When Civil Society Serves the State: The Politics of Development in Rural China

How does a strong state implement policies that confiscate and redistribute wealth? Do democratic institutions and a strong civil society strengthen political accountability? I examine these questions in the context of rural China, which combines limited local democracy and vibrant non-state groups such as kinship associations, temples, and neighborhood groups. Many argue that strong civil society institutions and local elections can curb the power of the state and hold government officials accountable. However, in my book project I argue that in China, strong civil society groups and village elections have expanded state power --- and helped officials redistribute wealth from the poor to local elites.

The first part of the book manuscript develops my theory of state power. Drawing on new data from rural China, I show that citizens distrust the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and believe that local party cadres do not represent their interests. On the other hand, the leaders of local civil society, especially the leaders of clans and neighborhood groups, enjoy high degrees of trust and moral authority. I argue that in this context, elected village councils and other institutions of self-government are a mechanism for the state to identify local elites with significant informal authority within social groups. Once they join local political institutions, rent-sharing gives these social elites incentives to use their informal authority to help the CCP elicit compliance with potentially unpopular policies that regressively "tax" the rural poor.

In subsequent chapters, I draw on a mix of structured case studies and a unique national dataset to show how co-opting civil society elites has helped the CCP seize land from village collectives. These land expropriations have redistributed trillions of dollars of wealth from village collectives to the state and to local elites, and are one of the central political issues in contemporary China. I show how the leaders of clans, religious groups, and neighborhoods use their informal authority within their groups to elicit compliance with land confiscations. When these civil society leaders are included in village political institutions, land expropriations are more likely and the compensation for these expropriations is lower.

These findings cast doubt on theories that hold that the main consequence of civil society institutions is to enhance political accountability. I argue that grassroots civil society institutions are encouraged and nurtured by the powerful because they reinforce the authority of local elites and because they help elites to control society. I also challenge theories that hold that democratic and participatory institutions curb the power of the state. Instead, these institutions can be used by authoritarian regimes to co-opt civil society leaders, who can help the state implement policies that redistribute wealth from the grassroots to elites.


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