Social competition and the contingent legitimation of pay differentials in reform-era China

Jacqueline Chen Chen, Jin Jiang*, Tony Tam*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This study extends recent research on the social determinants of the preferences for distributive disparities. We drew on a recent survey of more than 58,000 participants from 335 large cities in mainland China and measured pay differentials with a vignette experiment about allocating bonuses between two secretaries of different performance levels. Our ordinal regression models adjust for city-level random effects and exploit variation in early-age exposure to the incentives for educational competition across 840 admission district-by-cohort sample groups. Our results show that a higher incentive for long-term educational competition is associated with higher levels of legitimate pay differentials among all groups except the highest-status group, thereby narrowing the status gap. A stronger competitive intensity apparently fosters system justification among the majority lower-status groups but ostensibly does not affect legitimation among the top-status group. This heterogeneity in the effect is (a) unconfounded by personal income rank, provincial gross domestic product, local wealth inequality, and opportunity for college enrollment; and (b) robust to alternative measures of incentives for competition, subdivisions of status groups, nonparametric causal inference, and weighting for sample representativeness.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages33
JournalChinese Sociological Review
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 22 Aug 2022

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Anthropology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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