The Chinese President Xi Jinping (习近平) has repeatedly mentioned local governance capacity when reflecting on China’s successful management of the Covid-19 pandemic, crediting the active participation of grassroots organizations in the public health response and stressing the need to solidify the foundations of governance in neighborhoods and villages (People’s Daily, March 27, 2020; Xinhua News, March 31, 2020). More broadly, the party-state’s interests in local governance reform have been a key driver of China’s urban and rural policies in the post-reform era.
As changing economic, social, and political landscapes brought by the Reform and Opening campaign presented new governance challenges for central authorities, the party-state has sought to improve public service and encourage greater democracy and self-governance at the local level. Some examples of this include institutionalizing village elections and legalizing homeowners’ associations. At the same time, the fundamental principle of party leadership has not been challenged, and under Xi the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has directed greater attention to grassroots party building.
Democracy and Diversity: Local Governance with Chinese Characteristics
The past four decades of rapid transformation revealed many inefficiencies and weaknesses in China’s governance capacity, from incompetent officials to the over-bureaucratization of government organs. Changing social and political landscapes brought by economic reform catalyzed the development of a new structure of local governance, and traditional mechanisms of mobilization of control were deemed outdated and abandoned.
The abolition of people’s communes in the early-1980s decollectivized agriculture (State Council, October 12, 1983). Subsequent rural reforms empowered farmers to become independent of village authorities and participate in the market economy. Village officials who once held immense power lost much of their privileges and respect. Demographic changes further weakened state and party authority in rural areas: as millions of young people left home for opportunities in coastal cities, Chinese villages, especially those located in western China, were effectively deprived of their working age population, and leadership quality suffered as a result.
In urban areas, marketization also weakened the party-state’s control over people by gradually dismantling the work unit (单位, danwei) system throughout the 1980s and 1990s. China revitalized resident committees (居民委员会, jumin weiyuanhui) in 1989 and introduced shequ (社区), or communities, as the basic unit of urban governance in the early 2000s (National People’s Congress, December 26, 1989). Although shequ replicated various functions once fulfilled by work units, resident committees lacked the capacity and legitimacy to institute the same level of control. The rise of commercial housing and greater geographic mobility also reshaped China’s social fabric, transforming urban communities from “societies without strangers” to “societies of strangers.” For most citizens, place attachment to their new shequ remains low and neighborhood authority has devolved from being a powerful influence to becoming almost negligible.
In response to this decay in local governance capacity, the Chinese state implemented a series of reforms encouraging self-governance and non-government solutions. In 1998, the National People’s Congress adopted the “Organic Law of Village Committees” ([村民委员会组织法], cunmin weiyuanhui zuzhi fa), setting rules and regulations for self-governance, self-education, and direct election in Chinese villages (National People’s Congress, November 4, 1998). Under the new framework, villagers practice self-governance by electing village committees (村民委员会, cumin weiyuanhui) that consist of three to seven members. Driven by the imperative of economic growth, development has replaced politics as the main driving force for rural affairs. Although wealthy individuals do not directly challenge government or party authority, they command great respect among fellow farmers and frequently outperform party cadres and individuals with political capital in village elections.
State influence has similarly diminished in urban neighborhoods with the rise of private governance and self-governance. The introduction of private management companies (物业管理公司, wuye guanli gongsi) in 1994 (Ministry of Construction, March 23, 1994) and the legalization of resident-elected homeowners’ associations (业主委员会, yezhu weiyuanhui) in 2003 (State Council, 2003) began a new form of hybrid governance in which different interest groups compete. The central government also encouraged the establishment and empowerment of social organizations (社会组织, shehui zuzhi) to facilitate the separation between state and society (政社分开, shezheng fenkai) and combat the over-bureaucratization of resident committees (People’s Daily, November 15, 2013). These organizations provide platforms for self-governance and channels for constructive interaction between the government, the market, and individual citizens.
Xi has recently called for reviving the “Fengqiao experience” (枫桥经验, fengqiao jingyan), a Mao-era relic that mobilized the masses to carry out class struggle and rectify “reactionary elements” (四类分子, silei fenzi) in society (China Media Project, April 16). Xi has reinterpreted this experiment as a movement that pioneers grassroots self-governance and resolving conflicts locally. He first became a strong advocate for the modern application of the “Fengqiao experience” during his tenure as provincial leader in Zhejiang. More recently, Xi has promoted the model as a template for grassroots governance, stressing deeper coordination among different local organizations and mass mobilization to ensure greater stability (Qiushi, March 2).
Activating the Red Engine: Grassroots Governance Under Party Leadership
Although local governance reforms dismantled traditional mechanisms through which the central government exerted direct and omnipresent control over its citizens, the principle of party-state leadership was never challenged or neglected. Grassroots organizations—from village committees to homeowners’ associations—were placed under the leadership, guidance, and supervision of village party branches (村党支部, cun dangzhibu) or resident committees (State Council, October 28, 2010). Even non-government organizations not subject to direct state control are hardly independent, because the CCP has incorporated many social organizations into its network by mobilizing party members and financing local party branches or joint study groups. While the CCP has always emphasized grassroots party building, party penetration at the local level has become more intense and conspicuous under Xi’s leadership. As Xi has emphasized absolute loyalty to the party from the military and the media, he has also called grassroots party organs the “cornerstone of the CCP” (People’s Daily, March 11, 2013; Guancha, February 19, 2016; Huanqiu, August 15, 2020).
Although the party faces similar challenges and issues in rural villages and urban neighborhoods, it has pursued different strategies owing to social, demographic, and organizational differences. In rural areas, the CCP has identified local officials as the main cause of inefficiencies in grassroots party organs. As urbanization drained young talents away from villages, rural party committees and branches became weak or disorganized under the leadership of loyal but often-uneducated senior party members. To revitalize its village party organs, China has commenced a series of initiatives since the mid-2000s to send talents down to the grassroots.
In 2008, as a key component of its “building a new socialist countryside” (社会主义新农村建设, shehuizhuyi xinnongcun jianshe) campaign, the central government adopted the “college graduate village officials” (大学生村官, daxuesheng cunguan) initiative after more than a decade of experimentation by several provinces. Under this program, the state hired a large number of university graduates each year and assigned them to serve as village officials—either as village party secretaries for party and youth league members or as assistants to the chair of village committees (Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, April 9, 2009). In 2012, the government published another document on strengthening the “college graduate village officials” (大学生村官, daxuesheng cunguan) program. The new guideline set ambitious goals of having at least two university graduates serving as officials in a township, emphasized a preference for party members with leadership experience, and laid out more rigorous selection criteria (People’s Daily, August 17, 2012). Although designed as a policy to spur economic growth in impoverished villages by introducing talents, technology, and capital, the program also directly strengthened party leadership in rural areas. Since its inception, party and youth league members have accounted for more than 90 percent of the program cohort each year and usually occupy more important and influential positions than their counterparts with no political affiliation. As a result, the “college graduate village officials” program has both strengthened the governance capacity of local party organs and solidified the party’s leadership in rural affairs.
In addition to recruiting talents directly from universities, the party-state has also established “targeted partnership” (定点帮扶, dingdian bangfu) channels through which government departments (机关单位, jiguan danwei), affiliated public institutes (事业单位, shiye danwei) and state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are paired with impoverished villages to assist their development. The first group of partnerships was established in 1995. In the beginning work units retained significant autonomy to determine the nature of their partnerships. However, since 2015 the central government has incorporated the “targeted partnership” program as a major component of Xi’s “targeted poverty alleviation” (精准扶贫, jingzhun fupin) campaign. New policy guidelines have set specific targets for annual assessment (考核, kaohe) and demanded that each work unit appoint young, competent cadres as party secretaries for partnered villages (State Council, November 23, 2016).
In contrast, the major challenge confronting urban party organs is not the scarcity of well-educated party members, but instead weak organizational structures with communities and neighborhoods. Traditionally, neighborhood party committees have had little de facto command over party members within their jurisdiction, as most urban residents prioritize their workplace over their neighborhoods. Party branches in many newly established social organizations are also either nonexistent or inactive. Work units have also expanded their partnership with urban neighborhoods, albeit on a more ad hoc and temporary basis than what has been seen in rural areas. For example, many government agencies and public institutes assigned their employees to assist resident committees and direct grassroots party branches as volunteers during the first few months of the Covid-19 pandemic.
To strengthen the party’s organizational leadership, the CCP under Xi’s leadership has also utilized the vertically integrated grid-style management (网格化管理, wanggehua guanli). In 2015, China rolled out a nationwide grid system to complement the community-driven model of governance (Sixth Tone, June 1, 2018). The government divided urban communities into more precise units that, combined with increasingly sophisticated digital surveillance tools, have grown to form an all-encompassing surveillance grid. More importantly, this new model of governance has provided an ideal platform for grassroots party building. Under the call to “build party branches on the grid” (支部建在网格上, zhibu jianzai wanggeshang), many neighborhood party committees have instituted a three-tiered hierarchy consisting of neighborhood party committees, grid party branches, and building party study groups.
By establishing permanent and active party organs within each grid, the CCP strengthened its control of all party members. In the earlier community-driven model, party members could remain invisible within large neighborhood party committees that lacked supervision mechanisms. In contrast, the grid system has refined the party’s increasing organization, monitoring, and supervision capabilities. With this model, the party has effectively mobilized inactive members—also known as “pocket party members” (口袋党员, koudai dangyuan)—to participate in party-building activities and government campaigns.
Under Xi’s leadership, the CCP has also emphasized horizontal party building in new social organizations. While recognizing the benefits of encouraging non-government solutions to address government bureaucratic inefficiencies, the party-state has also sought to guard against chaos and instability by increasing its control. From the official perspective, conflicts between property management companies and homeowners’ associations as well as new social organizations’ lack of resources and experience are threats to community harmony. While encouraging diverse non-government solutions to such problems, the CCP has also demanded that new social organizations form party branches and study groups under the direct leadership of neighborhood or street-level party committees. Many cities have taken this order one step further, building “red management companies” and “red homeowners’ associations” where party members occupy leadership positions and party-building activities are prioritized (The Paper, March 30, 2021; The Paper, July 7, 2017). These experiments have received recognition from the central government as an exemplary model of local governance under party leadership (Ministry of Civil Affairs, June 18, 2020).
Grassroot party building in China has thus taken on different forms in villages and urban neighborhoods, which prioritized focusing on governance capacity and organizational structure, respectively. These different approaches reveal a persistent rural-urban policy divide in China, but ultimately serve the same goal of strengthening and reaffirming absolute party leadership under the new rhetoric of “party building leadership” (党建引领, dangjian yinling). The new slogan, which entered common usage around 2018, not only demands absolute party leadership in all activities—ranging from poverty alleviation to garbage classification—but also connects these campaigns under the broader umbrella of party building. It affirms that party organs should and must expand to all corners of society and that party leadership should start from the bottom up.
Under Xi’s leadership, China has achieved unprecedented achievements in local governance and continues to demonstrate the advantage of its political system, according to official accounts (Xinhua News, September 19, 2019; People’s Daily, February 22, 2020). Within the “party building leadership” formula, the CCP has determined that organizations cannot thrive without active party branches; self-governance initiatives cannot succeed without party members spearheading those efforts; and social campaigns cannot bear fruit without party leadership and intervention. By improving its grassroots governance capacity, the CCP is legitimizing its claim that harmony, stability, and development cannot exist without party leadership. The space left in local governance by the withdrawal of the state has thus been filled by deeper party penetration masked as a genuine expansion of civil society.
Harry He is an MA Candidate in Asian Studies at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. His research interests include China’s local governance issues, state-society relations, and US-Japan-China trilateral relations.
 Many Chinese scholars have used the two concepts to describe transitions in Chinese society. See 燕继荣 (Yan Jirong), “社区治理与社会资本投资——中国社区治理创新的理论解释 (Neighborhood Governance and Investment in Social Capital—New Theoretical Explanation of Innovation on China’s Neighborhood Governance),” Tianjin Social Sciences 30, no. 3 (2010): 59-64; 李汉林 (Li Hanlin), “变迁中的中国单位制度 回顾中的思考 (China’s Danwei System in Transition: A Reflection),” Chinese Journal of Sociology 28, no. 3 (2008): 31-40.
 Conclusion based on surveys and interviews conducted by the author with resident committee staff and urban residents between 2019 and 2021.
 For research on the “wealthy individuals running the village” (富人治村, furen zhicun) phenomenon prevalent in China, see 裘斌 (Qiu Bin), 先富能人治村视域中的村民公共参与 (Villager Participation from the Perspective of Wealthy Talents Running the Village) (Hangzhou: Zhejiang University Press, 2014); 贺雪峰 (He Xuefeng), “论富人治村——以浙江奉化调查为讨论基础 (On Wealthy Individuals Running the Village—Discussion Based on Research in Fenghua, Zhejiang),” Social Science Research 33, no. 2 (2011): 111-119.
 Reactionary elements refer to four groups of individuals including landlords, wealthy peasants, counterrevolutionaries and evildoers.
 See Gang Tian and Wen-Hsuan Tsai, “Ideological Education and Practical Training at a County Party School: Shaping Local Governance in Contemporary China,” The China Journal 85 (2021): 1-25. The trend is also reflected in a sharp increase in scholarly attention on grassroots party building in China. According to data collected by the author on CNKI, the number of published articles on “grassroots party building” (基层党建, jiceng dangjian) increased gradually from less than 200 to around 1,300 between 2004 and 2012, remained relatively constant between 2012 and 2016, and has expanded rapidly since 2016, reaching 3,359 articles in 2019.
 Annual reports published by the China Association for the Promotion of Village Development (zhongguo cunshe fazhan cujinhui 中国村社发展促进会) record breakdowns of college graduate village officials by indexes, including political affiliation.
 Conclusion drawn from surveys and interviews conducted by the author with resident committee staff and volunteers sent by local governments during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021.