Commuters secure their bicycles before going to work. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

During the pre-reform years of China’s planned economy, the Iron Rice Bowl was a range of social services guaranteed to workers. Services included lifetime employment, housing, health care, and pension plans.

Before China moved from a centrally planned economy to a market economy, the Iron Rice Bowl (tie fan wan) was an array of social services enjoyed by workers that could exceed in value even the workers’ nominal wage. These services included lifetime employment, housing, health care, pension plans, child care, education for workers’ children, ration coupons for commodities, and even subsidized food. The access to services was directly related to a worker’s employment in a work unit (danwei) or to a worker’s place of residence as indicated by his or her residence certificate (hukou).

The Iron Rice Bowl embodied the commitment of the Chinese Communist Party to China’s modernization and in particular to the belief that industrial workers employed in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) represent the vanguard of society. The privileges enjoyed by these workers were also granted, to various degrees, to civil servants, teachers, and army personnel. This regime became theoretically universal after Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong sponsored the development of People’s Communes ????, rural farm collectives that were administered by a central authority (a Communist cadre) where everything was shared and evenly distributed. Class enemies were excluded, however, and for residents of impoverished regions access to social services was merely theoretical. In addition, the advantages that should accrue from the Iron Rice Bowl did not amount to much during the famine of the Great Leap Forward (1958–1960) ???, Mao’s plan to turn China from a primarily agrarian economy dominated by peasant farmers into a modern, industrialized communist society, or the chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976).

Yet, because workers made decisions in their councils on the benefits they should enjoy—often regardless of the economic performance of their employer—the Iron Rice Bowl represented an ideal to which everyone aspired. The policies undertaken by Chinese Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping after 1978 undermined these benefits in the name of economic growth. After the household responsibility system replaced the People’s Communes during the 1980s, peasants gradually lost many of their entitlements and suffered a deterioration of living and employment conditions after the 1990s as doctors, teachers, and other providers of social services charged increasingly expensive fees for their services. Because a worker’s free access to social services was limited to services from his or her place of residence, migrant workers who moved to cities looking for work were often deprived of services if they could not afford them.

Many rural residents who were too old or too frail to work the land and whose children were gone were not entitled to pension benefits because they could theoretically draw revenue from what they produced. Many urban workers employed in the private sector did not receive any of the benefits enjoyed by SOE employees or civil servants. Even the privileged category of SOE workers suffered a deterioration of its situation as many firms were constrained by their managers to close and therefore left their former employees without a living. The aging of the Chinese population aggravated the situation: Chinese demographers expect that in the next decade the ratio of employed people to unemployed people will decline and place a major burden on those who hold jobs. Former premier Zhu Rongji (in office 1998–2003) pushed for a reform of SOEs, and his successor, Wen Jiabao, has replaced the Iron Rice Bowl with a more universal system of social security.

Further Reading

Hughes, N. C. (2002). China’s economic challenge: Smashing the Iron Rice Bowl. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Lemoine, F. (2001, June). China: The Iron Rice Bowl is broken. Lettre du CEPPI, 202.

Source: LaLiberté, André. (2009). Iron Rice Bowl. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1183–1184. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Iron Rice Bowl (Ti?fànw?n ???)|Ti?fànw?n ??? (Iron Rice Bowl)

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