Alesina, Alberto F., Marlon Seror, David Y. Yang, Yang You, and Weihong Zeng. 2020. “Persistence through Revolutions.” Working Paper Series. National Bureau of Economic Research.
Can efforts to eradicate inequality in wealth and education eliminate intergenerational persistence of socioeconomic status? The Chinese Communist Revolution in the 1950s and Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 aimed to do exactly that. Using newly digitized archival records and contemporary census and household survey data, we show that the revolutions were effective in homogenizing the population economically in the short run. However, the pattern of inequality that characterized the pre-revolution generation re-emerges today. Almost half a century after the revolutions, individuals whose grandparents belonged to the pre-revolution elite earn 16 percent more and have completed more than 11 percent additional years of schooling than those from non-elite households. In addition, individuals with pre-revolution elite grandparents hold different values: they are less averse to inequality, more individualistic, more pro-market, and more likely to see hard work as critical to success. Through intergenerational transmission of values, socioeconomic conditions thus survived one of the most aggressive attempts to eliminate differences in the population and to foster mobility.
The descendants of former Chinese landlords and rich peasants earn 16% more than average – despite them being barred from inheriting land or other assets, and their parents having been barred from university and secondary school during the Cultural Revolution.