Village China under Socialism and Reform: A Micro-History, 1948-2008, by Huaiyin Li. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009. xviii + 402 pp. US$65.00 (hardcover).
Village China under Socialism and Reform can be read, on one level, as the recent history of a somewhat nondescript village located in a former marshland area of central Jiangsu Province. It is, however, much more than that. Huaiyin Li presents the story of Qin village, his birthplace, as a microcosm of nationwide processes and patterns. His "micro-history" of an unremarkable village is, from beginning to end, a compelling analysis of the evolution of state-society relations during China's Maoist and reform eras.
One of Li's main purposes is to trace the critical continuities in the relationship between the Party-state and rural society through the six decades since 1948 and to show that the achievements of the reform era have depended heavily on economic and political foundations laid during the collectivist years. Li argues that the main obstacle to rural development in the Maoist years was not collectivism as such, but the state's excessive extraction of agricultural products, the mass mobilizations of rural laborers for water-control projects (the costs of which the production teams had to bear), and the state's strict limits on migration and non-collective economic activities. The big reform-era leaps forward in rural China are largely explained by the sizeable tax reductions of the 1980s and '90s and the eventual abolition of agricultural taxes, the easing of restrictions on migratory movements and the consequent radical broadening of villagers' employment opportunities (p. 349).
Li challenges "conventional wisdom" on village politics in China since 1949 in a number of important respects. He gives prominence, for example, to the indigenous "subinstitutions" (that is, "social relations, customs, work norms, collective consciousness, and identities") that were no less important than the state's formal institutions in determining policy outcomes (p. 3). As a consequence, he finds that Qin villagers were more powerful, had more say in the shaping of government policy, than previous studies of Chinese peasants under Communist Party rale have typically allowed. Li shows how villagers "played a pivotal role in shaping the Party's agrarian policies in the formative years of the collective system" (pp. 79-80), describing the state-peasant relationship up to 1957 as "conciliatory". Communization and the Great Leap Forward certainly deepened state penetration and control of rural society, but the Great Leap disasters and peasant resistance to radical collectivism forced a return to many of the more moderate practices of the mid-1950s, including the reinstatement the production team as the basic accounting unit and tolerance of some independent family farming. Constant factors underpinning peasant foot-dragging, noncompliance, resistance and protest were those "substitutional social bases of formal structures" that Li keeps in focus throughout his study; peasant behavior, he argues, was "an outcome of the interaction between the formal systems imposed from above and informal institutions embedded in the rural communities" (p. 8), and peasant behaviors contributed significantly to the shaping of Party policy.
That does not mean that peasants under Party rule were stick-in-the-muds, resistant to change. Li points to two critically significant societal changes since 1949: first, the villagers' age-old protest strategies of "righteous resistance" are increasingly being replaced by a "rightful resistance"; second, rural communities, less "governed" by the state centre in the reform era, are developing self-government capabilities. Both processes are the product of rising education levels in rural areas as well as a political savvy learned by peasants who lived through the mass campaigns of the Maoist era and who have been repeatedly called upon to "supervise" their local leaders. …