Unrest in China’s Countryside

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 2

Unrest, instability, and state-sanctioned repression is on the upsurge in rural China. On January 19, the government announced revised figures that China had 87,000 incidents of internal unrest during the last year. This instability is rising against the background of efforts by the Hu-Wen administration to build a “harmonious society.” Although the causes of instability vary, most arise from conflicts between the interests of local governments and ordinary citizens. Central to those tensions is the uneven distribution of benefits derived from China’s bourgeoning economic development.

Reports emerging in recent months provide a snapshot of unrest and instability in rural China. In June 2005, villagers in the town of Shenyou in Hebei Province were beaten with sticks and knives by locally hired thugs after a power company acquired the rights to local farmers’ land. Six farmers were killed and 48 injured in an event that later led to the removal of local leaders by provincial authorities. Earlier in March, Zhou Changquing, the elected village chief of Yinjialin, a Jinan suburb, was severly beaten, along with his colleagues, by a party secretary backed by the local government (Xinjingbao, June 13, 2005).

In November of last year, farmers in Taishi village in Guangzhou City, tried to recall the village chief, who was also a local party secretary. The local government had supported the chief in August, and the seven members of the recall election committee were forced to resign by political pressure. Some of farmers were arrested, with foreign reporters and other Chinese nationals allegedly beaten by the “village guard” [1]. Later in November, renowned rural leader Yao Lifa was beaten in a village while providing a training and information session for farmers about the process of village elections.

Rural discontent is on the rise, with last year’s figures indicating that nearly 240 of such incidents occur every day. A variety of factors account for this development. In the rural areas, local government at the county and township levels frequently circumvent the public interest for private and personal gain. Since the taxation reforms of Zhu Rhongji in 1993, the central government collected the primary portion of tax income and doled out only small portions to local governments. Over the years, this process has resulted in the transfer of fewer funds than originally envisioned from the center to the local governments, starving many local governments for resources. This condition has been exacerbated as more people assume official local duties and create pressures for more resource collection at the local level.

The problem of resource deficiency at the local level has been solved by taxing farmers through a variety of schemes and fees. With such a heavy tax burden, however, farmers have begun organizing independent associations to protect their rights. Farmers resist payment of fees, appeal to Beijing to intercede against the local government, or protest and take violent action. In some impoverished rural areas, resistance and fighting is almost commonplace.

China’s central government sought to ameliorate the heavy tax burden on farmers by forbidding local governments from collecting any money beyond standard government taxes. In 2004, the central government established a new policy that began to reduce government agricultural taxes and eventually passed legislation in late 2005 that abolished all agricultural taxes (Xinhua, December 29). Absent these revenues, however, local governments once again are facing shortages. As such, local governments continue to collect fees from farmers—contrary to the central government’s dictates –either by establishing new justifications or by creating new extractive mechanisms. The former is common in poor and underdeveloped areas; the latter in suburban and more developed regions.

In urban and suburban areas, local governments have begun selling the lands of farmers to commercial developers and construction companies. Many farmers, at least initially, were unaware that the village property they work had been sold. As more farmers become aware of the practice, they are appealing to higher authorities to combat the land sales, taking legal action against local officials, and engaging in public protests.

Local governments, in turn, are moving to assume stricter political control of villages. They often run candidates sympathetic to local government interests and rig elections in favor of government allies. In some rural areas, an emerging “elite alliance” that includes township government officials, business companies, village leaders, government officials in the county or higher level, and hired thugs—which are called by farmers as the “black force.” This alliance controls the rural areas by violence. These trends not only subvert local democracy, but also generates conflicts and internal dissent.

Dangxi, a suburb of Jinan city, is a case in point. The local government and village leaders together sold the village land. They were then forced to confront the outrage of the farmers, who recalled the village chief in Yinjialin and Diangxi. In elections in 2005, however, village leaders were supported by the local government. Through allegations of vote-buying, leaders were returned to power in Dangxi. A newspaper belonging to the Ministry of Civil Affairs reported and condemned the elections as corrupt, and farmers attempted to sue the government at the town and district levels. The suit, of course, was dismissed by the local government, which had ultimately teamed up with a company to buy the land, and local thugs to control farmer resistance (author observation).

Many of the instruments used to express dissent among rural populations are legal, such as the elections, lawsuits, or appealing for intervention by higher authorities. In some cases, legal and political instruments are effect. In most instances, however, they achieve little. Local governments often interfere with due process. As with official interference in local elections, this zero-sum dynamic engenders conflict. If the rights of farmers cannot be maintained vis-à-vis the corrupt interests of local government bureaucrats, those farmers will be more inclined to seek extralegal means for protecting their interests.

Rural unrest is problematic for the central government for a variety of reasons. Many farmers are resentful of the overbearing local governments and regard them as willing saboteurs of effective policies from the central government. Beijing, in turn, cannot be blamed if the local levels refuse to implement worthy policies. Yet the perception of corrupt government at the local level presents a legitimacy problem for central government officials and the CCP in general. The dilemma is exacerbated by the fact that Beijing relies heavily on the local and provincial cadres to consolidate state authority and protect the party’s interests.

The confluence of conflicting pressures requires the central government to balance several important but competing interests. In some cases, central authorities side with villagers, like in Dingzhou, to expel corrupt officials. In others, the central government sides with the local party elites, turning a blind eye to the abuse of government power. The question remains whether farmers will continue distinguishing between the practices of state authority at the local and central levels. With little political reform at the town and country level, and general reluctance at the center for such political change, Beijing’s prospects for maintaining this tenuous balance seem increasingly remote.


1. Interview with Lu Banglie, Beijing, Nov. 14, 2005