Peasant Challenge in Post-Communist China

Weixing Chen. Journal of Contemporary China. Volume 6, Issue 14. March 1997.

Peasants constitute about 73% of China’s population. To a large extent, the success of China’s modernization program and transition depends on where peasants are heading. Peasants have posed new challenges for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the 1990s after 17-year economic reform. This article argues that these challenges derive from the empowerment of the peasants since the mid-1980s. How well the CCP could deal with these challenges directly concerns China’s political stability and reform. Through the examination of the evolution of the peasant-CCP relations and of the implications of the challenges for China in the 1990s and beyond, this article raises an open question for China scholars to address.

Peasant challenge has always been one of the most crucial issues to address in China, as China was and still is an agrarian society. China’s peasant population in 1992 constituted about 73% of China’s total population. Historically, Chinese revolution succeeded largely because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was able to build a revolutionary movement on peasant discontent through careful, pains-taking organization. The Maoist model of development from 1958 to 1976 failed because it built peasant discontent by binding peasants physically on land and politically under the people’s commune system. Responding to the need for economic development and peasants desire and demand for a better life, the CCP launched a modernization program in the late 1970s. Unlike the military and political campaign before 1949 and the political and economic program under the Maoist model of development, the modernization program is primarily an economic drive and its success requires the empowerment of the peasants through demobilization rather than mobilization.

The empowerment of the peasants has thus posed new challenges for the CCP in the 1990s The seriousness of the peasant challenge, as Jiang Zemin (chairman of the CCP and president of the People’s Republic of China) pointed out at a national work conference (26-31 October 1994) convened by the CCP Central Committee and participated by all provincial governors and heads of party and government departments concerned, directly concerns China’s stability, the CCP’s position as a party in power, and the success of China’s modernization program. As such, a study of the peasant challenge has significant theoretical and practical implications for China’s transition.

This article examines the evolution of peasant-CCP relations, discusses the empowerment of the peasants and outlines the consequences of the empowerment of the peasants and their implications for China in the 1990s and beyond.

Peasant-CCP Relations in Historical Perspective

The peasant-CCP relations have undergone three distinctive phases of development since the 1920s. The peasant-CCP relations, before the CCP became a party in power in 1949, has been described by the CCP as water-fish relations (the CCP is the fish and the masses, primarily peasants are the water). The fish-water relationship was largely determined by the hostile environment in which the CCP was placed. To survive and succeed, the CCP, as a weak side in its competition with the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang), must seek masses’ especially peasants’ support as the peasants was the CCP’s power base. Since the CCP’s policy and success were contingent on peasants’ response and acceptance, the CCP had to take peasants interests and response seriously. The politically and militarily competitive environment of the revolutionary period, as Womack points out, constrained the CCP to be ‘mass-regarding’ in policy and behavior despite their authoritarian internal structures.

The fish-water relationship, based on perceived common interest, was one of mutual dependence. Such a relationship was organizational and personal. It was personal, because the CCP members and cadres sacrificed their lives to fight for the peasants, while the peasants supported and protected the CCP members and cadres in their fight. The role played by the peasants under such circumstances was direct and clear-cut. If the CCP members and cadres separated themselves from the peasants they found it difficult to accomplish anything, and their very safety and livelihood were jeopardized. It was organizational, because Chinese revolution was a rural revolution and the CCP’s political strategy was to mobilize the peasants. To liberate and mobilize the peasants was both the means and the immediate end of the revolution.

The CCP’s victory in 1949, however, changed the context of the peasant-CCP relationship. The CCP became a party in power in 1949, and with the establishment of a monopoly of state power by the CCP, the CCP also became the state. Under the new circumstances, peasants lost the clout with the party-state and peasants could, by no means, compel state leaders to change policy. If what the CCP fought for was also what the peasants wanted before, what the CCP wanted to accomplish after 1949 was not necessarily what the peasants wanted even though, programmatically, the interests of the masses still provided policy goals of the party-state. The relationship between the peasants and the party-state became organizational and impersonal.

It was no longer personal, because, as a Renmin Ribao editorial pointed out, ‘our party became the ruling party and the cadres became leading personnel in the government at all levels. In this new context, it became possible for them to entertain the illusion that they had become government officials while the masses were the common people under their jurisdiction’. It was still organizational, because it was still necessary, at least to the CCP leaders, to involve the peasants in the CCP’s effort to build a utopia in rural China. Different from the previous phase, however, mobilization of the peasants became the means for ideological ends this time.

To Maoists, the historic mission of the CCP in post-1949 China was to transform the Chinese society into a prosperous socialist one, materially and spiritually, in which productivity was advanced and people had high political consciousness. Ideological purity and economic development were thus the two facets of the same coin of development. The difficult doctrinal problem that the CCP had to face, however, was to create a socialist revolution and build a socialist society in an agrarian country close to its feudal past. How could the CCP create a socialist civilization without ties to private property in the search for utopia and achieve economic development at the same time in China? To Maoists, continuous socio-economic and political changes would enable them to fulfill these purposes.

The development strategy developed for this purpose was embodied in the ‘three red banners’ of (1) the ‘General Line for Socialist Construction’ (namely, go all out, aim high, and achieve greater, faster, better, and more economical results in building socialism), (2) the Great Leap Forward and (3) the People’s Commune. Mao believed that communization with the integration of xiang (township today) with the commune was the embryonic form of future society. The People’s Communes were to combine industry and agriculture, civilian and military affairs, and political leadership and economic management. It was hoped that a larger communist commune consisting of many people’s communes surrounding cities would emerge through the establishment of the people’s commune system in rural China.

It was also believed that communization through control over economic activity and the ownership of the means of production to higher levels in the structural hierarchy would enable a structural change in the form of collectivity and integrate vertically the rural organization, merge production teams and transfer control over supply and marketing cooperatives from individual peasants to the commune. Collectivization would not only bridge a backward agrarian China to a modern China, but also set the stage for the transition from socialism to communism by destroying the peasants’ tie to private property and making them rural proletarians.

The Great Leap was regarded as a great revolutionary movement that involved millions and millions of people. Implicitly, the people’s commune and the Great Leap became the Maoist instrument for carrying out the socially revolutionary measures of the transitional period in China.

Participation in the people’s commune was basically mandatary. The collective directly managed the land and labor of the producers living on that land within the parameters of tight state control. Individual peasants must participate in collective production and activities. If they didn’t, they would be penalized economically and politically. The collective produced what the state specified, purchased quantities of agricultural producer goods at state prices, and sold designed quantities of its produce to the state at low official prices.

According to the household registration and control system (implemented in 1955), collective members were bound to the village of their birth not only in the sense that they were barred from migrating elsewhere but also in that they were legally obligated to labor for, and on terms set by, the collective. State and collective closely restricted the movement of rural residents not only between town and countryside but also among different rural areas. As Mark Selden correctly stated, ‘the integration of peasants and land was so tight that one is almost tempted to say that the land owned the people’.

The framework of the people’s commune and the household registration and control thus bound the peasant legally and substantively to the land. As a result, peasants’ status under the people’s commune changed from that of ‘water’ to that of ‘slave’. Under such circumstances, peasants’ power was, at most, residual. Peasants had to and did occasionally employ ‘the weapons of the weak’, such as cheating, lying, and stealing to squeeze unintended results out of state policy. Daniel Kelliher in his study discussed various ways in which peasants tried to change political outcomes. In each case, what power the peasants could bring to bear was unsanctioned; it intruded on state policy deliberations surreptitiously, covertly, illegally.

The ideal world that Maoists had been trying to build fell short of their dreams. Instead, Maoist effort produced three undesirable outcomes: the permanent sacrifice of the peasants to the state and the consequent economic stagnation in rural China; deep grievances against the political chaos and economic losses that alienated peasants and large segments of the society from the CCP; and the questioning of the CCP’s legitimacy. A regime whose legitimacy was based on future promises was legitimate only if its policy was successful and its promises were fulfilled. The situation in which the CCP was by 1978 was so difficult that a reevaluation of policies, values, and goals was inevitable. The serious situation, blessed by the death of Mao himself in 1976, created an unprecedented opportunity for change. The reform that was started in the late 1970s implied a new era of peasant-CCP relationship. The major feature of the new relationship was the empowerment of the peasants in the CCP-sponsored modernization drive.

The Empowerment of the Peasants in Post-Mao China

In the previous two phases, peasant power was mobilized through organizational means to serve the CCP’s political and military purposes. Unlike the previous two phases, the CCP must demobilize the peasants through organizational means in its modernization drive. The empowerment of the peasants can be seen as a result of three factors: the CCP’s effort to demobilize the peasants, the unintentional aggregation of peasants interest and the necessity for economic development.

Four major changes had occurred by the 1990s: the CCP was being changed from a party of politics to a party of economics with the change of its developmental goal and the rejection of class struggle and political and ideological campaigns; a planned economy has been replaced by a semi-planned, semi-market economy; the state-society relationship has changed, and all societal institutions are now exposed to market competition. As a result of these changes, peasants have gained greater freedom and autonomy, which is reflected in five respects.

First of all, with the rejection of the ideological and political campaign, the state has lost a familiar vehicle for direct political control over peasants.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, ideological and political campaigns were a regular occurrence in China. Ideological and political campaigns had enabled the state to penetrate the village. Before 1978, economic goals were never considered on a par with ideological goals, and peasants involvement and participation in ideological and political campaigns was a matter of mandate, as politics directly affected peasants material interests. Ideological goals are unlikely to come to the fore again in the 1990s unless the CCP wants to reverse the economic reform, which would be enormously difficult after 15-year reform even if the CCP was capable of doing it. This is because the downward transfer of authority since the reform has made ideological and political campaign an ineffective instrument of penetration and control, as the implementation of the household responsibility system characterized by the assignment of land to individual peasants, division of village collective properties, and lease of the village enterprise by individual peasants and the dismantlement of the people’s commune in 1984 have greatly weakened the organizational and institutional linkage between the state and the peasants. As a result, the CCP has lost its material and organizational basis for political leadership in the countryside.

Secondly, the planned economy has been replaced by a semi-planned, semi-market economy. The state’s power and control today are largely imposed indirectly on peasants through its guidance planning, finance, price and tax policy, and its control over resource allocation.

The former village brigade was under the influence and control of a centralized command planning. The village’s income and benefits were directly tied to their economic performance but the village had little freedom for its own production and economic activity. Teams and brigades could not sell, transfer, or rent their land, except as directed by the state. Nor could they autonomously decide what to grow, or even not to cultivate unproductive land. Peasants had no right to sell, rent, or leave the land and were even heavily restricted in the use of their private plots. Peasants were forced to depend on the collective economy for the satisfaction of their various needs.

Today, Chinese peasants are still under the influence of the state’s guidance planning but they are more autonomous in their production and economic activity. They have the freedom to determine their own economic activity and to develop their own strength of production in response to the market. They also have control over their own labor and products.

The economic model under the people’s commune placed extreme emphasis on maximizing grain production throughout China. Peasants today are engaged in diversified economic activities. The share of rural output value contributed by agriculture has declined dramatically since the mid-1980s. For instance, 70% of China’s total rural social output value in 1993 was from rural enterprise, and 60% of nine hundred million Chinese peasants’ net income was from the rural enterprise.

Thirdly, peasants used to be bound on the land which they neither owned nor had control over by a strict registration system under the people’s commune. They were unable to move freely, because the strict residential registration system coupled with a strict rationing system in an environment of scarcity made it impossible for peasants to make a living in areas other than their own registered residential area. Since the land on which they were bound was publicly owned and managed, peasants were virtually reduced to the slave of the land in the locality. With the dismantlement of the people’s commune, the change of public ownership and management of land to public ownership and private management, the relaxation of ration system and the abolishment of the ration coupon system, peasants are no longer bound on the land. Thanks to these changes, the household registration system, though still intact, was no longer binding on peasants. Peasants are free to leave their land as they wish and go wherever they want to.

Fourthly, peasants have always been the third-rate citizens in China. On one hand, peasants were forced to sacrifice their own interests to support industry and urban residents. They were forced to sell goods and products to the state at discount prices, to plant grain instead of profitable economic crops; and to submit to a set of exchanges that built relative prosperity in the cities while confining peasants to the penurious countryside. On the other hand, the socialist state had never intended to guarantee benefits and services for its peasants beyond disaster relief, and Chinese peasants never enjoyed the same kind of services and benefits provided by the state as urban residents and state employees, such as health insurance, pensions, subsidies, housing, and other state-provided services.

Chinese peasants are in a much better position today despite the fact that they are still discriminated against in certain areas. For the first time since 1949, their third-rate citizen status has really been improved. They do not have to sacrifice as much interest as before to the state and urban residents. They are able to make full use of their advantages and enjoy a larger share of their own economic success.

Finally, with more freedom and better opportunities for individual peasants and with the rise of the rural enterprise and the development of cross-region, cross-province and multinational corporations, peasants today are able to and are better equipped to rebel against local governments and escape from various government constraints.

Peasants today are still vulnerable to the depredations of local officials in the form of ad hoc taxes and fees. But peasants do not have to employ the ‘weapons of the weak’ to deal with these depredations. They could openly rebel against local authorities. According to Chinese press reports, at least 830 incidents of rural rebellion involving more than 500 people each were recorded in 1993, including 21 cases involving crowds of more than 5,000.

Today, peasants are also in a much better position to maximize their economic opportunity by evading government regulations, insulating themselves from the government’s political penetration and taking advantage of the gray area between legal and illegal, and are more flexible in allocating their own resources for whatever purposes.

Peasants are empowered also because of the unintentional interest aggregation of the peasants’ interests. The CCP’s effort to demobilize peasants was made through mobilization. Despite the tendency of decentralizing policy, China’s economic reform is after all a state-sponsored project. Peasants throughout China have been guided or misguided by projects such as the household responsibility system in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the dismantlement of the people’s commune in the mid-1980s, and privatization in the late 1980s and in the 1990s. The consequence, as Daniel Kelliher points out, is that ‘they may unintentionally react to openings for change with overwhelming unity and in overwhelming numbers’. Peasants’ interest, aggregated this way unintentionally, exerts great influence on the government. The government has to always pay special attention to peasant’s move and respond to peasants’ demand. Such peasant power has become more significant since the reform because peasant power aggregated this way can not be easily channeled into organizational action for the CCP’s purpose and the CCP can no longer take order and stability for granted as they did before.

Finally, the empowerment of the peasants derives from the necessity for the success of China’s economic reform.

Rural development is essentially important in China, because peasants constitute about 73% of China’s population and the success of China’s modernization program depends largely on rural development. Unlike other developing and post-communist countries, China could not possibly absorb its large rural population into its urban areas. In its drive for modernization, China has to develop rural areas and turn rural areas into urban areas through industrialization. To promote rural development and industrialization in the rural area, the CCP not only must conscientiously protect peasants’ interest and encourage and endorse peasants’ initiatives in rural development but also must conscientiously empower peasants by all means. The empowerment of the peasants is, after all, the key to the success of rural development.

For centuries, Chinese peasants have been engaged in a fight against nature for subsistence. Agricultural production, though constrained by the rigid central policy before 1978, had managed to grow over the years. By 1980, two decades of effort by peasants had paid off, and most peasants were no longer troubled by subsistence. The mentality of ‘moral peasants’ is being replaced by that of ‘rational peasants’. Blessed by the new policy environment and countered by large surplus of labor, Chinese peasants, freed to leave agriculture and eager to seek better economic opportunities, turned to handicrafts, transportation, service trades, rural enterprise, and commercial activities and were starting to explore all kinds of possibilities and opportunities for profit. The mid-1980s thus witnessed the beginning of the third wave of rural development in China.

The empowerment of the peasants have been a mixed blessing so far. On the positive side, China became the fastest growing economy in the world in the 1980s, and peasants have contributed enormously to China’s economic growth. About 30% of China’s general social output value increase, 35% of national industrial output value increase and 45% of China’s total export have been contributed by rural enterprise alone for the last fifteen years. On the negative side, the empowerment of the peasants has created serious social and political problems. These problems have posed new challenges for the CCP in the 1990s and beyond.

Peasant Challenge in the 1990s

The empowerment of the peasants has resulted in the reinforced old Chinese traditions and customs (which were weakened if not destroyed in Mao’s era), the emergence of unprecedented diversification of economic activity, the widening gap between the rich and the poor and between the developed areas and underdeveloped areas, the diminishing arable land, the dramatic decline of agricultural production, and large surplus of labor in the rural area. The direct consequences of all these are: first, the wealthy and developed regions and villages have developed a tendency toward localism; second, large numbers of temporary rural-urban migrants from poor and undeveloped areas have emerged, which have created various social, political and policy problems; third, with the reemergence of old traditions and customs has emerged a new form of politics—guanxi (connection) politics, which has contributed to the rampancy of corruption throughout the society; and fourth, China is heading for an ecological nightmare.


Localism could be described at several levels. Provinces have always been the traditional and powerful level of government in China. Some people worry that the center could no longer regain the control over the provinces it had just a decade ago without severe economic consequences and that the center is in danger of losing its general regulative capacity. The provinces, however, are facing the same rising demands from their localities and citizens within their provinces. As the question of where is all this heading? is too big to be dealt with comprehensively, this paper concentrates on one facet of these developments, namely, the development of localism for the successful villages—the most basic-level societal institution in rural China.

Parallel to the process of privatization (the implementation of the household responsibility system) described above was the transformation into today’s village conglomerates (VC) of the villages that did not undergo the process of privatization. The VC that has evolved from the former village brigade is a natural village-based communal collective with considerable diversification in agricultural production, industrial production and commercial activities. It is a collective because land, property and enterprises are owned by the VC, and various activities are conducted under the unified leadership of the VC party organization and under the management of the village committee. VC membership is primarily limited to the natural village residents. Unlike state-run enterprises, the VC is responsible for its own success and for providing services and benefits for its own members.

The VC, in many respects, has been the pioneer in the third wave of rural development. The ten most wealthy villages (with income of over 1 billion yuan renminbi) nationwide in 1993 were all VCs. In Shandong Province’s Yantai district, the 84 most developed villages (with income of over 100,000,000 yuan) in 1993 were also VCs. Thanks to their success, many VCs have developed a tendency toward localism, and some of them have become ‘local empires’ that are independent of local, municipal, as well as provincial governments and bully and oppress their neighbor villages. Many VCs are able to establish their own ‘empires’, both because of their wealth and economic strength, established ties and connections, and their monopoly of the local market and economy and because of their political influence. In some extreme cases, they developed their own security forces. With the emergence of these VCs have also risen the new rural elites. Mary B. Rankin, in her study of the commercial expansion in late imperial China, used a tripartite division of state, public, and private to delineate the growth of ‘elite activism’ that emerged in the gray area between state and society. In traditional China, a ruling elite of gentry-scholar-bureaucrats was always able to dominate political, economic, and cultural life. The new rural elites that have emerged with the rise of the VC are both party secretaries and entrepreneurs who represent both the state and the society. They are not only ‘red and expert’ but also wealthy. One case in point is the well-publicized Daqiu VC in suburban Tianjin.

Daqiu VC has become one of the most wealthy villages in China since the reform. In 1992, its agricultural and industrial output value reached 4 billion yuan, and its per capita output value was about one million yuan. Under it were hundreds of factories and enterprises and 28 joint ventures. It hired thousands of employees, many of whom were professionals from urban areas throughout the nation. There were more than six hundred private cars in Daqiu VC, about thirty of which were Mercedes Benz. All villagers are now living in contemporary spacious houses. Yu Zuomin, president and party secretary of the Daqiu VC, won the title of national peasant entrepreneur and became a national model worker in 1989. He was also a deputy to the National People’s Congress. With the accumulation of economic wealth and political influence, Yu began to build his own empire, developed his own security force, and became the ‘king’ of his kingdom. Neither the local government nor the local public security bureau could penetrate his empire. This case was first exposed because of homicide committed by the executive board of Daqiu VC.

Wei Fuhe, a non-resident of Daqiu, was hired by Daqiu VC in 1990. As an outsider, Wei was suspected of graft and embezzlement and was brought to trial by the Daqiu executive board. When Wei denied the charges, he was tortured to death. When public security officers from Tianjin public security bureau came to investigate this case, they were held in custody by the Daqiu security force. These officers were not released until the direct intervention by the Tianjin Municipal government. The Tianjin Municipal government then organized a special committee to investigate this case and sent four hundred armed police to blockade Daqiu village. Yu Zuomin and many others were eventually arrested and sentenced for murder, but only after frustrated pressure from national media, party and government. Yu was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment.

Daqiu VC is an exception only in that it was exposed and reported. There are many other empires like Daqiu throughout China today. TO a certain degree, Daqiu can be seen as a microcosm of a national pattern.

Peasant Mobility

The great success story of the richer areas has been the growth of enterprises. About 120 million peasants are now employed by various rural enterprises. But the overall picture of rural China is not as encouraging. Peasants’ incomes in the poor areas have been stagnant for the past decade while inflation has been in double digits. The income correlation shows that the more dependent a province or an area is on farming, the more poor its people. As a result, investment in agriculture has been at a low ebb, having fallen from 6% of all national investment in 1981 to 1% in 1993. At the same time, rising farm productivity has left perhaps more than 110 million peasants without regular work. Under these circumstances and thanks to the freedom and autonomy that peasants have gained, a large ‘floating’ population of temporary rural-urban migrants has emerged. The number of temporary rural-urban migrants has increased dramatically in recent years. Approximately 130 million rural Chinese have migrated to cities in search of better lives, and in the next decade, millions more are expected to leave the countryside.

In China, temporary migration is not defined in terms of its duration but in terms of the official household registration at the time of the move. Large numbers of temporary rural-urban migrants have been a mixed blessing for China. On the positive side, these migrants have contributed to China’s economic growth in general by providing needed cheap labor for the urban area, and to rural development in particular by bringing capital, information, technology and know-how from the developed coastal urban areas such as Guangzhou and Fujian to rural areas. But on the negative side, these migrants have created serious social, political and policy problems. The problems produced by this large ‘floating’ population include but are not limited to crimes, pressure on infrastructure, tensions between migrants and urban residents, birth control, pollution, education, and potential political instability. As temporary rural-urban migrants are a ‘floating’ population that is under nobody’s jurisdiction, they have become a tough problem for the CCP to tackle.

The dramatic increase in crime rate for the last ten years can be attributed partly to this ‘floating’ population. Crimes such as drug-dealings, prostitution, robbery, trade in human beings and stealing, are largely associated with these temporary rural-urban migrants. In an environment of ‘money worship’, many of the temporary migrants would do whatever necessary to make money. Illegal activities turned out to be one of the quickest ways to make big money for many of them. The majority of the prostitutes in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and other major cities today belong to this population. Most drug-related crimes, robbery and trading in human beings are also associated with this large ‘floating’ population.

Given the limited resources and lack of space in the already crowded cities, this ‘floating’ population has also created enormous pressure on communication, transportation and service facilities in the urban areas. Numerous villages such as Sichuan village, Anhui village, etc. (migrant ‘slums’ for peasants from the same province) have emerged in the inner corners of big cities in recent years throughout China. These ‘city villages’ have caused serious environmental problems such as pollution and epidemics. All these have created tensions between urban residents and these temporary migrants, which may result in riots any time.

This large ‘floating’ population has also brought about many policy problems such as education and birth control. Thousands upon thousands of migrants’ children would not have opportunities to go to school both due to the limited school facilities and high tuition for these non-urban residents and due to their illegal status and discriminating admission policies. Given the fact that this population is under nobody’s jurisdiction, it seems impossible to control the births of this population.

Politically, such a large ‘floating’ population is itself a source of instability. The real nightmare to the central government is that if this large ‘floating’ population, no matter for whatever purpose or reason, is allied with radicalized urban groups or students, order would be out of control.

Guanxi Politics and Corruption

There has been a popular saying in China: nothing could be accomplished without guanxi. Guanxi politics today is the key to understanding the human realities of life, society and politics. Guanxi politics is a complicated social, cultural and political phenomenon, and the patterns of guanxi are complex and variegated. In general, it refers to interpersonal connections and relations. Often it involves behind-scene deals, transactions and politics. Connection-building, deal-making, haggling and shielding of all with and against all at every level of society have become a way of life in China today. At a higher level, peasants and basic-level societal entities are networked through interpersonal connections with the state and with each other. At a lower level, guanxi politics concerns interpersonal relations and connections within a community and in the society. The sources of guanxi include but are not limited to kinship, social and cultural ties, exchange relationships, connections with the party and government apparatus, and connections based on the transaction of goods, service and money.

Guanxi politics can be attributed to several factors. Traditionally, Chinese society has always been a group-oriented society which the economic reform of the last fifteen years has not been able to change. Living so closely involved with family members, neighbors and other people has accustomed the Chinese people to group-oriented collective life that gives the high priority to interpersonal connections and community life. Empowered and enriched, peasants thus have become the most bold practitioners of guanxi politics.

Politically, if the relationship between peasants and the state in the context of an official ideology and a command economy is impersonal, guanxi politics, which is based on interpersonal relations and connections, is naturally becoming more important after the general failure of communist ideology, the rejection of political campaigns, and the transformation of the command economy. The institutional and organizational linkage between the state and the peasant has always been weaker, even under the people’s commune in Mao’s era. Vivienne Shue discussed this weak linkage by describing the village communal solidarity and the impotence of the center at the village level in Mao’s era. The weak organizational and institutional linages between the state and the peasants have collapsed in the countryside since 1984. According to a Renmin Ribao report, the more than 800,000 basic-level organizations in the countryside throughout China must be rebuilt soon, because they are not functioning.

Socially and economically, under the current framework of ‘socialism with competitive capitalism’, guanxi politics has proven to be indispensable to the function and operation of the economy and society due to its role in adjusting the circulation of resources in the society and the demand-supply relationship on the market. Guanxi politics enables everybody to get what they deserve and what they could afford. After 15-year practice of guanxi politics, it has been institutionalized and life would stop without guanxi.

Starting in the late 1970s, peasants started exercising, without much restraint, the century-old tradition of ‘paying tribute’ to high-ranking officials in the central, provincial and local governments. In return, peasants got what they paid for, such as loans, contract, scarce resources, etc. Given the high inflation rate and relatively low income for majority of government officials and employees and the appeal of ‘money worship’ in a market environment, extra income is not only attractive but also of necessity for government officials and employees to make a decent living. Since guanxi politics often involves behind-scene dealings and transactions on an individual basis that involve the use of power and state and collective resources for personal gains, guanxi politics and corruption are two sides of one coin. With its ‘institutionalization’, guanxi politics has contributed to the rampancy of corruption in the society.

This author visited several very successful VCs in Shandong Province in 1992. In describing their successful stories, all the VC leaders claimed that one of the most important reasons why they succeeded was that they could freely use their resources to build guanxi networks. Large sums of money were spent every year for this purpose in each and every one of these successful VCs. Guanxi networks have enabled them to get low-interest loan, important information, contracts, scarce resources, and special favorable policies. The department of ‘public relations’ or guanxi has proven to be indispensable to their competitive edge and success.

Andrew Walder and Jean Oi studied ‘the patron-client’ relationship in the context of a Communist ideology and planned economy. The essential difference between the patron-client relationship described by Walder and Oi and guanxi politics is that the former provides an structural and institutional explanation while the latter focuses on interpersonal relations and connections in the absence of an institutional structure. The old structures that created clientelist politics have broken down in the countryside.

Guanxi politics should also be distinguished from clientelist politics in a corporate state. Clientelist politics emphasizes organized interest and representation in the policy-making process, whereas guanxi politics, as emphasized time and again in this article, focuses on interpersonal connections and relations.

An Ecological Nightmare

The transformation of rural China from centralized agriculture to decentralized agriculture has also significant ecological implications.

China’s cultivated land per head is about 800 square meters, well below the world average. China has to manage to feed about 24% of the world’s population from about 7% of the world’s arable land. China has continuously been losing agricultural land. China has already lost about a third of its cropland over the past 40 years to soil erosion, desertification, energy projects, and, at an accelerating rate since the economic reform, to deforestation and industrial and housing development. The central government had primarily concentrated on industrial development despite its lip service to the importance of agriculture since the mid-1990s. The open space for industrial and housing developing is in the rural area. Regulations that prohibit the use of arable land for purposes other than agriculture have not been well and effectively enforced due to guanxi politics and corruption. Peasants with money also preferred to build new houses, or to look for a higher return by investing in the development of rural industry. Peasants’ effort and activity have never been well coordinated since the mid-1980s. At the same time population control in rural China has been made more difficult since the mid-1980s. Besides, growth of a predominantly young population with an increasing life expectancy cannot be throttled down for decades to come. China is projected to add at least 490 million people in the four decades from 1990 to 2030, swelling the population to close to 1.7 billion. A soaring population would become ever growing strains on the ability of the Chinese to feed themselves unless population could be controlled and the continuing loss of agricultural land could be curbed.

China today is already one of the very few countries in the world that has been using agricultural land so intensively. The pursuit of ever larger harvests has made China the world’s biggest producer of fertilizer, but the use of fertilizer is subject to diminishing returns. Unsupervised use of chemicals and industrial effluents is polluting the water, while use of unwashed soft coal for energy is polluting the air. What are the implications for China and the world if China will have to raise substantially its reliance on imported food? According to The Economist, a China with the same fish consumption per head as Japan, for instance, would alone consume more fish than are at present caught in the world’s oceans, and a China of the early twenty-first century with the eating habits of South Korea today would need 600 million tonnes of grain—implying, if China’s harvest remained at its current level, a demand for imported grain roughly equivalent to all the world’s grain shipments of 1994.

China is heading for an ecological nightmare unless collective effort could be made by the governments and the peasants to overcome it.

If the CCP could not effectively deal with localism, a large ‘floating’ population and corruption, the prospect of a radical, possibly violent, political rupture would become more likely. If the ecological nightmare could not be overcome, China is ruined.


Faced with the peasant challenge, the CCP is determined to strengthen its political leadership in the countryside on one hand and devote more resources to agriculture and develop more policy incentives for agricultural production on the other hand. According to a Renmin Ribao editorial, the CCP will make serious effort in the coming three years to rebuild basic-level party and social organizations in the countryside, improve the quality of peasant party members and make them play a leading role in the economic reform. At the same time, the CCP will increase general investment in agriculture and establish more incentives for agricultural production, such as low interest or no interest loan, higher price for grain, ect. What this reveals is that the CCP has realized the seriousness of the peasant challenge, but the question is: could the CCP effectively deal with the peasant challenge in the 1990s after 17-year economic reform? Perhaps it is appropriate to rethink the peasant challenge that Mao Zedong posed at the very beginning of the Chinese rural revolution: ‘There are three alternatives. To march at their head and lead them? To trail behind them, gesticulating and criticizing? Or to stand in their way and oppose them?’ From the 1920s to 1949, the CCP was able to lead peasants where peasants wanted to go, and the peasant-CCP relationship was one of fish and water. The successful handling of the peasant challenge enabled the CCP to gain control of China. From the late 1950s to 1979, the CCP was forcing peasants to go where they did not want to go, and the peasant-CCP relationship was one of master and slave. But the CCP’s effort to build a utopia in rural China failed. The fish-water relationship is one of mutual dependence, whereas the master-slave relationship is one of control and oppression. From 1979 to the present, the CCP has tried to lead peasants where they wanted to go by sponsoring a modernization program and relaxing its control over the peasants, but the CCP has created a dilemma for itself. To promote economic growth, the CCP has to relax its control over the peasants and reject one of the CCP’s most familiar political vehicles—mobilization. But the CCP might well be overwhelmed by the consequences of the empowerment of the peasants.

What alternatives does the CCP have this time? This is an important, complex, open question that demands more research from China scholars.