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Momentum of rural development started from within

By Ren Jidong | 2016-08-17 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Rural governance in modern times


Cartoon by Gou Ben; Poem by Long Yuan


Two forces dictated rural governance
Like the two legs that push our movements.
Together they always push and pull
To add balance and make development full.
While administrative authority was considerable,
Clan authority and local rules were inheritable.
Village communities were diversified.
At various times they are not unified.


Understanding what forces drive development and social governance of the villages in modern China (1840-1949) is essential when evaluating the influence of modernization on traditional rural society.


Two driving forces
Generally speaking, rural development is driven by two forces: endogenous growth power and national administration.

Throughout its long-term natural evolution, rural society has growth through self-development and self-reproduction, which has been strengthened in practice. In the process, a binding system of values has emerged that has been adapted to the land system, clan identity and cultural values. The derivative system of supply and distribution, the formation of a whole set of rules and regulations as well as the resulting cultural forms also represent endogenous sources of growth.

Thus, a steady social structure has come into being, which has been maintained through intergenerational inheritance and replacement as well as social norms and conventions. The countryside has traditionally been ruled by a gentry composed of intellectuals who failed the imperial examination, retired officials, literate landlords and influential patriarchs.

By virtue of advantages in ideological monopoly and institutional resources, administrative authority has been imposed on the villages by the central government to deconstruct the family-centered rural order. The approach aims to promote development in villages through standardized governance and administrative planning.

Throughout history, the two forces have waxed and waned, exerting a combined impact on the development trajectory of rural society. In particular, compulsive administration provides a decisive dynamic for rural development. Nonetheless, the momentum of endogenous growth also plays a significant role in this respect to some extent.


Historical governance
In imperial times, the country established a nationwide governance model and regional division to realize uniform administration in all villages, which was a political mission that required state power to accomplish. Through a succession of historical fissions and fusions, rural governance was implemented by all dynasties as an essential component of state power.


After the establishment and consolidation of the state, the feudal imperial court gradually relaxed its direct control over rural society while strengthening the centralization of authority. Then, the administrative power faded out from the rural area and the official construction gave way to the spontaneous order derived from endogenous growth.

For instance, a person’s virtues and talents were no longer valued when selecting the village leader. Instead, the ability to seek economic interests for the state was more emphasized than the ability to control the village. Therefore, rural governance became marginalized, leaving it in a semi-official and semi-autonomous position. However, the proportion and effects of the two forces varied by region.

The explanation for the coexistence of the two forces can be found in many studies. After studying rural society in north China, American historian and Sinologist Prasenjit Duara found that villages in the region underwent the same process of development after a village regime was formed that had the right to levy taxes. The central authority established the village as an administrative unit below the county level to serve as a source of government revenue, realizing administrative and geographical uniformity.

Helen Siu, a Chinese-American professor of anthropology at Yale University, pointed out that traditional villages had a greater degree of autonomy. The nation authorized local elite to govern social and community life, and the imperial power did not participate in the management of affairs in areas below the county level.

Also, Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong (1910-2005) proposed the theory of dual-track politics: Traditional society was governed along two parallel tracks—top-down emperor-centered bureaucracy and bottom-up autonomy by grassroots organizations. In rural governance, the patriarchal clan constitutes the organizational basis for rural governance by the gentry.

However, it was a different picture in modern China, when political power was manifested in villages through bureaucratization and rationalization in order to expand sources of revenue for military and civil purposes. At the same time, however, rural society struggled against political intervention and financial extortion. The state sought to form alliances with new elite to consolidate its power.

In this way, administrative authority stormed its way back into rural society and collided with endogenous forces once again. Under the irresistible trend of administrative integration, the central government succeeded in framing out administrative planning for villages. However, the national authority declined, and there was fight against centralized rule in modern China. As a result, rural conventions and the inherent ruling power were not entirely replaced by external administration while continuing to play role in the integration.

In his studies, Chinese-American historian Philip Huang also found that when the state attempted to make administration in rural areas uniform by adopting groupings of five or 10 households as the basic unit of management, villages only appeared to comply with reforms while internally maintaining the traditional hierarchies.

Duara pointed out that state power partly broke apart the original political system in villages in the process of modernization, and that the new elite who put profit-making first replaced the original rulers who contributed to village protection. However, it should be noted that such a transformation, in essence, represents a change of the interest group within the village. This indicates that in traditional or modern Chinese villages, governance construction was founded on rural conventions and hierarchy.


Dynamic interplay
The dynamic game between the endogenous and administrative forces brought into being an autocratic unity in traditional China on one hand. The state reached into every corner of villages by strengthening organizational construction. For instance, the 10-household system was introduced to achieve mutual supervision in neighborhoods, and the 110-household system of management was intended to facilitate population registry for taxation purposes.


On the other hand, there were autonomous village communities that had a high but differentiated level of autonomy based on the clan authority and rural regulations. American sociologist Sidney Gamble (1890-1968) said that Chinese villagers had a considerable degree of control over local affairs and were able to reclaim what was taken from them by the central authority through various reforms.

Thus, the integration of governance has always been accompanied by the diversification of forms of governance. Villages could not completely resist the coercive force of the state, which, however, in turn was unable to absolutely devour the inherent system in villages. In modern China, the historical inertia and the weakening of the national authority made it inevitable for rural traditions to continue to play a vital role. Nevertheless, their forms have been constantly changing in response to drastic transformations in society at that time.

Therefore, it has been difficult to promote state authority nationwide, even in a county, because endogenous growth momentum continues to play an important role. The dynamic balance of the two forces imbued rural governance in different periods with distinctive characteristics of the times.

Rural development in modern China is a result of the combination of administrative and endogenous forces, and it is inadvisable to neglect the influence of any one. Moreover, the formation of the rural governance mode has also been shaped by the interplay of the two forces.


Ren Jidong is from the Institute of History at the Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences.