- The Sinews of State Power: The Rise and Demise of the Cohesive Local State in Rural China by Juan Wang
Juan Wang’s book, The Sinews of State Power: The Rise and Demise of the Cohesive Local State in Rural China, is an excellent attempt at understanding contemporary rural China through the triadic relationship of the county, township, and village government. Traditionally, the state power never penetrated down to the county level in China. The Republic of China under Jiang Jieshi tried to establish some presence of state authority in the rural areas at the county level through the Bao-Jia system but never really succeeded. Wang demonstrated that the Chinese Communist Party during Mao era did successfully establish solid governance in the rural areas through the triadic relationship of county, township, and village government, which provided farmers with some relative fairness and justice compared with the preceding political systems. Despite western scholars’ overwhelmingly critical assessment [End Page 196] of Chinese Communist Party’s management and governance in rural China, the Chinese Communist Party successfully eliminated deep-rooted social problems like banditry, dominance of criminal gangs, and bullies in the rural areas through land reform and progressive taxation practices. Before the Communist Party came to power, armed bullies ruled rural China, which the Chinese people referred to as Tuweizi. Only people who know modern Chinese history can appreciate the Chinese Communist Party’s success in rural China. It is too bad that Wang did not touch upon this topic.
Wang discusses the rural protests and riots in a comparative manner during the Mao and post-Mao era. But Wang failed to recognize the fundamental difference of the two types of protests and riots in rural China. In the Mao era, the violent riots and protests were mostly organized by the elite remnants of the feudal land system in an effort to fend off their doomsday. Those riots and protests were crushed by the PLA and communist militia in 1949 and 1950, never posing any serious threat to the emerging People’s Republic. The scattered riots and protests during the serious grain shortage of 1959 and 1960s were of a more spontaneous nature in face of starvation. On the whole, the government relief efforts to the areas where the grain shortage was serious were quick and effective. There was never a serious threat to the state in China at the time. The foundation of the government’s political legitimacy in the rural areas was never shaken even during the worst economic difficulties of the Great Leap Forward.
On the other hand, the large scale and frequent riots and protests in the post-Mao era have been much more serious, threatening the survival of the Chinese Communist Party in the rural areas. With taxation reaching over two hundred yuan a person, more than ten times that of the Mao era, and with the brutal enforcement of the one child policy plus rampant official corruption, rural protests and riots reached an unprecedented rate. In the eyes of the rural people, the post-Mao Chinese Communist Party leadership betrayed everything the Chinese Communist Party stood for in the recent past when Mao was around. Many farmers said in the 1990s and 2000s that the county, township, and village government officials only wanted two things from the farmers: money and lives, a reference to the increased taxation and forced abortions.
Wang traces the official corruption to benefit seeking on the part of the communist party members by using the statistics about motivations of people who joined the communist party. A large percentage of the communist party members joined the party in pursuit of personal interests during the land reform and collective farming period. But he fails to recognize the power of the Chinese Communist Party in shaping its membership’s ideology and behavior. Contemporary academic communities, both Chinese and foreign, questioned the value of the political campaigns the Chinese Communist Party constantly engaged...