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Five worlds of social reproduction after the new millennium: placing transitional China in a three-dimensional model of social reproduction


Since the late 2000s, China has accelerated reconstruction of the welfare state against the backdrop of the second transition. Following a typological approach, this study proposes an analytical framework for assessing varieties of social reproduction before delving into a comparative look at China’s national institutional framework, in which China is regarded as a transitional economy and a late bloomer. As represented in three dimensions, countries have production regimes that diverge in the degree of coordination, welfare regimes that differ in the degree of decommodification, and labor reproduction regimes that vary in the degree of depatriarchalization. We investigate the convergence and divergence of advanced economies, transitional economies, and the emerging economies of East Asian countries. Hierarchical cluster analysis and a three-dimensional map illustrate the varieties of regimes at the intersections of production, welfare, and reproduction. With the help of institutional complementarities, five worlds of social reproduction are distinguished: the late blooming, the liberal, the catch-up/transitional, the conservative, and the social democratic. China’s production regime converges with that of continental Europe and Post-Socialist societies based on institutional arrangements of nonmarket coordination; however, limited income maintenance and redistribution policies, the absence of family-friendly policies, and the regendering of the division of labor make China’s institutional mix appear more compatible with East Asian societies than Western ones. The institutional complementarities between the welfare and labor reproduction regimes reveal a social reproduction scenario that is less than purely late blooming.


Initiated in the late 1970s, China’s transition to a market economy marked the beginning of a period of “miracle growth”.Footnote 1 Between 1979 and 2018, the GDP grew at an average annual rate of 9.4%, contributing an average of 18% annually to global economic growth, and the government’s vigorous development-oriented poverty reduction efforts in rural areas achieved the overall eradication of absolute poverty (70 Years of Glory Editorial board ed. 2019). However, the noninclusive growth model led to changes in income distribution patterns, and China has shifted from an egalitarian to a highly unequal society, with a deteriorating income distribution that threatens social justice and social stability (Wang and Fan 2005; Li 2018). Against the backdrop of a move from an export-oriented strategy to an export-domestic-oriented growth strategy, the ruling party reintroduced the concept of “common prosperity” after the 2010s. Various social security and welfare systems define the practice of “common prosperity”, and the new normal aims to build a welfare state with Chinese characteristics (Cai 2022; Zheng 2022). China’s positive transformation echoes the Keynesian-Beveridge model, which was popular in the second half of the twentieth century. In this paradigm, the market is viewed as inherently unstable; macroeconomic policies promote growth and full employment, and a welfare state that offers income maintenance programs while encouraging social equality becomes “a built-in economic and political stabilizer” (Offe 1984: 148).

Nevertheless, most theories and paradigms find it extremely difficult to explain China’s rapid transformation, and the misdiagnoses of conventional economic theory highlights how crucial it is to analyze China’s transition from a historical and comparative viewpoint (Boyer 2012, 2017; Storz et al. 2013). The historical perspective vividly depicts the Malthusian phase of the Chinese economy’s roots and the dynamic shape of its take-off phase (Suehiro 2003; Aoki 2013). On the other hand, since the 1990s, comparative market economy studies have greatly benefited from the efforts made by the Varieties of Capitalism (henceforth VoC) approach and the Regulation School to “compare the equilibrium of the really existent economies against the ideal type of a highly theoretical pure market economy” (Hall and Soskice 2001; Amable 2003; Boyer 2012: 32). Almost about the same time, comparative welfare state studies have established a new paradigm, namely, the welfare regime theory, which captures the coherence and diversity of welfare production and redistribution in a triangle formed by the state, the market, and the family (Esping-Andersen 1990, 1999). Unfortunately, China has not received sufficient attention in the wave of cross-national comparisons of economic systems and welfare regimes because it is viewed as an “exception” (Kasza 2006; Peck and Zhang 2013).

Both comparative market economy studies and comparative welfare regime studies employ an empirical methodology, and the model’s crystallization is supported by comprehensive, comparable cross-national data. China’s uniqueness cannot be determined through only case studies. Conversely, a focus on China, which inherited socialist institutions and actively drew on East Asian development experiences, can maximize the potential for theories of varieties of market economies and welfare regimes. Can existing diversity theories stylize China’s institutional transition? Is China distinctive enough to create a new brand of welfare market economy? What can be learned by comparing China to Post-Socialist and East Asian societies?

To remedy the state absence and gender bias underpinning the economic functionalism in the VoC approach, this study proposes the social reproduction matrix, a conceptual framework composed of production regimes, welfare regimes, and labor reproduction regimes. This matrix constructs a trinity of “institutional ecologies” (Hall 2007: 80) to examine the convergence and divergence of advanced postindustrial economies, Southern Europe, Central and Eastern Europe, and East Asia. Beginning with an overview of contemporary work on comparative market economies, we introduce the social reproduction matrix. The methodology section describes the quantitative indicators and analytic methodologies utilized. The empirical section focuses on the classification of production regimes, welfare regimes, labor reproduction regimes, and the formation of institutional complementarities. The paper concludes with a summary of the research findings and discusses their potential implications for transitional China.

An analytical framework for varieties of social reproduction regimes

Convergence and divergence of market economies

There was a time when the argument between market and planned economies dominated the study of comparative economic systems. The Western world witnessed trente glorieuses of prosperity and equality after World War II. The rich industrialized economies established a Keynesian welfare state system where capitalist market economies and mass democracies were compatible based on postwar consensus politics (Offe 1984; Kavanagh and Morris 1994). As the primary adversaries of the capitalist system, socialist countries built complex systems based on state ownership, single-party control and centralized planning (Chavance 1994). In a dichotomous connection, both the East and the West saw persistent economic growth in the postwar period. Between 1950 and 1973, the annual average compound growth rate for Western European GDP was 4.8%, while that for Eastern Europe reached 4.9% (Maddison 2006). Unexpectedly, for optimists, the fall of the Berlin Wall and China’s introduction of economic reforms paused the “market versus plan” debate, and the Post-Socialist transition appears to have demonstrated the hegemony of American-style capitalism.

However, studies of comparative capitalism since the 1990s have revealed that Western European capitalism is by no means ironclad. Michel Albert described a conflict between “Anglo-Saxon” capitalism, which seeks to impose a system thoroughly guided by market mechanisms, and “Rhine” capitalism, which emphasizes the social market or the public nature of the market (Albert 1991). Notably, purely market-based mechanisms have never prevailed in advanced economies. Even in the United States, the prototype of Anglo-Saxon capitalism, a mixed economy that “uses a combination of market signals and government directives to direct economic outcomes”, has been broadly adopted (Schiller and Gebhardt 2019: 17).

Then, Peter Hall and David Soskice elaborated on Albert’s argument and developed the VoC theory, which focuses on the firm-centered institutional relationships of industrial relations, training and education, corporate governance, interfirm relations, and firm-employee relations, to distinguish liberal market economies (henceforth LMEs) from coordinated market economies (henceforth CMEs) (Hall and Soskice 2001). LMEs based on hierarchies and competitive market arrangements developed management with significant authority, general skills, and markets for corporate governance focused on current earnings, formal contracts, and labor market deregulation, whereas CMEs based on nonmarket coordination developed labor-management cooperation, industry-specific or firm-specific skills, patient capital, intercompany relations, and labor market regulation. Nevertheless, the position of France and Southern Europe is unclear in this discussion. Additionally, Herbert Kitschelt and colleagues recognized the typology of LMEs and subdivided CMEs into national CMEs (henceforth NCMEs) and sectoral CMEs (henceforth SCMEs) based on whether the dominant actors involved in the class compromise are egalitarian or communitarian parties (Kitschelt et al. 1999).

In contrast to VoC theory, which adopts a firm-centered perspective, the Regulation School seeks to capture capitalism’s temporal and spatial shifts with a more macroeconomic theoretical framework (Boyer 2004). The Regulation School, whose origins may be traced to the 1970s, adheres to the Marxian tradition of restoring capitalism to a mode of production centered on two relationships: the exchange between goods producers and the labor–capital relationship (Chavance 2009). However, unlike Marxists, Régulationists argue that the two fundamental relations are not static and that the accumulation regime and the mode of regulation can have multiple configurations depending on the combination of institutional forms, including wage–labor relations, forms of competition, monetary regimes, forms of state, and forms of insertion into the international regime (Boyer 2004). Bruno Amable and colleagues identified four types of capitalism based on institutional form differences: market-based, meso-corporatist, public/European-integration, and social democratic (Amable et al. 1997). In terms of mode of regulation, the hierarchical principles of these four categories correspond to markets, solidarity and mobility, public intervention, and social partner negotiation.

From varieties of market economies to varieties of social reproduction regimes

Through the VoC approach and the regulation approach, comparative market economy studies have developed typologies ranging from two to four types. Nevertheless, the position of East Asia and Post-Socialist countries is disputed. Regarding Post-Socialist countries, various theoretical frameworks and institutional domains result in heterogeneous and often contradicting typologies. Andreas Nölke and Arjan Vliegenthart, who adopt the VoC approach, identify dependent market economies with a coordination mechanism dubbed “dependence on intrafirm hierarchies within transnational enterprises” (Nölke and Vliegenthart 2009: 680). Following a comprehensive examination of various indicators such as privatization, capital accumulation, and global economic integration, David Lane observed that certain east-central European countries have moved toward continental-style market economies, albeit with a state-led coordination mechanism (Lane 2007). Dorothee Bohle and Béla Greskovits showed the diversity of Central and Eastern Europe in greater detail. That is, within East Central Europe, there are neoliberal Baltic states, embedded neoliberal Visegrád countries, and neocorporatist Slovenia (Bohle and Greskovits 2012).

Among the East Asian countries, only Japan and Korea have been included in mainstream comparative market economy studies. According to Kitschelt et al. (1999) research, Japan and Korea have developed the group-CMEs that coordinate within keiretsu or chaebols. Amable noted that Japan and Korea constitute Asian capitalism defined by collaboration between large corporations and the state, a centralized financial system, and a tiny welfare state (Amable 2003). Kitschelt and colleagues, as well as Amable both assume the existence of a highly cohesive East Asian model. Concerning Japan and Korea, however, academics have noted that the initial conditions, take-off period, and pace of institutional change toward modernization were quite different (Takegawa 2007; Chung 2010; Storz et al. 2013). An integrated East Asian model is contingent upon two conditions: (1) the consolidation of each society in East Asia under a single model and (2) the independence of this model from all other existing models.

Previous criticisms of the VoC approach have concentrated on the inability of static typologies to capture nonequilibrium, path breaking, and transformation (Howell 2003; Coates ed. 2005; Hancké et al. eds. 2007; Bosch et al. eds. 2009). Even régulationists implicitly presume that institutional forms remain constant over a certain period. Nevertheless, the unconvincing situation of comparative market economy research outside of advanced industrial countries makes it necessary to revisit the limitations of the VoC literature and Regulation School in three respects. First, the dichotomous VoC approach confuses empirical cases for ideal types. Rather than use deduction, the two inventors of the theory are “reading back empirical detail from what they want to be their paradigm case” (Crouch 2005: 33), specifically in the United States and Germany, to formulate their ideal type. It is no coincidence that the statist capitalism articulated by the régulationist was prototyped in France pre-1990s, whereas in recent years a rollback state forged a more market-oriented France approach (Amable et al. 1997; Levy et al. 2006; Hancké et al. eds. 2007). Comparative studies based on the ideal type provide theoretical support for the notion that “more than one economic model can deliver economic success” (Hall and Gingerich 2009: 449). Nonetheless, to overcome institutional determinism and Eurocentrism, it is essential to treat hybrid cases with more caution. A potential proposal is to decompose the ideal type into a series of continuums to determine whether multipole convergence occurs. The quantitative study of the coordination index by Hall and Daniel Gingerich (2009) represented a well-placed breakthrough.

Second, the VoC literature downplays the relevance of power distribution and fails to recognize the state dynamics of institutional arrangements (Howell 2003; Coates ed. 2005; Hancké et al. eds. 2007). As Robert Boyer noted, given countless market failures, “the state remains the most powerful institution to channel and tame the power of markets” (Boyer 1996: 79–80). To re-embed the economy into society, it is imperative to revisit the power resources theory. In this regard, Gøsta Esping-Andersen conducted groundbreaking research. By focusing on decommodification and stratification, Esping-Andersen proposed three welfare regimes: liberal, conservative, and social democratic (Esping-Andersen 1990). The liberal regime emphasizes a limited state and infinite market function but results in a widening gap between the poor and middle class. The conservative regime values the traditional family, where income maintenance schemes based on occupational status are largely geared toward male breadwinners. A social democratic regime is committed to full employment and generous social benefits out of egalitarian concerns. In liberal, conservative, and social democratic regimes, the capacity to de-commodify ranges from little to significant. There is a clear correspondence between the former type with LMEs and the latter two with CMEs, which is not difficult to discern.

Third, gendered stakes have not been researched enough; the VoC team and regulation theorists have a male perspective (Estévez‐Abe 2005; McCall and Orloff 2005). More specifically, both theorists assume the penetration of market principles to the nonmarket sphere, while the gender division of labor holds self-evident economic rationality. According to Boyer, “it is the enterprise that is at the center of the reproduction of the wage earner class and its stratification” (Boyer 2004: 156). As Hadas Mandel and Michael Shalev noted, early VoC theory concentrated on the manufacturing sector, which appeared to be gender neutral but defaulted to male patterns of employment (Mandel and Shalev 2009). With the goal of gendering the VoC approach, Margarita Estévez‐Abe investigated the variables affecting cross-national variations in occupational segregation by gender. The main finding is that CMEs, which rely more on firm-specific skills than LMEs, experience higher levels of occupational gender segregation (Estévez‐Abe 2005). The underlying basis of her argument is the statistical discrimination of employers against gender-specific uncertainties. By confining gender inequality inside the production regime, the gendered VoC approach embraces the social norms of male bread winners and female housewives. Clearly, the discrimination that economic liberalism tolerates and the hierarchy within the family are antithetical to the individualism aspired to by modernity (Aglietta 1999). If there is a causal relationship between women’s care obligations and disadvantages in the labor market, then the Marxist feminist tradition of bringing the transformation of the patriarchy into the understanding of capitalist diversity must be traced.

On the other hand, the concept of wage–labor relations adopted by the Regulation School encompasses the use and reproduction of labor, but under the Fordist accumulation regime, labor reproduction is perceived as a consumption process, and women’s work associated with labor reproduction fails to be recognized as a potential analytic object (Boyer and Yamada eds. 1996; Wakamori 2002). Under this inclusive accumulation regime, family wages are utilized to reconcile “conflict over women’s labor power which was occurring between patriarchal and capitalist interests” (Hartmann 1981: 22), while women’s reproductive work, which is absorbed in the reconstitution of wage–labor, is unconnected to the production process (Aglietta 1979; Sokoloff 1980). Nevertheless, the decline of this accumulation regime triggered the monetization of labor reproduction and the universalization of the female service economy (Brender and Aglietta 1984; Duncan 1994). In terms of creating an alternative to Fordism, advancing women’s status in the division of labor became a central aspect of the growth regime (Aglietta 1999). However, the move to a public gender regime has taken diverse forms in advanced capitalist countries (Walby 2004). Researchers focusing on the gender dimensions of the welfare state have sketched out three models of male-breadwinner states (Lewis 1992). That is, strong male-breadwinner states strictly divide public responsibilities from private responsibilities, granting husbands and wives differential social rights. The modified male-breadwinner states provide generous family benefits and recognize women’s unpaid and paid labor claims. The dual-breadwinner model seeks to promote women’s paid employment through institutional arrangements such as parental leaves and childcare provisions. Not by chance, Diane Sainsbury distinguishes between the male breadwinner and the individual models of social policy (Sainsbury 1996). Considering defamilialization or degenderization as core concepts, comparative welfare state research has attached increasing weight to the family–state relationship. How “a mode of societal regulation consisting of capitalism, the state and the family” (Wakamori 2002: 232) may be constructed to address the blind spots in the VoC literature and Regulation School has arisen as a major challenge for the study of comparative market economies.

In sum, this paper offers a three-dimensional framework for social reproduction that integrates comparative market economy research and gendered comparative welfare state analysis. The “20th-Century System of Social Reproduction” espoused by Emiko Ochiai provides the fundamental starting point for this framework (Ochiai 2020). This system consists of a Keynesian welfare state, a Fordist production system and a modern family with a gendered division of labor. Our social reproduction matrix initially focuses on wage–labor relations in production regimes, income maintenance and redistribution mechanisms in welfare regimes, and intergenerational and gender stratification in labor reproduction regimes. In light of the findings of previous studies, these three fields have distinct points of divergence: First, coordination and liberalization are opposite ends of the spectrum of production regimes. Second, decommodification and commodification are opposite ends of the spectrum of welfare regimes. Third, depatriarchalization and patriarchalization are opposite ends of the spectrum of labor reproduction regimes.

A coordinated production regime signifies that coordination is accomplished primarily through nonmarket or strategic means (Hall and Soskice 2001). On the other hand, decommodification enables us to think about how the “criterion for social rights must be the degree to which they permit people to make their living standards independent of pure market forces” (Esping-Andersen 1990: 3). Given the prevalence of kinship solidarity in Southern Europe and East Asia (Sechiyama 1996; Naldini 2003), it is worthwhile to suggest the idea of depatriarchalization to revise the concept of defamilialization. As Peter Taylor-Gooby has stated, defamilialization refers to “the extent to which welfare systems allow women to resist dependency in traditional family forms” (Taylor-Gooby 1996: 215). This definition of defamilialization is premised on the nuclear family and thus focuses on the gender dimension. However, the diversity of family theory reminds us that there is more than just the absolute nuclear family system (Todd 1999). Moreover, Southern Europe and China’s experiences have demonstrated that intergenerational and gender interactions are equally significant in the rhetoric of labor reproduction (Saraceno 1994; Wu 2015). Depatriarchalization consequently examines the extent to which financial and care obligations (at the individual level) stemming from gender and intergenerational roles can be reduced via the welfare state or labor market.

In the social reproduction matrix, institutional complementarities account for the core notion. According to Hall and Soskice, institutional complementarities suggest that “nations with a particular type of coordination in one sphere of the economy should tend to develop complementary practices in other spheres as well” (Hall and Soskice 2001: 18). Institutional complementarities thus exist de facto not only within production regimes but also across institutional ecologies. The systematic connection between welfare and production regimes has long been noted (Esping-Andersen 1990; Estévez‐Abe et al. 2001). However, the interactions between production and labor reproduction regimes and between welfare and labor reproduction regimes remain to be explored.


Institutional indicators

The VoC approach and welfare regime theories have varying diversity criteria, indicators, and methods, depending on their distinct theoretical frameworks or areas of focus. Conceptually framed by a matrix of social reproduction regimes, this paper investigates Nordic, Continental European, Southern European, English-speaking, Post-Socialist, and East Asian societies in the mid-2010s.Footnote 2 The typological analysis is sensitive to the selection of variables. The selection criteria are based on three principles. First, the variables were capable of directly reflecting the features of institutional subfields. Second, the variables have received extensive attention from existing studies. Third, the qualitative aspects, in addition to the quantitative aspects, have received sufficient attention.

The comparison of production regimes focuses on the wage–labor nexus, which holds a privileged place among both the Regulation School’s institutional forms and the VoC approach’s institutional structures (Boyer and Saillard eds. 2002; Hall and Gingerich 2009). We dissect the wage–labor relation into labor relations, wage structure, and adaptations of postindustrial society and examine variables such as union density,Footnote 3 the Gini coefficient of market income, and high-general skill orientation,Footnote 4 among others. Regarding welfare regimes, the following indicators will be discussed: the size and structure of the welfare state,Footnote 5 welfare state financing, generosity of income maintenance programs, the origin of politics,Footnote 6 and effects of net redistribution.Footnote 7 Institutional indicators of labor reproduction regimes empirically measure depatriarchalization via the state, the market, and the family. “Appendix” holds specifics on the indicators and sources.

Cluster analysis and index construction

Hierarchical cluster analysis is the most promising classification method for welfare regimes (Saint-Arnaud and Bernard 2003). Cluster analysis has also yielded fruitful outcomes in the comparative study of market economies. Amable’s classical taxonomy of social systems of innovation and production (henceforth SSIPs) is an illustration of the success of the cluster analysis (Amable 2003). Following Amable, the cluster analysis will be carried out in each of the three domains of the social reproduction matrix. Amable argues that the empirical classification of capitalism must consider the complementarities between the subdomains, i.e., “the complete picture can only be grasped by putting all the pieces together” (Amable 2003: 20). The division of the subdomains has theoretical implications as well. Although the shift to a post-twentieth century system stimulated cross-sectoral interaction and penetration between the predominant sectors of production, welfare, and labor reproduction regime—the market, the state, and the family—the boundaries are still crystal clear (Ochiai 2023). The “20th-Century System of Social Reproduction” itself is the specific architecture of the separation of the private sphere and the public sphere and the differentiation of the political-administrative system and the economic system, in which heterogeneous subdomains have their own normative structure and substratum category (Habermas 1988; Ochiai 2023).

This paper utilizes hierarchical cluster analysis to explore the diversity and convergence across regimes. Compared to K-means cluster analysis, hierarchical cluster analysis has the advantage of being free of a predetermined number of clusters (Castles and Obinger 2008). Of course, as an exploratory analytical technique, the determination of clustering numbers relies on the researcher’s interpretation. The clustering trade-offs strive for theoretical sense and simplicity (Saint-Arnaud and Bernard 2003). After standardizing the variables for cluster analysis, the square of the Euclidean distance was used as a measure of distance.

In addition, referring to the basic concepts embodied in the decommodification index and Sigrid Leitner’s classification benchmark of care systems (Esping-Andersen 1990; Leitner 2003), i.e., ranking, the coordination index, decommodification index and depatriarchalization index were constructed from the standardized z scores of each indicator.

Locating the social reproduction regime of transitional China from a comparative perspective

Three worlds of production regimes

Figure 1 demonstrates that hierarchical cluster analysis explicitly generates three clusters. The families of advanced industrial societies in the mid-2010s are largely consistent with the typologies of the 1990s and 2000s (Kitschelt et al. 1999; Amable 2003). In addition, Asian newly industrialized economies (henceforth NIEs) approached Anglo-Saxon countries. On the other hand, Southern Europe and Post-Socialist countries are approaching continental Europe. According to Kitschelt and colleagues’ classification (Kitschelt et al. 1999), production regimes in the 2010s diverged into LMEs, SCMEs, and NCMEs.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Hierarchical cluster analysis of production regimes. Notes: Dendrogram using the squared Euclidean distances and Ward method. Variables are listed in the “Appendix

Table 1 provides a summary of the three worlds’ characteristics. LMEs are characterized by market-based wage–labor relations and private sector-dominated employment with a high-general skill orientation. Even though SCMEs have lower union density and initially larger income disparities than LMEs, they differ significantly in all other respects. NCMEs are marked by a consensus approach to industrial relations, a coordinated wage structure, and an expanded public sector with a strong emphasis on high-general skills.

Table 1 Worlds of production regimes (mid-2010s)

Among East Asian societies, Japan and China are not included in the LME group. Unlike CMEs, which are coordinated by industry, Japan has developed vertical keiretsu-led coordination (Hall and Soskice 2001). Toshio Yamada attributes the Japanese model of regulation to “companyist compromise”, in which labor-management compromises are focused on employment security rather than wages indexed to productivity (Yamada 2000). Unlike Japan, little is known about China. Regarding China, the limited information identifies two contrasting models: one that embraces LMEs and another that is a hybrid or French model (Wilson 2007; Ahrens and Jünemann 2010; Fligstein and Zhang 2011). Moreover, quantitative assessments reveal that China is quite different from other Asian societies in terms of “continental mixed” (Harada and Tohyama 2012: 254).

An empirical investigation of production regimes, however, reveals an atypical but distinct case of an SCME: China. China’s atypicality is manifested in the fact that the average number of hours worked far exceeds that of the LME group. Nonetheless, all other indicators steer China toward nonmarket coordination. In mature market economies, labor relations are stabilized by a series of institutions, including union power, collective bargaining, and labor regulations (Aglietta and Bai 2013). China’s labor market, on the other hand, was created in phases by the interaction of two forces: the dismantling of the danwei employment regime and the absorption of rural labor (Li and Meng 2014). The changes in the labor market are also reflected in the distribution of union membership. As employees at state-owned enterprises experienced a wave of layoffs in the 1990s, many measurements indicate a considerable decline in union density (Liu 2010; Visser 2019). Since the 2000s, membership in the state-owned sector has rebounded marginally, whereas membership in the nonstate sector has risen sharply (Liu 2010).Footnote 8 As a result, China’s union density was greater than that of SCMEs but lower than that of NCMEs at the midpoint of the 2010s.

It is important to note that the expansion of union density in China is not immediately correlated with an increase in the organizational power of workers. Taking apart Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb’s classic definition, we find that while many studies question the representation and independence of unions in China as “a continuous association of wage-earners”, some empirical studies support the notion that unions are “for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment” (Webb and Webb 1896: 1). As a subordinate “quasibureaucratic organization” (Wang 2014), trade unions have functioning mechanisms that are convoluted and intricate. On the one hand, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions defends workers’ rights by promoting labor legislation and establishing various labor relations institutions (Lee and Liu 2011). On the other hand, local government union branches protect workers’ rights by representing them in labor disputes (Zhang 2009). Several empirical studies confirm the positive impact of unions on workers’ wages and the reduction of intrafirm wage inequality (Yao and Zhong 2013; Lee and Liu 2011). Chang Hee Lee and Mingwei Liu (2011) argue that union -embedded institutions with multilayered industrial relations are more likely than unions themselves to serve as the collective voice of workers and improve their employment conditions.

In terms of labor legislation, China has adopted the classic CMEs model, with Labor Law setting labor standards equivalent to those of numerous advanced economies; the question is how dedicated the government is to enforcing employment protections under the law (Gallagher 2005; Cooney 2007; Aglietta and Bai 2013). In the aggregate, if deregulation and liberalization were the defining characteristics of labor market reform throughout the first three decades of the economic transition, a succession of employment-related laws implemented after 2008 indicated a turnaround to reregulation and increased protection (Lee 2018).

Moreover, consistent with the SCMEs, China’s pretransfer Gini coefficient is relatively high, except that China’s capacity to weaken inequality through the tax wedge does not meet the average for this group. After significant attrition in the state sector, China’s public sector employment fell to the same level as that of NCMEs. A high-general skill orientation that lags behind the average for SCMEs highlights the hesitation to transition to a postindustrial society.

Four worlds of welfare regimes

Figure 2 validated four groups of welfare regimes. The first group consists of social democratic and conservative regimes. Post-Socialist countries, Southern Europe, and Japan make up the second group. The third group consists of Anglo-Saxon countries and the Baltic States. The fourth group consists of Asian NIEs and China. The three preliminary conclusions drawn here are that, first, while the border between conservative and social democratic regimes becomes blurred, the line between them and the liberal regime remains obvious. Second, there is proximity between Southern Europe and Post-Socialist countries. Third, among East Asian societies, only Japan has been Europeanized.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Hierarchical cluster analysis of welfare regimes. Notes: Dendrogram using the squared Euclidean distances and Ward method. Variables are listed in the “Appendix

The characteristics of the four groups of welfare regimes are summarized in Table 2. Following Richard M. Titmuss (1974), the three closest to the right are named the residual, industrial and institutional regimes. The residual regime is characterized by a low welfare/burden, a social investment orientation, low decommodification and redistributive effects. The industrial regime is characterized by a medium welfare/burden, a compensatory orientation, certain decommodification and redistribution effects. The institutional regime is characterized by a high welfare/burden, a social investment orientation, high decommodification and redistributive effects. Political origins of the residual regime are predominantly right-wing parties. For the institutional regime, this political affiliation is quite the opposite.

Table 2 Worlds of welfare regimes (mid-2010s)

On the other hand, among Asian NIEs and China, decommodification is maintained to a much lesser extent, with lower tax revenue and social expenditures than in the residual regimes. Catherine Jones claims that Asian NIEs exhibit “laissez-faire without libertarianism” (Jones 1993: 214). This family is designated the laissez-faire regime, in reference to Jones’ remark. The original concept of laissez-faire approaches to the market emphasizes the maximization of individual freedom in the private market (Titmuss 1974), but Asian NIEs and China support the commodification tenets implied by the laissez-faire approach, which is that “labor should find its price on the market” (Polanyi 2001: 141). This regime presumes that decommodification policy will inhibit the commodification of labor.

The welfare state emerged in the process of industrialization, and its size was correlated with economic growth and the maturity of social security programs (Pierson 2006). Limited by the scale of tax revenue, China’s social spending at this point cannot be compared to that of advanced welfare states. The degree of decommodification is a concrete measure of the depth and breadth of social rights (Esping-Andersen 1990). At the operational level, this indicator considers the adequacy, eligibility, and coverage of the benefits of the schemes. In China, the income replacement rates of earning-related pensions are fairly high, but unemployment benefits are less generous, and both policies have insufficient coverage. As Ximing Yue and Cong Zhong (2020) confirmed, the ineffectiveness of redistribution policies contributed to income disparities, and the disposable income gap in China is wider than those in OECD countries. These traits support China’s status as an “East Asian welfare model”.

Varieties of labor reproduction regimes

Hierarchical clustering analysis revealed four groups of labor reproduction regimes (Fig. 3). The first cluster included English-speaking countries and Switzerland. The second cluster consists of Post-Socialist countries, Continental Europe, and Southern Europe. The Nordic countries make up the third cluster. The fourth cluster comprises societies in East Asia. In accordance with Walter Korpi, we refer to the first cluster as the market-oriented type, the second as the general family support type, and the third as the dual-earner support type. These three original ideal types of gendered welfare state institutions proposed by Korpi include the following features: the general family support model supports the nuclear family but is neutral on the traditional gendered division of labor; the dual-earner support model strives to feminize the labor market and redistribute care work within the family; and the market-oriented model permits market forces to shape the gendered division of labor, whether in the public sphere or private sphere (Korpi 2000). As illustrated in Table 3, the diverse labor reproduction regimes of advanced economies and Post-Socialist societies in the 2010s largely reproduce Korpi’s ideal types. Nevertheless, East Asia does not fall under any one of the three classifications. Considering the explanation of Kaku Sechiyama, the fourth cluster was identified as the kinship-supported type (Sechiyama 1996). The kinship-supported reproduction regime is characterized by the social norm of elderly cohabitation with their children, underdevelopment of family policy, greater gender inequality in both the labor market and domestic work, and low fertility rates.

Fig. 3
figure 3

Hierarchical cluster analysis of labor reproduction regimes. Notes: Dendrogram using the squared Euclidean distances and Ward method. Variables are listed in the “Appendix

Table 3 Worlds of labor reproduction regimes (mid-2010s)

Constrained by the compressed formation of the welfare state, East Asia generally lacks supportive family policies. In confronting care deficits, governments strengthen families’ caregiving obligations by advocating ‘Asian values’ (Ochiai 2014a: 24). As Taro Miyamoto and colleagues noted, women’s unpaid work underpins the East Asian welfare state (Miyamoto et al. 2003: 307). Since the early 2000s, Japan and South Korea have been pioneers in the socialization of childcare and elderly care, but the implementation of these programs has failed to effectively alleviate the burden on families (Fujisaki 2009; Kim 2016). The endorsement of both family responsibility for care and the gendered division of paid/unpaid work renders the family in East Asia “an institution that simultaneously operates as a supplier of social security for its members and national society’s reproduction” (Beck 2011: 31).

China’s membership in the kinship-supported regime was a surprising result. The planned economic system encouraged the degendering of the division of labor through state intervention; during this period, China (at least in urban areas) was “one of the most ‘advanced’ societies” (Sechiyama 1996: 315) in terms of gender equality within and outside the family (Pan 2002; Jin 2006). To ensure women’s participation in economic activities, the state has promoted the socialization of reproduction through units and communes (Song 2011; Ji et al. 2017). However, institutional transition reshaped the Chinese labor reproduction regime. The state’s retreat led to greater family obligations (Zhang and Xu 2003). As a result, family policies in transitional China tended to prioritize intervention over support (Wu 2015). In Table 3, China scores worse than the average for the kinship-supported regime with supportive family policies. To address this problem, Xizhe Peng and Zhan Hu argue that re-familialization occurs as mutual support among extended family members once again becomes the major bulwark against risk and social change (Peng and Hu 2015). Furthermore, the refamilialization, feminization, and marketization of reproductive responsibilities have become crucial mechanisms that perpetuate the gendered division of labor and generate gender inequality (Liu et al. 2014). A comparison of Table 3 reveals that China outperforms the general family support regime in Post-Socialist societies by economic participation and ensured public employment for women, while there is still much room for improvement in terms of balancing the gender income gap and vertical gender occupational segregation. This section illustrates the “participatory inequality” of gender dynamics in transitional China.

Institutional complementarities of production, welfare and labor reproduction regimes

Thus far, three types of production regimes, four types of welfare regimes and four types of reproduction regimes have been introduced. Might it be possible to extend the institutional complementarities in the production regimes to the three pillars? Moreover, if institutional complementarities exist, do they enhance economic performance or diminish it?

Regarding the first question, this paper provides a positive response. According to Hall and Soskice (2001), institutional complementarities create barriers to radical change in spheres of the economy. Estévez‐Abe et al. (2001) further argued that institutional complementarities are also present in welfare production regimes,with CMEs combining a high level of protection with specific skills and LMEs combining a low level of protection with general skills. On the one hand, in Amable’s (2003) landscape of SSIPs, both social democratic capitalism and Mediterranean capitalism have a regulated labor market, but the primary distinction between the two species is whether the welfare state is universalist or confined.

Incorporating East Asian and Post-Socialist societies into the comparative analysis reveals that the distinction between continental Europe and Nordic countries is overlooked if we do not consider the production axis. Nevertheless, if we do not consider the welfare axis, the distinctions between East Asia and Anglo-Saxon countries, Southern Europe/Post-Socialist countries and Continental Europe all disappear (Table 4). With the help of institutional complementarities, five types of social reproduction regimes can be distinguished: the late bloomers, the liberals, the catch-up/transitional, the conservatives, and the social democratic. The axis of labor reproduction clarifies segmentation.

Table 4 Institutional complementarities of production-welfare-reproduction regimes

There is an additional method for assessing institutional complementarities. We calculate indicators known as the coordination index, decommodification index, and depatriarchalization index and then identify the position of each society in the matrix by employing a three-dimensional scatter plot (Fig. 4). Positive correlations were found between the coordination and decommodification indices (0.585, sig. < 0.001), the decommodification and depatriarchalization indices (0.521, sig. = 0.001), and the coordination and depatriarchalization indices (0.770, sig. < 0.001).

Fig. 4
figure 4

Constellation of social reproduction in the mid-2010s

Before answering the second question, let us briefly review the link between institutional complementarities and macroeconomic performance in the VoC literature. Institutional complementarities enable both CMEs and LMEs to achieve favorable long-term economic success (Hall and Soskice 2001). Hall and Gingerich (2009) elaborated on the concept that “high levels of market coordination or strategic coordination outperform low levels of coordination”. In the five worlds of social reproduction, the two ends of the spectrum of market coordination and strategic coordination are the late bloomers and the social democratic, respectively. If Hall and Gingerich’s hypothesis is correct, the economic performance of regimes in the middle will be inferior to that of those at the two ends. This section reexamines the high coordination hypothesis by comparing the productivity growth (annual growth rate of output per worker) and the unemployment rate of each regime.

The macroeconomic performance of the five worlds from 2000 to 2019 is presented in Table 5. Due to the catch-up effect, caution is required in interpreting economic performance comparisons between advanced and emerging economies. Thus, the examination of the link between high coordination and economic performance has not undermined the distinction between advanced and emerging economies. In the three worlds of advanced economies, Hall and Gingerich’s description of a U-shaped relationship for institutional complementarities and productivity growth holds true. Correspondingly, the unemployment rate exhibits a relatively flat inverted U-shaped pattern. In general, it is noticeable that the liberal regimes that implement market coordination, residual welfare, and market-oriented labor reproduction, as well as social democratic regimes that implement strategic coordination, institutional welfare, and dual-earner labor reproduction, tend to exhibit superior economic performance over conservative regimes that adopt a middle way approach. Late bloomers with consistent market coordination, commodification, and patriarchalization performed better than did catch-up/transitional economies.

Table 5 Institutional complementarities and macroeconomic performance

Nonetheless, it is relevant to note that not all countries are properly integrated into the five worlds. The “Dutch enigma” (Esping-Andersen 1999: 88) reappears in the social reproduction matrix. Among them, Iceland combines the characteristics of NCMEs, residual welfare regimes, and dual-earner labor reproduction regimes; the Netherlands and Luxembourg combine the characteristics of NCMEs, institutional welfare regimes, and general family labor reproduction regimes; the two Baltic countries combine the characteristics of SCMEs, residual welfare regimes, and general family labor reproduction regimes; Portugal and Japan combine the characteristics of SCMEs, industrial welfare regimes, and kinship-supported labor reproduction regimes; and China combines the characteristics of SCMEs, laissez-faire welfare regimes, and kinship-supported labor reproduction regimes. As mixed models, these economies fit within the five realms of social reproduction, based on the idea that the matching of any two of the production, welfare, and labor reproduction regimes is evidence of their relative institutional integrity.

Since “there are no one-dimensional nations in the sense of a pure case” (Esping-Andersen 1990: 49), ideal–typical forms permit some “systematic deviants” (Esping-Andersen 1999: 88). China is an excellent illustration of a hybrid social reproduction regime. The hybrid form has not, however, impacted China’s economic performance. During the observation period, China’s productivity increased at an average annual rate of 8.7%, and the unemployment rate remained at 5%. The challenge for China is whether the unique mix of a coordinated production regime, a commodified welfare regime, and a patriarchalized labor reproduction regime will permanently interact with good economic performance. The VoC approach frequently assumes a stable socioeconomic system in a certain brand of capitalism to explains its performance (Lüthje 2014). This viewpoint cannot adequately explain China’s transitional and developmental experience. As noted by Junya Tsutsui (2013), the combination of full employment, which was ensured by rapid economic growth, and family-centered welfare has contributed to low levels of social spending among East Asian societies. China’s implementation of the production-first principle has unsurprisingly come at the cost of suppressing the welfare state’s development and overdrawing the family’s obligation to provide security. Nevertheless, a backward advantage is usually time-barred (Uzuhashi 2006).Footnote 9 The “new normal” has destabilized the sociopolitical compromise forged during rapid economic growth—the hope of better standards of living—and China is looking for an alternate development model (Boyer 2012, 2017). The loss of backward advantage inevitably requires new sociopolitical compromises to rebalance the existing hybrid social reproduction regime. In this context, China has accelerated welfare state expansion in the postfinancial crisis era (Aspalter 2014; Hemerijck 2014). The emerging Chinese welfare state has had to reexamine the family crisis triggered by compressed social transformation; one feasible option is the development of family-supportive policies to activate family sustainability and reproducibility (Chang 2010; Tang and Zhang eds. 2013).

The identification of institutional complementarities within social reproduction regimes has two theoretical ramifications. First, the temporal sensitivity of production and welfare regimes is not uniform. Retrospectively, the disparate institutional environment indicated by the VoC literature has been maintained over time (Hall 2007). However, “the question of how to identify and classify welfare regimes will remain open” (Esping-Andersen 1999: 94). The typology of welfare capitalism derives from the 1980s ranking of 18 major economies on decommodification, while Sweden, considered a model of social democracy, has slipped from first to seventh in 30 years. In 2010, Sweden ranked below Ireland, which has a liberal welfare regime (Scruggs et al. 2017). The merging of social democratic and conservative welfare regimes in the 2010s into an institutional welfare regime is additional evidence of the turnaround of the Nordic welfare state. If a certain mode of coordination is rooted in history prior to industrialization and is sustained by political feedback effects (Hall 2007; Iversen and Soskice 2009), how are welfare regimes understood in the temporal dimension? On this point, Shogo Takegawa argues that in addition to analyzing cross-country differences at the same point in time, it is possible to control for stages of development when comparing countries (Takegawa 2007). At least three trajectories can be observed in the thirty years since the publication of The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, with the theme of catching up for East Asia and Southern Europe, the disintegration and reconstruction of the traditional welfare state for Post-Socialist societies, and the social investment turn for social democracy.

Second, the link between decommodification and depatriarchalization resembles concurrency rather than orthogonality. Toshimitsu Shinkawa (2011) has carved up a fourth world of the welfare regime along the lines of decommodification and defamilialization, specifically the familialistic welfare regime of Japan and Southern Europe. In his theoretical depiction, the liberal world with low decommodification and high defamilialization and the conservative world with high decommodification and low defamilialization are distributed diagonally in quadrants one and three. Shinkawa’s liberal regime is clearly at odds with Jane Lewis’s ‘strong’ male-breadwinner states, in which family policy is underdeveloped, public and private obligations are clearly delimited, and social rights are gender segregated (Lewis 1992). Lewis’s account of ‘strong’ male-breadwinner states reminds us that the liberal regime and conservative regime are two sides of the same coin in terms of depatriarchalization. In the liberal regime, the limited commitment to social rights impedes depatriarchalization, whereas in the conservative regime, the obstructive forces are endogenous to the principle of subsidiarity. As shown in Tables 3 and 5, the depatriarchalization index does not fully capture the disparity between the two regimes. The decisive difference lies in the path of depatriarchalization: whether it relies on preexisting market mechanisms or labor commodification policies. In the latter instance, direct transfers, public provision of care, and public sector employment represent the political weapons for correcting market bias (Estévez‐Abe 2005). However, in the direction of market mechanisms, China’s market transition provides an excellent addendum to the argument that the labor market is by no means gender neutral. When policy equality yields to market competition, the unleashing of market forces leads to the reinforcement of gender segregation and the gender wage gap (Li and Xie 2015; Liu et al. 2000).


What stage has China reached in its transition to a market economy? What model of development has China adopted in the twenty-first century? The framing descriptions of a socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics could be fluid and variable, such as market-preserving federalism (Qian and Weingast 1996), a competition-led accumulation regime (Boyer 2012), or a multipoles socioeconomic system (Cohen 2009). These definitions, while illustrating the complexity of contemporary China, simultaneously strengthen the stereotypical image of Chinese exceptionalism. Rather than providing normative taxonomical information, this paper situates the national form of transitional China within the construction of ideal types.

Grounded in the dichotomy of the VoC literature and the trichotomy of welfare regime theory, comparative market economy studies and comparative welfare state studies have catalyzed the abundant growth of alternative typologies. The starting point of this comparative work was to respond to the impulse to incorporate China into the East Asian model. As far as East Asian neighbors of China are concerned, however, limited knowledge about the East Asian model creates a paradoxical landscape. Scholars were unable to achieve a consensus on a single distinct East Asian model that exists independently of any form of the Atlantic model (Amable 2003; Kim ed. 2010; Boyer et al. eds. 2012). One significant challenge in comparing Asian societies is the formulation of theoretical frameworks, with an implicit danger in the rigid transposition of theories that originated in Western Europe (Takegawa 2007; Ochiai 2014b). Regulationists call for integrating East Asia into cross-national analysis, but the reality is that East Asian welfare states are “sitting on an unsteady position” (Kim ed. 2010: 9; Boyer et al. eds. 2012). This can be attributed partially to the bokeh effect of static analysis when it is extended to the emerging welfare market economy and partially to the methodological weaknesses of the extant theories themselves. As several critics separately remarked, the VoC literature has been obsessed with rational capitalism, and the initial typology of welfare regimes failed to pay sufficient attention to dimensions of the Keynesian welfare national state other than its set of social policies; together, the VoC literature and the original welfare regime theory both feature various elements of gender bias (Jessop 2002, 2012; Mandel and Shalev 2009). To reclaim Karl Polanyi’s account of the co-embeddedness of economic systems and social relations, this paper extended the concept in the “20th-Century System of Social Reproduction” to complete an institutional ecology that integrated production regimes, welfare regimes and labor reproduction regimes. The cluster analysis that employed comparable empirical data revealed the convergence and divergence of each subdomain of social reproduction. Meanwhile, institutional complementarities make it possible to identify the five worlds of social reproduction regimes: late bloomers, liberals, catch-up/transitional, conservatives and social democratic. Moreover, the associations between the varieties of social reproduction regimes and macroeconomic performance were validated.

The diffusion of the global capitalist economy has pushed the Keynesian welfare state in advanced economies (in a deregulated manner) and the Ricardian/Listian workfare state in East Asia (in a path-dependent manner) to adopt the Schumpeterian workfare postnational strategy (Jessop and Sum 2006). Nonetheless, by combining the constellation of social reproduction models observed in the 2010s and the three worlds of welfare capitalism in the 1980s, it is evident that variants in advanced economies primarily present “a ‘frozen’ welfare state landscape” (Esping-Andersen 1996: 24), while East Asian societies are divided into catch-up/transitional regimes, which include Japan, and late blooming regimes, which include China and East Asian NIEs. Why do East Asian societies diverge in such directions? Welfare regime theorists remind us that the timing of the institutionalization of welfare states is crucial (Esping-Andersen 1999). For European welfare states, institutionalization occurred as an achievement of the postwar consensus; for Japan, it was the end of the Golden Age; and for Korea, it was the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis (Kim ed. 2010). China’s reinstitutionalization process overlapped considerably with the era after the global financial crisis. The East Asian experience, while requiring us to be more cautious about geographical proximity and shared cultural notions, reveals the weight of temporal horizons. Borrowing from João Manuel Cardoso de Mello’s remarks, “belated” is itself a determinant of the “specificity” of a certain brand of market economy (Mello 1982: 98). Building modes of social reproduction remedied state deficits and family deficits according to the VoC approach and Regulation School. Furthermore, identifying “divergent” yet “independent” late-blooming and catch-up/transitional variants in empirical analysis allows for extension beyond the Eurocentric theoretical apparatus.

In the case of transitional China, due to the complementarities between limited welfare commitments and regressive acts of depatriarchalization, China is approaching East Asian NIEs as a late-blooming regime, although the labor–wage relation based on nonmarket coordination has converged with that of Continental Europe and Post-Socialist societies. The pretransition production institution, referred to as János Kornai (1992), relied primarily on bureaucratic coordination. In urban areas, the danwei utilized a “state-controlled, administratively subordinated, status-differentiated, and lifetime-fixed” (Wang ed. 1996: 251) approach to the employment system, whereas in rural areas, collective economic organizations were responsible for implementing a model of “to each according to his contribution”. Departing from the urban‒rural dichotomy and the division between workers and peasants, the industrial working class and the peasant class turned into the working class via distinct routes during the great transition (Shen 2006). China’s urban labor market has become increasingly comparable to those observed in OECD countries because of the enlarged private sector and wage-structure disparity, but the configuration of wage–labor relations reveals significant heterogeneity by sector, industry, and locality (Appleton et al. 2005; Boyer 2012). Although this paper focuses on the “national institutional framework of incentives and constraints” (Soskice 1999: 102), several studies suggest that China has various market economies within one nation (Lüthje 2014; Song 2014). To that extent, the Chinese production regime is incorporated into SCMEs in an “average-like” format.

Corporatism is the term most frequently associated with the structure of interest representation systems in labor relations (Schmitter 1974; Berger ed. 1981). If wage–labor relations in LMEs can be conceptualized as pluralism and in NCMEs as neocorporatism, how can wage–labor relations in transitional China be conceived? Given the varying degrees of corporatization within SCMEs, it would be prudent to refer in the future to Amable and coauthors, and Boyer, who include the major agents of wage–labor relations in their analyses (Berger ed. 1981; Amable et al. 1997; Boyer 1997). Germany represents the Rhineland model, in which firms dominate the wage–labor relationship, and France represents the statist model, in which the state dominates (Boyer 1997). Comparable parallels exist in Asian SCMEs, namely, Japanese companyism and Chinese state corporatism (Yamada 2000; Unger and Chan 1995). Undoubtedly, the state corporatist approach to labor relations is more concerned with “consensus” than with “conflict”.

Welfare policy in China under the planned economy was itself a labor policy (Sun 2006). The welfare regime became increasingly independent of the production regime throughout the transition period. While urban areas dismantled the socialist welfare state and reconfigured it into a Bismarckian welfare state, the rural welfare system gradually evolved from a residual to a moderately inclusive one. Although China’s welfare state has experienced fluctuations in size, the existing welfare system is characterized by institutional segmentation across various dimensions, including urban and rural areas, regions, and population groups with different employment statuses (Shi et al. 2017; Li and Zhu 2023). This corresponds to an overall low level of decommodification and a tendency toward the localization of social rights. Inadequate redistributive policies are the main factor driving China’s income gap to exceed that of OECD countries (Yue and Zhong 2020). During the period of rapid economic growth, China compromised at a societal level in pursuit of “better standards of living” (Boyer 2012: 65). The new normal has raised a demand to alter the growth model that prioritized investment over consumption and reshape the social-political consensus, and it is imperative to reconcile growth and distribution by accelerating the development of the welfare state.

Similar to the prereform dependent welfare regime, the socialist production regime used to cascade over the reproduction regime. Here, the production-oriented development strategy deliberately preserved the patriarchy so that the gendered division of labor was embedded in the production regime, and while the danwei provided some socialized services, the great majority of reproductive work was carried out by women (Song 2011). During the rapid wave of marketization in the 1990s, the separation of the production and labor reproduction regime manifested as the state’s redistribution of reproduction and care responsibilities to individuals and families through privatization, and the retreat of egalitarian norms and the revitalization of the Confucian patriarchy both exacerbate gender inequality in contemporary China in specific ways (Ji et al. 2017).

Compared to other pure examples, the Chinese late-blooming social reproduction regime lacks coherence and stability. In the production regime, for example, if Japan has Keiretsu-based coordination, then Korea has Chaebols-based coordination, and the economic anchors of China’s various regions may be state-owned enterprises, multinational enterprises, or local private enterprises (Kitschelt et al. 1999; Song 2014). Boy Lüthje sheds light on the balkanization of labor practices beneath the surface of state corporatism or “state-led coordination” (Yan 2014: 198), and across configurations of ownership, foreign investment, and industrial structure (Lüthje 2014). Fordist accumulation regimes involve the cycle of national coordination of wage increases to stimulate domestic market growth and ultimately increase productivity (Boyer 2017), whereas the balkanization of labor practices disrupts the connection between wage growth and productivity increases, thereby impeding the transition to a domestic-led growth model. Thus, according to Boyer, China’s primary coordination mechanism is “a mixed economy built upon the complementarity of public coordination and market competition” (Boyer 2012: 35). This assessment takes into account both the tradition of state socialism and the reality of the integration of economic backwardness into the world economy. Although there is no single trajectory for the Post-Socialist transition, more successful new EU member states have generally adopted state-led economic coordination with the inheritance of embedded welfare states (Chavance et al. eds. 1999; Lane 2007). Alexander Gerschenkron’s theory of relative backwardness discloses that backward economies emphasize the role of coercive, integrated institutional factors. For the advanced region, the primary institutional factor is the factory in Britain, while for the less developed region, it is the bank in Germany, and for the least developed region, it is the state (Gerschenkron 1962). The statist legacy has profoundly influenced the development trajectory of backward economies. Although there is no “best practice” for the social reproduction regime, French dirigisme or state-business-elite coordination offers an alternative direction for China’s second transition (Soskice 1999; Fligstein and Zhang 2011). Here, the state-driven market economy attaches tremendous emphasis to the central-to-local authorities’ decisive role in regulation (Boyer 2004).

China’s transition intertwined compressive modernization and a stepwise institutional transformation. If the state was the driving force behind the production regime’s liberalization and marketization in the early stages of the transition (Gallagher 2005; Tong 2010), the reconstruction of the welfare state after the 2008 financial crisis largely reproduced Polanyi’s double movement—the self-regulating market and the self-protection of society (Polanyi 2001: 148)—in a way that brought the state back. Meanwhile, as China has transformed into a postindustrial society, there is a compelling call for a paradigm shift from institutional intervention to institutional support in family policy.

Availability of data and materials

Not applicable.


  1. . China, in this article, refers to the Chinese mainland.

  2. . The list of compared societies is as follows: Denmark (DK), Finland (FI), Iceland (IS), Norway (NO), Sweden (SE), Austria (AT), Belgium (BE), France (FR), Germany (DE), Luxemburg (LU), Netherlands (NL), Switzerland (CH), Italy (IT), Portugal (PT), Greece (GR), Spain (ES), Australia (AU), Canada (CA), Ireland (IE), New Zealand (NZ), Great Britain (GB), the United States (the US), the Czech Republic (CZ), Estonia (EE), Hungary (HU), Latvia (LV), Poland (PL), Slovakia (SK), Slovenia (SI), China (CN), Hong Kong, China (HK, China), Taiwan, China (TW, China), Japan (JP), Korea (KR), and Singapore (SG).

  3. . Unlike advanced postindustrial economies that adopted the autonomous movement, the Chinese trade union movement follows the Soviet model, in which the ruling political party controls the Confederation and the unions’ commitment to both promote production and protect workers’ interest (Martin 1989). This feature was retained until after the economic transition, when trade unions, caught in a crisis of legitimacy, had to choose between representing the interests of workers or serving the collective welfare of enterprises and even the general interests of the state (Zhu 1995; Lüthje 2014). In addition to China, Japanese trade unions are also considered an unusual case due to their nature as enterprise unions and their close ties to specific political parties at the confederation level (Martin 1989).

  4. . Timo Fleckenstein and coauthors classified major groups 1–3 of the International Standard Classification of Occupations as high-general; major groups 4, 5, and 9 as low-general; and major groups 7–8 as specific skills (Fleckenstein et al. 2011). Following Fleckenstein and coauthors, we investigate the extent to which workers’ skills have adapted to postindustrial society by defining high-general skill orientation as the ratio of workers with high-general skills to all workers.

  5. . Based on Rita Nikolai’s argument for dividing social expenditures into compensatory and investment-related expenditures (Nikolai 2012), we calculate the combined social expenditures on pensions and unemployment benefits as compensatory expenditures and the combined social expenditures on active labor market policy, family-related social expenditures, and public expenditures on education as investment-related expenditures. Calculating compensatory versus investment can ascertain the “old” and “new” nature of the welfare state.

  6. . The proportion of time that right-wing parties dominated between 1991 and 2015 to the total period. A score of 0.5 is given for nations without right-wing political parties, and a weighted value of 2 is given for those without left-wing political parties.

  7. . Net redistribution = (the Gini coefficient of market income-the Gini coefficient of disposable income)/the Gini coefficient of market income.

  8. . For the controversy surrounding the expansion of union coverage in the early 2000s through ‘institutional cloning’ in a top-down manner, see the collation by Chang-Hee Lee (2018).

  9. . Takafumi Uzuhashi defines social backward advantage as a “gap that arises when the rapid economic development of the late blooming industrial countries is viewed under the old demographic and family structures and social norms”; under this condition, social policy costs and labor costs are economized (Uzuhashi 2006: 244–245).



Gross domestic product


Varieties of capitalism


Liberal market economies


Coordinated market economies


National coordinated market economies


Sectoral coordinated market economies


Social systems of innovation and production


Early childhood education and care


Newly industrialized economies


Total fertility rate


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Table 6 List of variables and source


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Xu, Y. Five worlds of social reproduction after the new millennium: placing transitional China in a three-dimensional model of social reproduction. J. Chin. Sociol. 11, 19 (2024).

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