Forum on Rural Areas and Peasants

I’ve just spent an interesting several days in Wuhan at a conference on China’s rural transformation. It was a genuinely productive conference, involving experts from Japan, Great Britain, United States, and China. The central topic was the process of agricultural modernization and urbanization currently underway in China, and some of the strategies the government is taking to steer this process.

The most interesting contributions for me were by Chinese researchers from leading universities and research units, who gave an insight into the ways that Chinese scholars and policy makers are thinking about these crucial processes. The largest takeaway was the degree of effort being given to alleviation of rural poverty, by both researchers and government agencies. I’ll give more details on this in an upcoming post.

In addition to my own contribution to the conference on the crucial role of social science research during this process, I was invited to give related lectures to several large groups of students at two universities. As on similar occasions in the past, I was energized by the interest and reflection these students showed in the issues of social transformation in China that I was treating. The questions were very good. (All of my presentations were translated by two talented students from Central China Normal University.)

As part of this trip I was able to take a short excursion to Henan Province to get exposure to some important developments in Chinese agriculture. We visited two large commercial farms specializing in organic vegetables. The first farm occupies about two thousand acres, assembled through agreements with peasant farmers and local government. The corporation does not “own” the land but has rights of use for five-year periods. It employs about one thousand farm workers, often from the families of the original farms that gave been consolidated. (I estimated about two hundred people working in the fields we saw.) The produce is of high quality and farm management is highly professional. It also produces wheat on rotation with vegetable fields. This farm is one of about eight farms of similar size owned by the company in different provinces “to balance risk and seasonality”. The company is actively exploring establishment of a similar farm in California. The other farm was similar in size but was described as a cooperative in which peasant farmers maintained a larger degree of involvement in the farm process. This farm will produce specialty items including fruit, vegetables, and blueberries.

This seems like a good indication of one likely future for Chinese agriculture: consolidated land, moderate level of mechanization, expert management, high productivity. Our group was able to talk with a local man in a nearby village, the uncle of one of the faculty hosts. He was a former headmaster of the village school who had returned to farming after retirement. His home in the village was concrete block, nicely furnished with five rooms and a small courtyard. We asked him whether the peasants whose land had been absorbed by the consolidation for these large farms were satisfied. He was adamant they were because it permitted some level of income from the lease while permitting young people to leave the village for higher income in the urban sector (as part of China’s large class of migrant workers in urban industry and construction).

All in all, a very stimulating exposure to one of the most important processes underway in China today and for the next few decades.


Life quality across structural change


Periods of rapid structural change are particularly likely to lead to decline in the quality of life of some sections of the affected population. Change creates winners and losers; and it is common that the gains and losses are channeled into very distinct groups of people.  This is true during periods of large-scale migration, technology change, and structural change within an economy. Important components of life quality include health, nutrition, education, economic wellbeing, economic security, and security from violence and coercion. Each of these properties is affected by several important dimensions of social life:

  • legal and political institutions
  • institutions of economic production and distribution
  • economic opportunities and income
  • public provision of income supplements
  • public provision of food subsidies
  • public provision of health care resources
  • household support provided by family and community

When a society’s governmental and economic institutions are enmeshed in a period of rapid change, many of the components of life quality are likely to be affected — positively or negatively. The basic institutions of a society determine the value of the private and public assets individuals and households control on the basis of which to support their pursuit of a decent life; this is what Amartya Sen refers to as “entitlement bundles”. (Sen applies his entitlement theory to the study of famine in Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation; link.) And shifts in the composition of the entitlement bundle are likely to lead to abrupt worsening of the conditions of the least-well-off.

For example: It is likely that the austerity policies of the Spanish or Greek governments will have a negative effect on the health and nutritional status of the bottom half of those societies. Working people will have lower incomes and they will have reduced access to the social safety net; health status is likely to decline. As another example: Life expectancy in the former Soviet Union declined measurably following the collapse of the Soviet system (link). One part of that decline was the disappearance of the social security net created by state-owned industry — the smashing of the “iron rice bowl”.

This concern is particularly relevant in the context of the rural-urban transformation currently underway in China. Since 1980 China’s rural sector has been subject to at least two major kinds of structural change. One has to do with the economic and political institutions that governed daily life for rural households, from communes to market institutions. And the other has to do with the rapid structural transformation of China’s economy from agriculture to export-led manufacturing. The first set of changes led to a withdrawal of forms of “social insurance” that had been associated with the commune system, including healthcare and old-age care. The second has led to mass migration of younger workers from villages and towns to factories in cities. This migration leaves the remaining population in the countryside older, poorer, and less economically secure.

These observations have several important implications. Foremost among these is the crucial importance of maintaining effective systems for monitoring and measuring life quality across the society. It is important to have good measures of health status, nutritional status, educational status, and old age life quality across regions and sub-populations. So national governments need to create and fund the social research activities necessary to measure health and other quality of life properties across the population. (Here is a recent post on a spatial study of quality of life in China based on 1982 data; link.) Sen argues that it was the availability or lack of availability of information about famine conditions that explained the difference in outcomes between China during the Great Leap Forward and post-independence India; Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation.

Second, when it turns out that there are large numbers of “losers” in a large social process of change, it is important for the state and non-governmental actors to find institutions and resources that will help to improve their outcomes. “Winners” need to help to fund the amelioration of harms created by the processes that led to their gains. If NAFTA led to the increase of overall national income for Canada, Mexico, and the United States, but also led to the displacement of workers in a significant set of industries — then it makes sense to tax part of those gains to compensate the losers. And in fact, the NAFTA agreements were premised on such compensation, though this has not occurred reliably (link). This means redistribution across sectors and regions; and it is justified by the fact that the overall gains created by the transformation would not have been possible without imposing these losses on the disadvantaged sector or region.

What might this kind of redistributive policy look like in the context of China’s rural-to-urban transformation? It would seem that public moneys will be needed for several types of problems:

  • Maintenance of income and quality of life and health for the elderly
  • Investments that increase the productivity of labor and the level of employment in rural areas
  • Investments that work to ameliorate the negative environmental effects of rapid change
  • Investments in the institutions of public health — clinics, hospitals, and medical personnel

It might be asked, “Why should developing nations concern themselves with this issue?” There are several answers. Basic justice and fairness entails that the wealth of a society should be distributed in ways that allow all segments of society to improve their quality of life and wellbeing. A society’s wealth and income is a joint product of its entire population; so fairness dictates that everyone should benefit from improvements in productivity. But prudence lines up with this answer as well. A society that ignores the widening of the gaps between rich and poor, and does not concern itself about improving the wellbeing of the poor, is likely to suffer a rising level of social strife as well. It can either go the route of creating gated communities for the rich, or it can use its resources to create fair life outcomes and fair access to opportunity for all its people. Everyone is better off in the long run with the second choice.

In The Paradox Of Wealth And Poverty: Mapping The Ethical Dilemmas Of Global Development I argued that a developing nation should choose an economic development strategy that spreads the benefits of growth over a broader population, over a strategy with a higher growth rate but with substantially greater inequality. I still think this is the right answer to the question. And this approach has the best likelihood of improving the quality of life of the poorest segment of society. The graphs below make the case based on three stylized strategies:

  1. NL neo-liberal growth: choose those policies and institutional reforms that lead to the most rapid growth: unfettered markets, profit-maximizing firms, minimal redistribution of in­come and wealth 
  2. PF poverty-first growth: choose those policies and institutional reforms that lead to economic growth favorable to the most rapid growth in the incomes flowing to the poorest 2 quintiles 
  3. WF immediate welfare improvement: direct as much social wealth as possible into programs that immediately improve the welfare of the poor (education, health, food subsidies, housing subsidies)  

The neo-liberal strategy consistently maximizes GDP; but the poverty-first strategy, which is more redistributive from the start, leads to consistently better improvement for the income for the bottom 40% of the economy.  It embodies the idea that Hollis Chenery advocated forty years ago in Redistribution with Growth: Policies to Improve Income Distribution in Developing Countries in the Context of Economic Growth.

China’s rural transition

Roughly half of China’s population is still rural, living in villages and towns and dependent primarily on farming. In 1985 that percentage was about 76%, so there has already been a massive transformation of China’s economy and society towards greater urbanization. (Albert Nyberg and Scott Rozelle treated this process in an important World Bank publication, Accelerating China’s Rural Transformation.)

There are two basic processes through which urbanization can occur. Rural people can migrate to cities, or cities can grow up around rural people. Both processes have been underway for thirty years in China. Estimates vary, but approximately 210 million migrants work in Chinese manufacturing and construction industries, and the vast majority of these men and women are from rural origins. The percentage of migrant workers in urban industries is staggering; W. K. Chan reports in Wuhan, for example, that 43% of manufacturing workers and 56% of construction workers are non-Hukou migrants (link).  But almost all of China’s cities have also sprawled out into their peripheries, into what was previously farm land and villages. This is true in Shanghai and Suzhou, Wuhan, and hundreds of other major cities. 

The “urban development” part of the story has forced displacement of farming villages from their land, as farm land is absorbed into factories, power plants, development zones, and other urban uses. This is one of the most potent sources of protest in China today. Some portion of that population finds employment in the industries that follow this development — in the vast assembly plants of Foxconn, for example in at least nine cities in China. (Foxconn was actively recruiting thousands of workers in Chengdu during a recent visit there.)  Another portion is subsidized for some period of time by the government in compensation for the loss of their farm land and occupations.

In the medium term, Chinese agriculture is shedding workers, and the rest of the economy needs to grow enough to employ this part of the population. This is part of the urgency that policy makers feel for sustaining very high rates of economic growth.

One portion of the population that is least likely to make a smooth landing in the new economic conditions is the elderly. China faces a major social issue in a growing population of aging farmers, and the circumstances of this group are predictable: in need of health care, short on pensions, and often separated from their children who have migrated to better conditions in cities. (Here is a World Bank report on this subject; link.)

So my question here is a simple one: what is the theory of rural-to-urban transition under which the Chinese leadership is operating? There are a range of possible theories:

  • Help employment in industrial and construction activities grow as fast as workers and farmers are expelled from the rural economy, so their standard of living rises overall.
  • Grow rural industry and high-value specialized agriculture so rural people can remain in place.
  • Plan for an extended time during which a much more extensive social safety net will be provided in the form of income supplements, subsidized healthcare, and retirement income until “surplus rural population” can be absorbed by the urban economy.
  • Hope for the best and trust to market-based adjustments.

There is a rural development strategy that would actually make the problem more acute: 

  • Stimulate rapid improvement in the productivity of agriculture. As a unit of rice is produced more productively, it requires fewer units of labor. So the net result of productivity improvements in agriculture is a drop in rural farm-based employment even as it increases income to the individual farmer.

Here is one answer to the question of theory of rural transition that is based on Chinese government policy thinking in the late 1990s. The following analysis is contained in the Nyberg-Rozelle 1999 World Bank report, Accelerating China’s Rural Transformation, based on close cooperation with the Institute of Rural Development in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. This close collaboration suggests that it intends to express then-current ideas about strategy and policy within the Chinese government.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic, the leaders of China have been preoccupied with one overarching goal; the modernization of the nation. Our [Chinese] vision for the early part of the 21st century perceives the rural economy as an integral part of this modernization effort, with equitable increases in income, and the elimination of poverty, achieved in large part by transferring rural labor to the urban−industrial economy—all accomplished in an environmentally sustainable manner. We envision an enormous government effort in transforming its role into an investor for public services and goods and fostering a market environment—enabling individual farm and nonfarm producers, consumers, and traders to make more efficient decisions and improve their welfare. 

In pursuit of this vision, two issues remain central to the government’s rural development objectives: food security and poverty alleviation. China has made remarkable progress in meeting these goals; the economy, including the rural sector, has grown at phenomenal rates during the reform period. The growth of food supplies has exceeded the growth of domestic demand and China exports horticultural, livestock, other agricultural, and aquacultural products. The growth of rural industry has been an important element of recent growth as the rural economy continues to diversify. Increased productivity and income growth have reduced the massive pre-reform poverty problem, improved the standard of living of most residents, and launched the structural transformation of China from a traditional rural to a modern society.

This summary involves some of almost all the options mentioned above — improvement of farm productivity, growth of urban jobs, growth of rural industry, and establishment of a more extensive safety net. In practice, however, it seems that the government has given the greatest emphasis in its economic policies to the growth of urban jobs and out-migration from the rural sector.

In their 2003 report “Scenario Analysis on Urbanization and Rural-Urban Migration in China”, Shenghe Liu, Li, and Zhan (researchers at the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences) summarize Chinese policy thinking on the rural question in these terms:

It has becomes a common consensus that the most headachy “agriculture, farmers and rural areas” (three nong) problems in China are unable to be solved by farmers themselves, inside the agriculture sector and rural areas. Promotion of the urbanization process is needed to help more rural surplus labor forces seek employment in non-agricultural activities and in cities and towns, serving the purpose of reducing the agricultural population, improving agricultural productivity and increasing the farmers’ income. In summary, reducing rural population through active promotion of urbanization is considered to be the only best way to make farmers rich. Thus, the prospects and scenarios of China’s urbanization and rural-urban migration are bound to have tremendous impacts on its agricultural development and policy making.  (link)

Or in other words, Liu, Li and Zhan reiterate the idea that rural-to-urban migration is a key part of Chinese policy for improvement of income and wellbeing in the rural areas.

Here is a short clip summarizing a study by the Institute for Rural Studies at Central China Normal University, finding that the Gini coefficient in the countryside has increased significantly. It also makes the point that a very large component in the growth of rural incomes is remittances from migrants who have found higher-paying jobs in manufacturing and construction.

Here are some resources available on the web on the subject of rural transformation in China.  A very useful treatment of the issue is Francis Tuan, Somwaru and Diao’s working paper for the International Food Policy Research Institute (link). Scott Rozelle et al have a very useful paper, “The Evolution of China’s Rural Labor Markets during the Reforms,” that focuses on the opportunity and challenge of increasing non-farm labor in rural areas (link). A useful resource on urban-to-rural migration is a slide presentation by Kam Wing Chan from 2008, “Internal Labor Migration in China: Trends, Geographical Distribution and Policies” (link). Chan is also the author of Cities with Invisible Walls: Reinterpreting Urbanization in Post-1949 China.

Chinese authors are writing about the human side of these transformations — rural poverty, migrant insecurity, the difficulties of urban life for poor people. Here is a book by Xin Zhang, whose title is loosely translated by a friend as An Analysis of Social Classes in China. I wish I was able to read it.

Why spatial analysis?

G. William Skinner’s contributions to the China field were many (link). A great deal of current research in the China field builds on his regionalization theories. Key concepts like core-periphery structure, macroregions, transport costs, the questionable relevance of political boundaries, and economic integration implying social and cultural integration are all ideas that Skinner developed and that have been utilized in remarkably insightful ways by several cohorts of China scholars.

Other of Skinner’s contributions might be mentioned with especial emphasis: his treatments of urban place and city hierarchies and micro-demographic and family patterns are relevant in particular.

But the central insight that has had greatest impact is the spatial ordering of social life created by transport and marketing. And Skinner’s fundamental idea is that China’s geography is better understood as a set of macroregions rather than provinces. Economic geography is more fundamental than political jurisdictions.

So it is worth asking to begin: what motivates and justifies this approach? The ideas are now common currency in China studies, but perhaps the rationale is less well remembered. What are the social mechanisms that work to create the dynamic and stable patterns Skinner hypothesizes? What concrete social processes work to create the core-periphery patterns that underlie the macroregions theory?

Transport cost, and the enormous efficiency of water transport, is particularly fundamental in Skinner’s analysis of Ming-Qing China, as it was for Mark Elvin as well. China’s system of navigable rivers and canals made some regions much more accessible to each other than others. And population followed this fact. (A recent trip to Hubei reinforced this fact to me: visiting the rugged terrain of Wudang Mountain made it very clear how extraordinarily difficult it was to transport heavy materials across China using traditional technologies and pre-modern roads.)

Soil fertility and agricultural productivity are related factors. High fertility supports dense population — hence “core” defined in terms of population density. And fertility is related to rivers. Flood plains have natural advantages when it comes to agriculture. But fertility is related to social factors as well. High population density yields fertilizer in the form of night soil. It also creates demand, as Skinner observed, for fuel, which led to a transfer of nutrients from periphery to core. And agriculture is responsive to investment in infrastructure — roads, irrigation, water management systems. But these investments are easier to gain in high density populations. This all implies a couple of important feedback loops: density =>; rising agricultural productivity => rising density.

What about the periphery regions? They lack water transport; there is less economic demand for roads; agricultural productivity is low; and peripheries are generally difficult for states to penetrate with civil and military force. So bandits, rebels, and anarchists can loiter there in reasonable comfort.

There is another aspect related to this last factor. Skinner pays less attention to it, but Jim Scott has made it a centerpiece of his recent thinking. This is the dynamic of agrarian state extension from fertile core to barren periphery (or highlands). Scott’s analysis of Zomia is precisely a treatment of far periphery (link).

What are the social consequences of this dynamic process over time? There are many, but here are a few: 

  • Patterns of diffusion of ideas, movements, and goods. 
  • High barriers to state intervention in some places but not others. 
  • Separation of elite and plebeian cultures. 
  • And researchers have explored some of these dynamics with respect to topics ranging from the Chinese Revolution to technology change in agriculture. 

Why is spatial analysis important?  This framework of research places the spotlight on interactions between place and activity.  These substantive theories and frameworks have proven to be enormously constructive in the development of Chinese history in the past 30 years.

Quality of life in China

One of the important developments in efforts to measure economic progress has been the creation of various measures of quality of life.  Average income by itself is not a good indicator of wellbeing; instead we need to have a way of assessing the health, nutrition, and education status of a population over time.  The Human Development Index is one such measure, developed by the United Nations Development Programme. (Here is the 2011 report — Human Development Report 2011: Sustainability and Equity: Towards a Better Future for All, and here is a resource describing the methodology associated with the index.) A defect in many such efforts is the fact that they are assessed at the country level, so internal regional variations in quality of life are not observable.

Walter H. Aschmoneit provided a truly fascinating effort in 1990 to provide a disaggregated study of quality of life in China circa 1982. The research is contained in Delman, Ostergaard, and Christansen, Remaking Peasant China: Problems of Rural Development and Institutions at the Start of the 1990’s and the map that he constructs is represented above.

Aschmoneit incorporates eight factors into his index of life quality (205):

  • gross value of industrial and agricultural output per capita
  • employment rate
  • rate of industrial workers by total employed population
  • rate of illiteracy and half-illiteracy
  • rate of middle school graduates
  • rate of university graduates
  • infant mortality rate
  • death rate 

The data Aschmoneit uses to populate this index for the local administrative units (xian and shi) into which the Chinese population was divided derive from the 1987 Population Atlas of China (collected in 1982).  There were 2,378 administrative units represented in the study.  This means the data reflects the period shortly after the beginning of the reform of agriculture which led to China’s extended period of rapid economic growth.

The map displays a number of important patterns.  Low quality of life is heavily concentrated in the western half of China, with the absolutely lowest areas being the extreme southeast and western parts of the country. Sichuan is almost wholly red and brown on the map, with the exception of the hinterlands of Chengdu, indicating below-average quality of life throughout the province. Yunnan and Tibet are almost uniformly substantially below average (purple and blue) in quality of life.  Areas of high quality of life are generally coastal in 1982, with the lower Yangzi Delta, Shandong, and the coastal northeast doing the best. The city of Wuhan in Hubei shows up as an above average district for quality of life, reflecting its advantaged position on the Yangzi River.  The environs of Beijing also show up as a high quality of life district. And in fact many of the isolated green districts appear to correspond to cities of various sizes; extreme poverty was primarily a rural phenomenon in China. (I haven’t been able to identify all of the isolated green districts on the map in eastern China, but a number of them are significant cities like Wuhan, Changsha, Hangzhou, and Nanjing.  It would be interesting to determine whether there are exceptions: rural districts with high quality of life.)

There is a fairly close correspondence between this quality of life map and William Skinner’s representation of the macroregions of China:

The regions of Lingnan, Southeast Coast, Lower Yangzi, and North China have the highest quality of life, while Upper Yangzi, Northwest China, and Yungui have the lowest.

Today it would be possible to present this data in the form of an interactive map, so the reader would be able to click on a specific place and view its data. This would be of interest because the index combines income data with longevity and education data. So the poverty of a region already gives it low quality of life, irrespective of the performance of the human development characteristics.  It would be interesting to see whether the most extreme districts with low quality of life are uniformly disadvantaged, or perhaps have a mix of better and worse health or education outcomes.

It would be genuinely interesting and important to reproduce this study today to see whether the basic pattern has changed through these decades of intensive economic growth and the acceleration of inequalities in China. If the 2011 Census includes the same data categories this would be a reasonably straightforward effort.  One would expect that the quality of life has gone up in the eastern and southern coastal areas. And it is very possible that quality of life has gone down in rural areas in the interior and the west of China as inequalities have increased and state subsidies have decreased for poor rural areas.

Remaking Peasant China is a book worth owning, not least for the Life-Quality Index map that it provides. The articles are well designed to address some of the key issues that China faced in rural development in the 1980s and 1990s. The book also includes as front paper a map of rural poverty areas at the xian level receiving national support 1986-1990, which gives a visual impression of the distribution of high-poverty areas in the late 1980s. Extreme poverty is defined as regions with more than 40% of rural households with annual per capita income below 150 yuan in 1985. (The map also represents xian with extremely low annual rainfall.) This map was also based on Aschmoneit’s research.

The great divergence

It has been ten years since Ken Pomeranz published The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy., a book that forced some real rethinking about the economic history in Europe and China. Along with Bin Wong in China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience, he called for a deep questioning of many of the basic premises of much twentieth century economic history, which was premised on the backwardness and stagnation of China and the dynamism of Western Europe. Industrial revolution and sustained economic growth were unique products of the west, and China was incapable of these transformations at the beginning of the modern epoch — 1600, let us say. 

So the central problematic for “European exceptionalism” was to identify some set of features of western society lacking in China that could account for takeoff. Was it merchant culture? Perhaps Newtonian science? Was it European family and reproductive behavior? Or perhaps it was some feature of Christianity?

Pomeranz doesn’t like these theories. More basically, he doesn’t accept the premise of European economic superiority in 1600, whether in institutions or ideology. He considers agriculture first and holds that Chinese agriculture was as productive in terms of land and labor as English farming; it was not undergoing involution through population increase; and it supported a rural standard of living that was competitive with that of Europe and England, his primary focus. 

Pomeranz doesn’t doubt that there were sharp differences in European and Chinese economic development in the 18th century. This is the “great divergence” to which he refers. But he doubts that there are grand socio-cultural explanations for this fact; instead he focuses on contingent conjunctival circumstances that gave England a lead that it maintained for 200 years. These include the fortuitous location of coal in Britain, the fact of New World wealth, and the returns if slave labor in North America. None of these is a deep systemic factor but rather a lucky break for Britain. 

Bin Wong adds a different theme to the debate. He recognizes that Europe and China possessed complex political-economic systems that were different from each other. And he agrees that these systems had consequences for development. But he agrees with Pomeranz that neither system is inherently superior. And he calls for an economic history that pays attention to the differences as well as similarities. Each process of development can be illuminated by comparison to the other. 

So where is the debate today? This was the focus of a productive conference at Tsinghua University in Beijing last week. Some of the primary contributors to economic history participated, including Robert Allen, Bozhong Li, and James Lee. It isn’t possible to summarize the papers, but several themes emerged. The most basic is the need to bring substantially more factual detail to the debate. What we need at this point isn’t more theorizing about large causes; it is more fine grained factual discovery across both Europe and China.

Three areas in particular have gotten much more factual in the debate in ten years. the first is agricultural productivity. Historians like Robert Allen and Bozhong Li have substantially sharpened our knowledge of the farm economies of England and China. 

Second is the question of the historical standard of living in various places. Essentially this depends on price data, wage data, and a system for comparing consumption across countries. Here too there has been a great refinement of our knowledge. Robert Allen has contributed much of this. 

Third is population behavior. The Malthusian theory of the difference between China and Europe is a stumbling block, and of course this theory was created in a fact-free universe. Now comparative historical demography has advanced a long way thanks to researchers like James Lee. The Eurasian Population and Family History Project has now refuted the Malthusian view. 

A key idea in the Pomeranz debate is Philip Huang’s idea that Chinese agriculture was “involutionary”. The work provided by Bozhong Li demonstrates that this theory is simply incorrect when applied to the lower Yangzi River delta. Moreover, China’s development after 1970 makes the theory implausible in any case. As Li pointed out at the conference, “It is inconceivable China’s modern development could have occurred in the conditions of involution described in the debate.” China was clearly not caught in an inescapable involutionary trap. 

So there is work to be done still on the origins of the great transformation. And it is valuable for this work to take place with a global and comparative perspective. But most valuable will be detailed factual research that adds significantly to what we know about the past. 

Rural studies in China

I spent a rewarding afternoon at the Institute for Rural Studies at Central China Normal University in Wuhan this week (link). The Institute is the leading center for research on China’s rural population, and it has conducted research projects for decades on villages throughout China. It is an important resource for government officials as they design policies for rural transformation in China’s rapidly changing countryside. And it has the capacity to provide reasonably detailed answers to questions about how peasants are doing in the new China. (Here is a publication that provides a description of some of the functions of the Institute.)

From a human welfare point of view, the status of rural society represents the largest set of problems that China is facing today and for the coming several decades. China’s rural population is still vast, in spite of the rapid urbanization of the past two decades. As of 2011 just under half of China’s population lived in rural locations — over 650 million people (link).  And it is a population whose welfare has improved the least through China’s rapid economic growth since 1980.

What are the kinds of questions we would like to have answers to when it comes to a large rural population dispersed over a wide range of ecological settings?

Demography. We would like to have some fine-grained data about the demography and demographic behavior of peasants in various regions. What is the size of the rural population in Shaanxi? How many villages and towns are there? What are the fertility and morbidity statistics for this people? What are the patterns of emigration and return that are observed in these regions?

Welfare. We certainly want to know some basic things about the standard of living of various rural populations. What are the longevity statistics? What diseases are prevalent? How much access do families have to health clinics, doctors, and hospitals? What is the status of HIV in the population? What is the educational level of the child, youth, and adult populations? What is the literacy rate?

Gender. What are the characteristic of gender and family relations? Do girls attend school at the same rates and as long as boys? What role do women play in household decision-making? Are there differentials across gender in health outcomes? What is the situation of gay people in rural society?

Economy. How do peasants earn their incomes? What is the distribution of income in various rural regions? What is the average income of peasant households in various regions? How much inequality is there? How has income improved in the past two decades?

Infrastructure and environment. How well served is the rural population by roads, trains, electricity, and clean water and sanitation? What are the environmental threats that are found in rural society? How far do families need to travel for marketing?

Culture. What are the religious and cultural values of the rural people of the region? Are there significant ethnic minorities in the region? Are there enclaves of peasant groups who have different cultural attachments from the Han majority? Is Buddhism making a comeback among rural people? What about Maoism?

Politics. A constant theme in peasant studies in the past forty years has been the question of collective action and resistance. What kinds of protests are occurring in various rural areas? How widespread and effective are they? What are the chief causes for protest — rents, taxes, corruption, environmental problems, land seizures?

Governmental. How does the local population interact with the authorities — government officials, army, police? How frequent is police presence in the village? How are the relations between locals and government officials?

Change processes. What are the major sources of change at the village level? Are new property arrangements emerging that have effects on peasant wellbeing? Is emigration a major source of change? What about technological change — more mechanized tools, more chemical fertilizers and pesticides?How much influence does the availability of mass media make on the attitudes and behavior of rural people?

These are some important categories of questions we would like to answer. What methods of research might we want to employ to find some answers?

Certainly many of these questions require quantitative research. Surveys of public health, education, income, and opinions and values are all amenable to quantitative research designs. Opinion surveys need to be conducted; household surveys of consumption and income, health and literacy can be conducted. National surveys like the census and other government statistics can often be broken out by rural status and these findings need to be assimilated.

Other questions seem to be most amenable to the methods of qualitative research. Focus groups and interviews can shed light on attitudes and behavior. The qualitative researcher can get a picture of the mentality of the group and the variations that exist. Are youth increasingly disaffected in the countryside? Are villagers becoming disillusioned with the government? These questions can be investigated in several ways, but interviews and focus groups are an important avenue.

Then there is the problem of theory and conceptualization. How should we think about the processes of change we observe? What kinds of explanations seem plausible? For that matter, how should we think about the peasant him or herself?

There is also the question of comparison. How do the results found in China compare to the situation in India or Egypt? How do scholars of peasant societies and politics characterize their focus in other settings around the world? For example, agrarian studies in India seem to have a rather different focus (link).

Finally, what might some of the research products look like? How can we best convey the information we discover about the heterogeneous world of the peasant population?

Interactive statistical maps are one important tool. We can organize large data sets by seeing how they play out against geography. This means that data elements need to be geocoded so they can be aggregated and displayed spatially.

Extensive analytical reports summarizing and analyzing the findings on rural society are worthwhile, along the lines of the Human Development Report 2011: Sustainability and Equity: Towards a Better Future for All.

Narratives are an important way of telling the story of a large data set. The narrative of a region might introduce the main factors forcing change that were present in 1950 or 1980 and then draw out summaries of the impact these forces had.

Archives of interviews and other qualitative data are important to permit later researchers to gain some new insights into the concrete social processes that were observed through the extended research efforts of the field. Collections of databases summarizing past research projects — the raw data of prior research — are essential to provide reproducibility and research materials for other scholars (along the lines of the Institute of Politics at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research).

Collections of artifacts are also worthwhile, and it is significant that the Institute at Huazhong Normal University will soon be opening a museum of rural society in its building in Wuhan.

There is a point to this catalogue of questions and possible topics.  It suggests that it is very important to think carefully through the kinds of questions that need answering, as we undertake large research topics like the state of rural China.  The analytical thinking that goes into reports like the Human Development Report 2011: Sustainability and Equity: Towards a Better Future for AllWorld Development Report 2011: Conflict, Security, and Development or the annual UNEP 2011 Annual Report: 1972-2012, Serving People and the Planet is very important to the quality and usefulness of the results.

Mobilizing the masses

One of the books on the Chinese Revolution that I particularly respect is Odoric Wou’s 1994 Mobilizing the Masses: Building Revolution in Henan.  As noted in an earlier post, histories of the revolution have gone through several waves, and a general trend has been towards more focused regional studies.  Wou’s book belongs in what I categorize as the third wave (along with Chen Yung-Fa’s Making Revolution: The Communist Movement in Eastern and Central China, 1937-1945). Here is how Wou characterizes this evolution:

Communist revolutionaries always operated under local conditions, were involved in certain local power politics, and addressed certain needs of the local peasantry. It is imperative to pay particular attention to localities, if possible at the county, the subcounty, and even the village level. Mass politics are invariably related to community issues and community politics. (14)

Here I want to focus on Wou’s title itself: Mobilizing the Masses.   Both parts of the title are important: the idea that the Chinese revolution was a mass-based revolution, and the idea that the Chinese Communist Party succeeded because it pursued successful strategies of mobilization.  The Russian Revolution, by contrast, was not mass-based; Lenin’s revolutionary group was able to seize power without mass support, and the Bolsheviks did not develop effective strategies of mass mobilization.  So the Chinese Revolution is different. We have historical examples of revolutions that did not involve the masses in contemporary society; and perhaps we could imagine a mass-based revolution that succeed without the deliberate strategies of mobilization that emanated from a revolutionary party.  (Lucien Bianco doubts the latter possibility, however; he argues that spontaneous uprisings by peasants or workers are doomed to failure (Peasants Without the Party: Grass-Root Movements in Twentieth-Century China).)

So why was the committed support of the masses crucial to the success of the Chinese Revolution? Why is mass support difficult to achieve for an emerging revolutionary movement? And what were some of the strategies of mobilization that the CCP used in the 1930s and 1940s to bring about that mass support?

Mass support for a revolutionary movement is in one sense unlikely. The risks of being a supporter are great, and the a priori likelihood of success is small. The forces of order are generally powerful and pervasive, whether warlords or a central government. So peasants and workers are asked to assume great risks for little prospect of success.  As James Scott has emphasized in many writings, there are always options of everyday coping and everyday resistance that allow ordinary people to make do in the context of a repressive state and an exploitative society (Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance). (I particularly enjoy the scene that Scott describes of Malaysian villagers gathering and laughing as the hired mechanical harvester sinks inexorably into the flooded rice paddy.) These facts imply that mass support for a revolutionary movement will not arise spontaneously; rather, it is necessary for a revolutionary organization and a set of leaders to pursue an effective bundle of strategies aimed at mobilizing the masses.  This means possessing a compelling set of strategies, and it means developing a large and pervasive organization that will be capable of placing “brokers” or cadres in local settings where they can influence ordinary villagers to support the strategy.

So why was the CCP forced to turn to the peasant masses in the first place?  One part of the answer is Mao’s own political theories of how revolution could succeed in China based on the support of the population; and the population was overwhelmingly rural and poor in the 1920s and 1930s.  (It is interesting that Mao’s theories of peasant revolutionary potential continue to propel a large Maoist movement in India; post.) But a more material reason has to do with a stunning defeat suffered by the CCP at the hands of the Guomindang Republican forces in 1927 — the massacre of the urban-based Communist organization in Shanghai.  From that point forward the strategy of bringing communist revolution to China on the strength of an urban revolutionary movement was untenable, and resort to China’s peasantry was the only option available.

So how did the CCP attempt to mobilize the rural masses? What political ideologies did the CCP settle on as being the most promising for arousing the emotions and political commitments of ordinary peasants throughout rural China? How did the CCP use local organizations and cadres to effectively communicate those messages and solicit political engagement by peasants? More specifically, what were those strategies in Henan, the focus of Wou’s book?

Two strands of mobilization ideologies have been emphasized by historians of the revolution. The first is class mobilization — a deliberate attempt to emphasize the exploitativeness of rural land relations, and the conflicts that exist between landlords, rich peasants, and poor peasants. Here the idea is that poor peasants can be energized by a clear recognition of the ways in which their livelihoods are harmed by the social privilege of rich peasants and landlords, and they can be motivated to take on the risky business of revolution. The second is a nationalist appeal in the context of the Japanese occupation of China, and the claim that the Red Army was more effective than the Guomindang military in fighting the Japanese. Here the idea is that peasants of all strata can be motivated to defend their families, their villages, and their region against the imperialistic (and harsh) Japanese invaders.  Wou documents both strategies in Henan.

First the class-based strategy:

After three executive committee meetings, the Eyuwan party decided to reformulate and radicalize the land reform program. The new policy was to “use the agricultural laborers as the base. Form a solid alliance with the poor peasants. Stabilize the middle peasants. Shake up and eliminate the rich pesants.” Politically, the new program called for the discharge of rich peasnts from all Communist mass organizations, including the Red Guards, Youth Vanguard, and Children’s Corps. (125)

And here is the nationalist strategy:

It was during the Sino-Japanese War that the Communists began to revitalize their revolutionary movement. By skillfully playing the game of coalition politics, the party took steps to rebuild its bases and consolidate its power in eastern Henan. Japanese imperialistic intrusion into China offered the Communists a new political opportunity. The war eroded Guomindang state power, changed the political balance, and created a political vacuum in the region. In these favorable conditions, the Communists identified themselves with the nationalistic cause and issued a patriotic appeal to the people. (207)

Finally, Wou emphasizes throughout the necessity for political skill and compromise on the part of party leaders. It was necessary to form coalitions with other non-revolutionary organizations in order to carry forward the objectives of the party, and the CCP leadership in Henan was fully prepared to enter into such coalitions.

These details are of interest chiefly because they illuminate the nuts and bolts of radical social change in a large country.  It is plainly not enough to observe that a large group of people have interests that are in conflict with the policies and social relations of their country or region.  In addition, several things are needed: a sustained and locally implemented strategy of mobilization and a revolutionary organization that acts intelligently and opportunistically as the balance of forces shifts at various times.

These observations have implications for China’s current realities as well.  It is evident that there are millions of Chinese people who have serious grievances — work conditions, environmental pollution, corrupt officials, etc. But the Chinese government has been very adept at preventing the emergence of organizations that might attempt to mobilize that discontent into effective efforts to challenge the state’s policies.  Without organizations, the current level of grievance in China is unlikely to pose a serious challenge to the policies of the state.

Recent historiography of China

The field of China history evolved rapidly after the McCarthy attacks on the field in the 1950s. The most significant developments, in my view, are these. First, there developed in the 1960s and 1970s what Paul Cohen refers to as a “China-centered” approach to the study of the history of China (Discovering History in China: American Historical Writing on the Recent Chinese Past; 1984). The central notion here is the idea that historians of China need to analyze China’s history making use of concepts and hypotheses specific to its own experience. Cohen puts the point this way: “The main identifying feature of the new approach is that it begins with Chinese problems set in a Chinese context. . . . [These] are Chinese problems, in the double sense that they are experienced in China by Chinese and that the measure of their historical importance is a Chinese, rather than a Western, measure” (Cohen 1984, p. 154). Rather than asking whether China experienced “sprouts of capitalism” in the Ming Dynasty, we need to consider the distinctive features of China’s economic development. Rather than considering whether China was a “feudal” society, we need to identify and conceptualize the specific features of political and economic relations that linked elites and the common people. 

The point here is not that China’s history is unique and sui generis, but rather that one should not presume that the categories of politics, social structure, and historical process that emerged as central in the unfolding of early modern Europe will find natural application in the historical experience of China. The concept of feudalism is not a trans-historical category which should be expected to have application in every process of historical development. Bin Wong pushes this view further in his China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience.

Second, there has emerged a substantial emphasis on material culture in the China field: social and economic circumstances, the technology of agriculture, marketing hierarchies, and the circumstances of life of ordinary Chinese people. Features of local material culture find prominent expression: population processes, local politics, agricultural technique, land tenure arrangements, patron-client relations, banditry, and environmental change. And since historical China is an agrarian society, this means that agrarian histories have been particularly important in the China field. (Here is a post on China’s agricultural history; link.)

Third, China studies have moved in the direction of local or regional studies rather than national histories. Issues arising out of consideration of the village rather than the capital city have come to the fore: the village, the marketing hierarchy, and the region have come to define the focus of inquiry. Scholars are suspicious of generalizations about China as a whole; rather, local and regional variations are the focus of research. It is recognized that lineage is more significant in the south of China than the north; that rice cultivation imposes a series of social imperatives in the south that are absent in the north; that regions linked by water transport show an economic and social integration often lacking in administratively defined units (provinces); that millenarian Buddhism is a powerful factor in the political culture of Shandong but not in Sichuan; and the like. Huaiyin Li’s Village China Under Socialism and Reform: A Micro-History, 1948-2008 is a good example of this kind of detailed local study.

Finally, the influence of the social sciences in the field of Chinese history has been of great importance. Much (though of course not all) of the most productive historical research on China in the past two decades has made substantial use of the tools of social science to construct explanations of Chinese historical processes. Techniques drawn from historical demography, economic geography, and the study of organizational behavior have substantially increased our understanding of China’s history. Work by James Lee and numerous collaborators on China’s demographic history provide good examples of the fruitfulness of this approach; Life under Pressure: Mortality and Living Standards in Europe and Asia, 1700-1900 (Eurasian Population and Family History).

Here are a few topic areas that have proven to be particularly important.

Spatial organization of culture and economy. China studies have been strongly influenced by the insight that there is a critical spatial dimension to processes of social, political, and economic change. In his groundbreaking work on marketing hierarchies and the regionalization of traditional China, G. William Skinner has demonstrated the key role that transport systems, central place hierarchies, and physiography play in China’s history (linklink.) Skinner’s work has been remarkably influential in the China field; among his contributions, two are especially important. First, Skinner undercut the village-oriented perspective of much existing research on peasant China by putting forward an analysis of the central place hierarchy that exists among cities, market towns, villages, and hamlets in traditional China (Skinner, G. William. 1964-65. “Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China.” Journal of Asian Studies 24(1-3)). These hierarchies are knit together by transport systems and the circulation of products, traders, craftsmen, martial arts instructors, necromancers, and other itinerant folk. This is an important contribution because it suggests stimulating hypotheses about the mechanisms of popular culture, the transmission of ideas, the movements of peoples, the diffusion of new technologies, and other fundamental aspects of social change. The second signal contribution contained in Skinner’s work is his regionalization of China into nine “macroregions,” each of which is analyzed in terms of a core-periphery structure (The City in Late Imperial China; 1977). This construct incorporates the structure of marketing hierarchies into the analysis and adds the notion that the economic processes implicit in urbanization impose a structure on rural society as well. Urban cores create a demand for resources (firewood, food, raw materials) that extend economic influence into peripheral areas.

These ideas have a number of important implications for agrarian studies more generally. First, the spatial organization of settlements–villages, towns, and cities, and the transport and marketing networks that connect them–has important consequences for diverse aspects of rural life. Ideas, political movements, and knowledge are diffused through marketing system channels. Itinerant merchants, artisans, letter writers, necromancers, fortune-tellers, or martial-arts instructors travel the circuits defined by the marketing hierarchies; and through these travelers results movement of ideas, products, rumors, skills, and innovations.

Environmental history. There are numerous examples of recent works that give central focus to environmental and ecological issues in China’s history. Environmental issues come in a number of forms in Chinese history, including especially water management, land reclamation, and deforestation. As Skinner points out, there is a strongly spatial orientation to each of these sets of issues: water systems constitute one of the lineaments determining patterns of settlement; land reclamation and deforestation follow population density (and therefore tend to correspond to a core-periphery structure, with a transfer of fertility from periphery to core). 

An important treatment of the human impact on the Chinese environment is Peter Perdue’s study, Exhausting the Earth: State and Peasant in Hunan (Perdue 1987). Perdue’s study focuses on Hunan, 1500-1850, and places primary emphasis on the processes of agricultural change, land reclamation, and water control through which the landscape of Hunan was dramatically altered throughout this period. The struggle between the state and local interests over such issues as taxation, land reclamation, dike building, and land property rights is highlighted.  What is most original about the book is Perdue’s success in identifying the consequences for ecology and land and water management of the political and economic processes involved in Hunan’s substantial growth during this period. Perdue documents the slow process through which land reclamation efforts and dike-building nibbled away at Dongting Lake (now China’s second largest lake). The state played an important role in stimulating this process in the Ming dynasty; in the Qing, Perdue indicates that the private interests of local elites and landowners were the driving force for continuing encroachment on wetland and lake margins.

More recently Mark Elvin’s The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China provides a broad treatment of China’s environmental history over a longer and broader scope (link). 

State-society relations. State-society relations play an important role in many contemporary studies: to what extent, and through what mechanisms, is the state in a pre-modern society able to effect its will on its population? This question is particularly salient in the case of China because of the somewhat paradoxical role that the Imperial state plays in Chinese history. The Imperial system is often portrayed as weak and ineffectual; at the same time, it is the embodiment of a refined and sophisticated administrative apparatus. To what extent was the Chinese state able to carry out its essential functions–the extraction of taxes, the preservation of order, the suppression of social unrest, the maintenance of large-scale water projects, and the administration of central grain policies? These issues impact on agrarian histories in diverse ways: mobilization of peasant unrest is affected by the extractive behavior of the state, on the one hand, and the effectiveness of the state’s coercive apparatus, on the other.

In Rebellion and its Enemies in Late Imperial China: Militarization and Social Structure, 1796-1864 Philip Kuhn emphasizes the limitations of the grasp of the imperial state in his analysis of the local and regional responses to the Taiping Rebellion. “Local militarization posed acute problems for the imperial state; for if irregular military force could not be regularized and brought under control, if the widespread militarization of local communities could not be brought into a predictable relationship to the state, then the security of the state itself might soon be shaken” (Kuhn 1980, p. 9). There was a logic to the process of the state’s diminishing capacity to effect its will in response to rebellion. “The Ch’ing military establishment lent momentum to the downward spiral of dynastic decline: the worse the troops, the longer it took them to quell an uprising; the longer it took them, the greater the cost; the more impoverished the government, the lower the quality of imperial administration and the greater the frequency of revolt” (126). On Kuhn’s interpretation, the local militarization that occurred in response to the Taiping Rebellion had a permanent effect on the balance of power between center and periphery in Chinese politics.

In his study of state-society relations in North China, Culture, Power, and the State: Rural North China, 1900-1942 (1988), Prasenjit Duara emphasizes the “state-making” processes that were underway in the late Qing. Duara’s analysis focuses on the end of the Qing dynasty and the turn of the twentieth century in North China; Duara attempts to comprehend the variety of institutions, elites, and influences through which political power was wielded at the village level. The state was earnest in its efforts to penetrate rural society to the village level, and Duara examines the efforts made to extend the administrative structures of the state into the system of lineage and local power relations which had traditionally dominated village society.

Intermediate between studies of the Imperial state and local agrarian histories is the effort to discern the “patterns of dominance” exercised by Chinese local elites (Esherick and Rankin, eds., Chinese Local Elites and Patterns of Dominance, 1990). Studies by Keith Schoppa, Mary Rankin, Phillip Kuhn, and William Rowe provide instances of in-depth efforts to identify the historical identities of Chinese elites, rural and urban, and some of the mechanisms through which these elites endeavored to influence local society. 

The core-periphery analysis mentioned above has been found fruitful as well in analysis of banditry, rebellion, and smuggling. The grasp of the state tends to be weakest in peripheral areas with difficult terrain (mountains, deserts, marshes), sparse settlement, and poor transport networks; and consequently anti-state activities find natural refuge in such areas.

Vivienne Shue’s The Reach of the State: Sketches of the Chinese Body Politic is an important contribution to this topic.

Other topics.  Most recently the China field has been interested in the “involution” debate, culminating in Huang (The Peasant Family and Rural Development in the Yangzi Delta, 1350-1988), Pomeranz (The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy.), and Wong and Rosenthal (Before and Beyond Divergence: The Politics of Economic Change in China and Europe) (linklinklink). And, of course, there is a very large historiography of the Chinese Revolution and the Cultural Revolution.  Several earlier posts provide discussion of post-1960s treatments of the Chinese Revolution; linklink.

These topics are certainly not exhaustive.  I’ve said nothing here about cultural and identity studies; studies of ethnic minorities in China; popular culture; and much else.  But the field is large, and it is worthwhile for the non-specialist to have at least a rough map of some of the large pathways explored in the past forty years as historians have sought to make better sense of China’s history.

Protest in Wukan

A period of demonstration and protest in the Chinese village of Wukan has caught the attention of world media in the past several weeks (linklink). The village is in Guangdong, the dynamic coastal province.  The demonstrations began in September against major land seizures by local government in alignment with developers, and became more intense in the past week when leader Xue Jinbo died in police custody.  (Here is a good Wikipedia article on the village.)  Land seizures seem to be the most volatile issue in China today, producing a large proportion of the roughly 90,000 civil disturbances the country currently faces a year.

Analysts are interested in probing the causes and dynamics of protest and resistance in contemporary China, including C. K. Lee (Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt) and Kevin O’Brien (Rightful Resistance in Rural China).  Here, though, it may also be interesting to compare the current situation with the occurrence of similar incidents during the Qing Dynasty.

Fortunately, it is possible to do so on the basis of a recent relevant study. Ho-Fung Hung’s recent Protest with Chinese Characteristics: Demonstrations, Riots, and Petitions in the Mid-Qing Dynasty addresses exactly this issue in historical context. He looks at the period 1740-1839 and finds that the character of protest and resistance varied throughout the period. This is the early modernization period of Chinese history, and Hung believes that the subject of popular unrest has been overlooked in this period. The grasp of the central power of the state increased during this period, and it also represented a major advance in commercialization of Chinese society. The main source of data on protests during this period that Hung analyzes is the Veritable Records of the Qing, a compendium of shortened versions of edicts and memorials from the emperor and other officials. Out of the 2,096 volumes of this archive Hung identifies 514 events of popular protest and 450 events of petitions to higher officials (55).  His empirical work involves coding hundreds of contentious events during the period, classifying them, and looking for patterns of change over time.  But how to categorize?  Here is his overview description of his approach:

I classify the documented protest events into different types according to their claims and repertoires. A protest’s claim is a set of articulated demands advanced by the participants. The repertoire of a protest is the set of learned or invented acts that the protesters performed to attract the attention of potential participants and the authorities, as well as to persuade or force the authorities to meet their demands. (58)

One distinction between events that he draws from the existing literature on contention and rebellion is between backward looking and modernizing protests. Essentially the former represent demands to secure existing rights (or re-establish recently extinguished rights). The latter take the form of proactive protests aimed at creating new opportunities and rights within an emerging set of economic or social institutions. Hung rightly rejects the idea that European experience can provide a full theory of contentious politics. So he insists on using the evidence of non-western movements as an alternative basis of analysis and theory. China’s experience in the mid-Qing provides an ample basis for arriving at such a scheme. 

Hung doubts the utility of the concept of “backward-looking” protest in the mid-Qing period. Instead, he argues that protests throughout the period were proactive and aimed at securing better outcomes in the future for the protesters, in light of changing political and economic conditions. The large distinction that Hung favors as a way of categorizing contention has to do with the purpose and style of the mobilization. “Filial protest”, or “state-engaging” protest, involves collective action intended to implore the state to honor its obligations. “State-resisting” protest involves action deliberately designed to challenge the authority and power of the state, often with the threat or reality of violence (58). And Hung believes this scheme is valuable for China, in part, because some surprising patterns emerge through these lenses. In particular, he finds the frequency of state-resisting protest varies significantly along this timeframe, from a high point in 1600-44 of 94% to a low in 1740-59 of 40%, rising again between 1776 and 1839 (figure 6.1).

Hung’s account highlights several important things about Chinese protest. First is the point that protests exist within a set of material social arrangements that provide the interests that lead to mobilization. So an important dimension of analysis for uncovering the causes of a wave of protests is to analyze the changing economic and political circumstances that created new pressures and opportunities for ordinary people.  Second is the point that culture and repertoires of resistance give form to the protests that emerge.  Here he gives causal importance to Confucian ideas about the state, but also to heterodox ideas stemming from non-Confucian traditions (for example, White Lotus Buddhism).

A very old feature of Chinese protest involves the delivery of petitions to the central government (emperor) to protest abuses by local officials, tax farmers, or other scourges of peasant life.

In Qing times (1644-1911), a common remedy for powerless subjects abused by local officials was to travel all the way to Beijing to appeal to the emperor as their grand patriarch, hoping he would sympathize with their plight and penalize corrupt local officials. (1)

And, as Hung points out, this tradition continued through 1989 and beyond.

So what about Wukan?  Does Hung’s analysis of mid-Qing protest shed any light on the nature of protest there?

Accounts make several things clear.  First, the cause of popular unrest that precipitated the first round of protest in Wukan had to do with an important material issue (land seizures) and the actions of potentially corrupt local officials in collusion with powerful developers.  Second, the protest intensified dramatically in the past 10 days after security officials took violent action against elected leaders of the protesters, leading to the seizure of Xue Jinbo and his death in police custody. Third, it appears through news reports that protests took the form of non-violent appeals for relief against corrupt officials — similar to the tradition of filial protest.  The tradition of taking the protest to higher officials is also illustrated here, with the stated intention of marching to Lufeng, the local administrative center. Here is an indicative passage from the New York Times:

Almost to a person, the villagers are holding out hope that leaders in Beijing will intervene to settle the dispute and to investigate what they contend is widespread corruption in local affairs, including land sales. Saturday’s rally, laced with chants like “We love the Communist Party,” stressed the villagers’ loyalty to the central government. One prominent banner begged the central government to come to their aid. (link)

But the same article raises the possibility that this protest may move from state-engaging to state-resisting as villagers come to believe that they have no recourse from the central government:

“Our original intent was just to get our land back,” a 29-year-old homemaker who identified herself only as Mrs. Zhu said as she stood under a Chinese flag, mounted on a makeshift pole at a protesters’ checkpoint on the village outskirts. “We never intended that things would get into such a situation.”Asked what could be done, she replied: “We have to fight to the end. That’s the only way out. If we retreat now, all the hardships the government imposed on us will come true.”

Hung provides an interesting tabulation of several important characteristics of protests in mid-Qing China that I’ve reproduced below. I’ve supplemented the table in two ways.  First, I’ve included in this table the data Hung reports on the incidence of state-resisting protests, which vary significantly throughout the period he studies (figure 6.1). Second, I’ve added an additional column of my own indicating how Wukan seems to measure up on these criteria.  The finding that I’ve come to is that Wukan began as a “filial protest” through which villagers sought to engage the state to obtain relief from local officials.  The protest has been pushed into a more “state-resisting” posture, however, as a result of the violence and intransigence of local and county officials, and the fact that Beijing has so far ignored the villagers’ demands.

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