widening income gap, the public remains relatively optimistic, and the acceptance and tolerance of distributive differences are moving in a positive direction.
Based on institutional changes, the following hypotheses are formulated:
Hypothesis c1: With the advancement of marketization, the public’s acceptance of macrodistributive differences is increasing.
Hypothesis c2: The higher the degree of marketization a region is in, the higher the perception of distributive justice it has.