Grassroots Political Reform in Contemporary China

By Heberer, Thomas | The China Journal, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Grassroots Political Reform in Contemporary China


Heberer, Thomas, The China Journal


Grassroots Political Reform in Contemporary China, edited by Elizabeth J. Perry and Merle Goldman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. xii + 402 pp. US$24.95/£38.96/euro55.30 (paperback).

It is frequently argued that China has changed economically and socially, but not politically. This book approaches the issue of political reform from a bottom-up perspective: the grass-roots level. It does not focus on prospects for democratization, but is rather concerned with the impact of local reforms on local politics and with the question of how grass-roots-level changes can improve local and thus national governance. Such processes are of fundamental importance for the stability and legitimacy of an authoritarian regime like China's. In this respect, the introduction of direct elections at the village level and new modes of social participation in China's cities clearly have an instrumental character. On the other hand, such innovations can also introduce new dynamics into the power structure of the Chinese political system. The key question of whether this process enhances regime legitimacy or erodes it stands at the centre of the book, as Elizabeth J. Perry and Merle Goldman stress in their introduction.

The aim of the book is to produce a systematic analysis of the changes in political communication and power relationships at the local level. The focus is on the grass-roots level for three major reasons. The first is that the majority of the Chinese population lives in villages and urban neighborhoods. Hence, their political awareness and actions are of crucial importance for the political system and its stability. second, close spatial relationships at the local level enable constant interactions among the people; this facilitates the observation of participatory efforts and cooperation structures. Finally, political participation within a society can only be examined by means of analyzing the behavior of concrete groups. Such groups can be distinguished according to spatial (villages, neighborhoods), economic (businesses) or organizational aspects (for example, associations). The editors have chosen the spatial and organizational levels for their analysis, because they are interested in the extent to which the restructuring of those levels can furnish new impulses for participation as well as for generating trust, legitimacy and stability.

Accordingly, this book addresses three crucial domains of local politics: a) village and township governance; b) urban spatial developments; and c) social protest behavior. In recent years, a growing number of scholars have stressed the great significance of direct elections for village committees. Although this aims primarily to consolidate and legitimate the control of the Party over the local population, Chinese and Western scholars have nonetheless repeatedly assumed that such "local autonomy" would surpass its prescribed regulatory boundaries and provide a dynamic push towards pluralization. Behind this assumption is the hope that the consolidation of local participatory processes could pave the way for the democratization of the political system.

Several papers examine rural governance. Richard Levy's contribution, based on fieldwork in Henan and Guangdong, argues that, due to institutional deficiencies, village elections have failed to reduce corruption at the village level. For instance, vote-buying is rampant and accounting practices are rarely monitored. Effective checks and balances do not exist. John J. Kennedy's contribution argues that the central government was not interested in tax-for-fee reform in rural China during the 1990s. Instead, the government enforced village elections in order to foster greater transparency and to provide mechanisms for enhanced supervision from below. It believed that elections could facilitate the reduction of villagers' burdens. The chapter by Jean Oi and Zhao Shukai focuses on the causes and consequences of the townships' fiscal crisis. …

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