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Despite China's two-decade modernization, rural China, accounting for 70 percent of the country's total population, is still beset by economic difficulties and political instability. Is rural discontent a serious threat to China's national stability? Four experts gathered for a November 12 seminar at the Woodrow Wilson Center to explore this and related issues. The four speakers for the seminar were Jean C. Oi of Stanford University, Xiaobo Lu of Columbia University, Yawei Liu of the Carter Center, and Melanie Manion of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. On the next day, Oi and Liu spoke at a Capitol Hill breakfast seminar for congressional staff on the same topic.

Oi observed the overall increase of peasant burdens, discontent, and unrest in China's rural areas. However, most peasant protests have been isolated, and directed largely at corrupt village cadres, not the regime itself. Since the late 1990s, township governments have reasserted economic and political control over village affairs, which made village cadre corruption more difficult. Yet, the return by townships to direct control of village affairs was occurring at the same time as the central government issued the 1998 Organic Law of Villagers Committees, which guarantees the right of all villages to hold competitive elections. The question is whether elected village officials have autonomy to run the village without interference from the newly strengthened townships.

Lu argued that rapid industrialization in rural areas of coastal provinces has dramatically improved the lives of farmers, while township and village enterprises grew more slowly in the central provinces and still more slowly in the western belt. The grain-producing provinces in central China are the areas where farmers suffer the heaviest tax burdens and thus protest more frequently than in the other rural areas. Peasant violent and non-violent collective actions against township officials increased in the 1990s. These actions include group visits to higher authorities above the township, evasion of taxes or fees, demonstrations, sit-ins and blockades of roads and railroads, sacking of party-government compounds, and beating and killing of local cadres. But rural protests have not turned into nation-wide social movements. With an ongoing reform in the rural taxation system, the Chinese regime may be able to maintain stability in the countryside.

Liu agreed with Oi and Lu that there is no nation-wide turmoil in China's rural areas. According to Liu, several factors have contributed to the de-escalation of the rural crisis. First, Chinese leaders and many local officials are keenly aware that the growing discontent of the peasants is destabilizing the situation in the countryside. Second, the central government has adopted several measures to increase peasants' income and reduce their tax burdens. Third, the restless Chinese peasants, being totally separated from the industrial workers and urban elite, do not have visionary leaders for a cross-regional rebellion. Fourth, direct village elections and village self-government have provided a channel for villagers to vent their complaints and protest against social unfairness. However, a more serious rural revolt cannot be excluded unless real peasants' self-government is realized, Liu maintained.

In her commentary, Manion highlighted social instability in rural China, an issue that cannot be resolved simply through reforming the tax system or monitoring village/township officials by higher levels of government. According to Manion, the fundamental solution for monitoring local officials and preventing rural crisis is to develop real democracy in China's countryside, and expand democratic practices from villages to townships as well as higher levels.

China's new leadership apparently realizes the threatening crisis in the hinterland, and has given priority to industrializing rural townships and developing China's western regions. However, it is unclear whether the new leadership has a vision to seriously practice democracy in China's countryside. As the four speakers implicitly or explicitly suggested, economic solutions alone cannot alleviate widespread rural discontent, a potential time bomb for the Chinese regime.

Drafted by Gang Lin, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program