Revisiting Kyrgyzstan’s Bloody Summer

Originally published by The Diplomat on June 13, 2014. Available here.

Ethnicity is a convenient but misleading way of explaining the outburst of violence in 2010.

Late in the night of June 10, 2010, outside a casino in Osh a skirmish broke out between several groups of young men. A catalyst for greater belligerence, fighting continued through the night and by the morning Osh was in flames. The chaos lasted for days, with violence spreading to Jalalabad and elsewhere. This week marks the forth anniversary of those deadly riots, which sparked a wave of violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan’s Ferghana Valley.

By August 2010, preliminary UN assessments estimated that 985,000 people had been affected by violence in the Ferghana Valley, resulting in 300,000 internally displaced. The International Crisis Group in late August placed the official casualty rate at 393 but Human Rights Watch quoted some numbers as high as 900. What caused such wanton violence in that summer of 2010?

With headlines from the New York Times’Ethnic Rioting Ravages Kyrgyzstan” to the Guardian’sKyrgyzstan killings are attempted genocide, say ethnic Uzbeks” the cause seems clear: ethnic-violence. But that is a dangerous simplification, not least so because it presupposes ethnicity is monolithic. Ethnicity is a convenient but misleading way of looking at what happened four years ago in Kyrgyzstan. And yet, where it is convenient, the cause of ongoing conflicts continues to be superficially discussed as ethnic-tension. Recognizing this is especially important from a policy perspective because if ethnicity is not at the roots of these episodes of violence then an ethnic solution will simply be another nostrum.

From Tulip Revolution to Burning of Osh

In March 2005, the Tulip Revolution brought an end to President Askar Akayev’s authoritarian reign. His fourteen years in power were marked by corruption, the absence of the rule of law, nepotism, and decreasing quality of life. In July 2005, Kurmanbek Bakiyev campaigned to eliminate corruption and improve living standards. He won the presidential election with a landslide 89 percent. Within a few years, however, his campaign rhetoric had proven hollow.

The changes under Bakiyev were seen as an intensified version of Akayev’s despotism. Bakiyev consolidated power in a new Constitution, appointed family members to key positions, and sold vast amounts of national resources for personal gain, leading to severe energy shortages in the winter of 2007-2008, the coldest in 40 years. In April 2008, after two days of popular mobilization, Bakiyev’s short-lived dictatorial reign came to an end but the country, impoverished by years of corrupt rule, was left with a political and security vacuum.

Tensions erupted on the evening of June tenth when groups of unemployed young men got into an argument outside a small casino in Osh. The violence escalated. Independent observers and human rights organizations quoted witnesses who claimed that security forces responded differently depending on the ethnicity of the perpetrators, that plain clothed security officials were seen distributing weapons to Kyrgyz men or protecting roving mobs. The local government, a long-time supporter and ally of the ousted Bakiyev, claimed that Uzbeks were committing atrocities while Uzebks reported being targeted by violence. Arbitrary detentions, disappearances, and torture in custody were reported.

While much of the violence was perpetrated along ethnic lines, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, Knut Vollebaek, noted the challenges were not confined to interethnic relations and pointed to the significance of disillusionment with the state and feelings of economic and personal insecurity. Indeed, along these lines Kyrgyzstan was very insecure.

Human Insecurity

In 2008 the official minimum wage was 340 som ($6.45) per month, yet the government estimated that the standard statistical “basket” of goods and commodities cost on average 3,354 som per person per month. Following global increases in basic commodity prices, 2007 saw a 23.5 percent increase in food costs and 2008 an increase of around 20 percent.

By 2010, around 43 percent of the population lived below the poverty line, with an unemployment rate of 18 percent. Many families responded by sending off working-age sons to work in Kazakhstan and Russia, and China to a lesser extent, a palliative for economic woes but destabilizing for traditional family structures. The Economist reported that almost 22 percent of GDP was generated from migrant laborers, with as many as 500,000 in Russia alone.

High levels of unemployment and economic uncertainty often result in illegal economies. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime routinely cites Osh as a regional hub for narco-trafficking, which decreases food security through the loss of croplands, environmental security through deprivation of soil and toxic chemicals, and personal security through gang violence.

Disillusionment with the state among certain demographics facilitated the rise of criminal groups who seized land and extorted protection money. The continued asymmetric protection of personal security institutionalized those groups and had a negative impact on social tensions and perceived inequalities.

But why did these tensions erupt along ethnic lines?

The Ethnicization of Insecurity and Competition?

Historically, the Ferghana valley was inhabited by sedentary Uzbek traders and farmers. The Kyrgyz tended to be nomadic. Soviet control irrevocably altered traditional structures of communal power through Korenizatsiya: the policy of local administration initiated under Stalin where titular nationalities – here the Kyrgyz – were elevated to positions of power not necessarily previously held by such groups.

Later, as Soviet regional authority waned, Human Rights Watch explains “grievances over land and water distribution increasingly took on an ethnic dimension during the perestroika and glasnost era in the mid-to-late 1980s, as ethnic, linguistic, and cultural identities became stronger.” Eventually grievances over territory and resource access culminated in a violent outbreak in Osh in 1990.

On the eve of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, precipitated by the vacuum of Kremlin control, an Uzbek group called for the establishment of an autonomous region to address concerns that their needs were routinely subjugated to those of the Kyrgyz. The ensuing conflict left more than 300 dead. KGB reports at the time, cited by the Crisis Group, noted perceptions among poorer Kyrgyz that the Uzbeks had become too prosperous. Meanwhile New York Times coverage was noting Uzbek frustration at the pro-Kyrgyz allocation of land for housing.

This lead to what political scientist Paul Brass has called an “institutionalized riot system,” where ethicized violent mobilization in response to perceptions of unequal access to basic human needs became part of the repertoire of popular mobilization. If anything, the perceptions of unequal access that sparked violence in 1990 only intensified under the policies of corrupt leadership in the following decades.

Under Bakiyev, employment in the public sector was skewed in favor of Kyrgyz language; fluency was a prerequisite for state employment. The education system did not require Kyrgyz fluency for Uzbeks, Dungens or Uyghurs, who were largely barred access to state employment and sought to make their livings in the private sector, fueling accusations that minorities got rich at the expense of the Kyrgyz. However, a Eurasianet article published on the first anniversary of the 2010 violence cited Uzbek feelings of alienation from both political and economic life.

The April 2010 rebellion prompted Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors to close their borders. The de-facto embargo from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and China caused severe economic concerns for those who relied on cross-border trade, agriculture, fuel and food imports. Border closure lead to sudden unemployment and deprivation, while perceptions of economic and political inequality stoked the growing tensions.

Nowhere were tensions more noticeable than in the Ferghana Valley. After his ouster from Bishkek, for a time Bakiyev returned to his hometown in the South, where he attempted to mold tensions to retake the capital. To counter Bakiyev’s support network and stabilize provisional authority, the interim government under Roza Otunbayeva reached out to elites within the Uzbek population in the South.

Anthropologist Gerd Baumann asserts that ethnic identity is often found in the social processes of maintaining boundaries between groups who perceive these boundaries as ethnic. In this sense the Kyrgyz were political players and the Uzbek were business players.

These boundaries were drawn as much along class and community lines as along ethnic lines argues anthropologist and Central Asia scholar Madeleine Reeves. At the time, she observed that the oft-reported targeted violence should have been balanced by cases where ethnicity was irrelevant, such as when property was looted because it represented inaccessible wealth and opportunity to the looter or when mixed neighborhoods established self-defense groups from attack not because of shared ethnicity but because of shared feelings of community.

Bakiyev had created rifts in the South for political leverage, which were widened when the interim government called for Uzbeks to be included in the traditional political boundaries of the already economically and socially threatened Kyrgyz population. Longstanding hardships exacerbated by border closures further strained society and threatened human needs. These factors created a violent atmosphere prone to manipulation by elites. Because economic, political and community boundaries had mostly been demarcated along ethnic lines the violence took on an ethnic quality that was not actually at its roots. Ethnic violence was a more proximate factor; the ultimate causes of the conflict were serious economic, political, and social insecurity combined with competition.

Looking Ahead

Revisiting the causes of the violence in the Ferghana Valley in 2010 and questioning the narratives of ethnic tension can yield a transferable understanding to other contemporary episodes of conflict. It is a lesson perhaps particularly valuable in geographically close Xinjiang, for example, where a violent encounter near the Chinese border between a group of Uyghurs and a Kyrgyz border patrol left 12 dead at the end of January 2014. Regardless of the motivation of this group of Uyghurs, as militants or refugees, their illegal entry into Kyrgyzstan was undoubtedly spurred by insecurity in Xinjiang, a conflict that is increasingly characterized along principally ethnic divisions but one that could certainly benefit from a more nuanced examination.


A striking pose: labor resistance in China

This article was originally published on May Day at here. It was also kindly republished by China Labour Bulletin here.

As if in anticipation of May Day, one of the largest episodes of labor resistance in decades unfurled in Southern China like a great red carpet of contention throughout the month of April. Beginning on April 5 and seething intermittently for several weeks, tens of thousands of workers demonstrated at the Yue Yuen factory in Dongguan. The Yue Yuen incident should be seen from the perspective of China’s nascent labor movement, as an episode in a steady trajectory of resistance.

Yue Yuen is the largest sports shoe manufacturer in the world, supplying Adidas, Nike, Puma, Crocs, Timberland, and many other brands. The demonstration against the factory came to its first crescendo on April 14 as hundreds of police attacked the workers. The strikers were undaunted and by the following week the number of workers on strike had risen to around 40,000. Students in nearby Guangzhou glued posters outside of Nike stores in solidarity with the striking workers. Meanwhile, according to China Digital Times, government censors issued directives that domestic media delete all content related to the incident.

The workers had taken to the streets in protest of the company’s ongoing failure to pay its 70,000 employees their full social security and housing allowance. Worker grievances also included the thousands of fraudulent contracts they had been forced to sign, which prevented their children from enrolling in free local education, forcing them to pay for specialty migrant worker children schools. These are common grievances among China’s some 250 million migrant workers, who are building lives in the cities rather than returning to the countryside with their wages.

A 2010 survey conducted by China’s National Bureau of Statistics noted 61.6 percent of all migrant workers were born after 1980. This new generation of migrant workers differ from their parents in fundamental ways.

A theme explored in Lixin Fan’s 2009 documentary “Last Train Home,” is the shifting of identity away from the village to the city. Many new generation migrant workers grew up in or were born in cities. This urban identity is associated with more education and skills than their parents, a more independent attitude, and a greater fluency in the Internet and social media. Such differences have arguably influenced the evolution of labor resistance.

Yue Yuen workers were supported by independent labor rights organizations, such as Shenzhen Chunfeng Labor Dispute Service Center. Labor activists from this organization, Zhang Zhiru and Lin Dong, helped coordinate the action through various social media platforms, and urged the workers to remain nonviolent. In response, the police detained Zhang and Lin on 22 April 22. At the time of writing, Lin Dong was still being held in criminal detention. Union representatives, on the other hand, were conspicuously absent during the strike.

“I personally have not seen any union staff, although I heard that they have issued a comment, which no one gives a damn about,” a striking worker told China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong rights organization. “They are now giving us instructions, but where the hell were they when the company violated our rights?! I have worked at Yue Yuen for almost two decades, and I don’t even know who our union president is.”

Where is the union?

The largest trade union in the world, the All China Federation of Trade Unions has 239 million members according to 2010 figures. However, the reputation of the ACFTU as the protector of workers’ rights in China has long been suspect due to subordination to elite interests within the ruling Communist Party of China.

When it ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on March 27, 2001, China made a reservation to Article 8.1(a), which guarantees the right to form and freely join trade unions, stating that its application must be consistent with relevant domestic laws, the typical rhetoric of exemption. Although the Chinese Labor Law encourages collective bargaining on paper it is clear from precedent that the collective bargaining process has most often been shallow and disproportionately favors enterprise, while the freedom of association that is purportedly guaranteed in the Chinese Constitution is often infringed.

China has, furthermore, continually failed to ratify fundamental International Labor Organization conventions, including CO87, the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, and CO98, the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining.

With a regulation stating that union chairs must be approved by Communist Party officials, it is not uncommon that union representatives are appointed from among factory management or that union officials beat workers back from strikes with truncheons. It is little wonder that the rise in labor resistance is more attributed to horizontal organization within and between factories and supported by independent labor rights organizations rather than through union coordination.

Two episodes that are often accepted as benchmarks in labor resistance, due to the nature of their grievances, sophistication of organization, and relative successes are the 2002 demonstrations by unremunerated workers against the Ferro-Alloy factory bankruptcy and the 2010 strikes at a series of Honda factories over unlivable wages and worker representation.

Resistance at Honda

For weeks in May and June of 2010 workers from several Honda auto parts factories in southern China orchestrated a series of nonviolent demonstrations beginning in Foshan. Most labor disputes in China arise over unpaid or underpaid wages, but the Honda demonstrators demanded large wage increases and a graduated wage scale. According to interviews at the time, as the strike continued, workers “developed higher consciousness of the importance of setting up a democratic union organization in their factory” and included in their demands the right to freely elect representatives.

On the afternoon of May 31, rather than responding to these demands, the local trade union dispatched around 200 officials. Identifiable by matching yellow hats, they attacked a small crowd of gathered workers. Many were beaten. The confrontations escalated but the demonstrators remained firm. They demanded a response from the union and the company and eventually succeeded in gaining limited rights in electing their own representatives and earned a 35 percent wage increase; student interns received an even higher percent wage increase. The successes of the first strike spread to several other Honda factories in June.

Two of the early organizers in the Foshan demonstrations, in their early 20s, had already quit but decided to organize for the benefit of their fellow employees while they waited to be transferred. In Foshan, several workers wrote updates on personal blogs and many of the demonstrators and supporters were active on QQ, a popular Chinese social media platform. At follow up actions, Honda workers uploaded cell phone videos online.

The success of Honda workers has been hailed by labor rights organizations as something of a turning point. Their demands demonstrated increasing awareness of the need for worker representation and that migrant workers are increasingly eager to negotiate their own terms and build sustainable lives in cities.

Ferro Alloy

In early March 2002, after three years of simmering tensions, thousands of employees of the Liaoyang Ferro-Alloy factory in the northeastern province of Liaoning marched on the city government building. They were joined en route by thousands of workers from other factories. Later, the arrest of several Ferro-Alloy worker representatives sparked greater coordination and swelled the numbers to more than 30,000 demonstrators by March 18. Among their main grievances were unpaid housing allotments, pension contributions, social security payments and owed wages. Workers demanded investigation into the misappropriation of funds that they claimed had lead to the company’s bankruptcy and refusal to pay workers.

While also creating petitions and making legal demands, the Ferro-Alloy protests, as noted by UCLA sociologist Ching Kwan Lee in her 2007  book Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt, “involved inter-factory coordination and political demands for the removal of city officials.” These tactics set it apart from previous labor protests. Like the Yue Yuen strike, ACFTU representatives were conspicuously absent from the demonstrations in Liaoning and later sided with the state’s hardline stance against workers.

By the middle of March, the government — no longer willing to negotiate — launched a series of counter-strikes. At first attempting to subvert the movement from within through agents provocateur and political spin in domestic media. The state eventually responded with mass arrests. While several of the main organizers, such as Yao Fuxin, were arrested, so were those targeted by worker claims. Yao Fuxin was sentenced to seven years for illegal assembly and subversion, while the former director of the Ferro-Alloy factory was sentenced to 13 years on smuggling charges. Other company and party officials were also sentenced. The central government instituted new provisions that made it more difficult for enterprises to declare bankruptcy without guaranteeing provisions for workers, as the Ferro-Alloy factory had attempted.

Labor looking forward

While such episodes demonstrate that coordination is possible, it is arguable whether China has a labor movement. The sustainability and national coordination of individual episodes of labor resistance is underdeveloped and the Communist Party works tirelessly to constrain national mobilization. The bulk of labor resistance is still often spontaneous, but younger workers are injecting innovative ideas with the guidance of increasingly professional labor activists inside China and abroad. The nascent movement has made strides. As collective identity among workers has increased, so has organizing capabilities; with new support, workers are becoming more proactive and successful.

The international community can continue to support labor resistance in China by expressing solidarity for all nonviolent labor resistance and making consumer or political decisions at home. When the Yue Yuen strike started, Adidas moved a bulk of its orders to other suppliers. In response, solidarity actions were staged at Adidas stores from Hong Kong to Istanbul and New York. Monitoring the situation of labor rights defenders and standing resolute on arbitrary detention, communicating with international organizations and local political representatives have contributed to the international struggle for labor rights and will continue to benefit Chinese workers.

Yue Yuen and the world

This article was originally published on May Day as ‘Yue Yuen: wildcat strieks and autonomous labor struggles in China’ at ROAR Magazine, reflections on a revolution, as part of a series on labor resistance, available here.

In China, the Communist Party (CCP) and the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) promote and protect workers’ rights. In reality, however, elite interests most often prevail, submerging workers’ rights in the tide of global capitalism. The response has been increasing civil resistance. According to one study, there were 1.171 strikes and labor protests between June 2011 and the end of 2013, and much of April 2014 was marked by one of the largest episodes of resistance in modern Chinese labor history.

On Monday, April 14, 2014, 10.000 workers at the Yue Yuen Dongguan shoe factory took to the streets in protest of the company’s ongoing failure to pay its 70.000 employees their full social security and housing allowance. Worker grievances also included the thousands of fraudulent contracts they had been forced to sign, which prevented their children from enrolling in local schools, forcing them to pay for migrant worker children’s schools. These are common grievances among China’s some 250 million migrant workers.

The strikes, which had been intermittent since April 5, came to their first crescendo that Monday as hundreds of riot police swarmed the crowd. Despite the show of force and minimal arrests, the workers were undaunted, and by the following week the demonstrators numbered around 40.000. Government censors instructed domestic media to delete content related to the incident.

The strike at Yue Yuen, the largest sports shoe manufacturer in the world, supplying Adidas, Nike, Puma, Crocs and others, was supported by labor rights organizations, such as the Shenzhen-based Chunfeng Labor Justice Service Department. Meanwhile, union presence was minuscule. That substantive union support was conspicuously absent in one of the largest labor rights demonstrations in modern China is telling.

China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong rights organization, quoted one striking worker: “I personally have not seen any union staff, although I heard that they have issued a comment, which no one gives damn about… They are now giving us instructions, but where the hell were they when the company violated our rights?! I have worked at Yue Yuen for almost two decades, and I don’t even know who our union president is.”

The ACFTU is the largest trade union in the world, with around 239 million members according to 2010 figures. However, the legitimacy of the ACFTU as a representative of workers’ rights has been tarnished by perennial subordination to the interests of the CCP. There is a regulation that party officials must approve all union chairs and the CCP’s position on labor rights is clear.

On March 27, 2001, when it ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), China issued a reservation to Article 8.1(a), the right to form and freely join trade unions, that its application must be consistent with the Chinese Constitution and other domestic laws. The word union does not appear in the Chinese Constitution. Furthermore, China has continually failed to ratify fundamental International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions CO87, The Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize and CO98, The Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining.

For these reasons China’s workers have increasingly been relying on autonomous structures of labor resistance organized horizontally within or between small groups of factories with support from independent labor rights organizations and third parties. Students in the nearby city of Guangzhou, for example, left posters outside of Nike stores in solidarity with the striking workers.

After several weeks of demonstrations, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Labor and Social Security acknowledged that Yue Yuen had been underpaying its workers and noted that the department had ordered the factory to comply.

Still, we must not forget that China is increasingly outsourcing cheap labor to countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh. While victories for individual factories are milestones in the Chinese labor movement, until the engines of global capitalism come to a halt the same exploitive practices will continue in their voracious race to the bottom.

After all, following the initial outbreak of demonstrations at Yue Yuen, Adidas moved a bulk of its orders to other suppliers. This move earned the company criticism from the International Union League for Brand Responsibility, which, as a reminder that the struggle for workers’ rights is universal, responded by organizing solidarity protests at Adidas and Nike stores from Hong Kong to Istanbul and Los Angeles.

Localizing Inclusive Institutions: Adaptive Governance in China

The common wisdom is that in the post-Mao years China has experienced unprecedented developments from the grassroots level to the  high echelons of power. Some observers cling to examples of minor achievements in political opening to bolster far flung claims that China is on a gradual path toward political liberalization. Such pundits, mired in now largely disproved neoliberal economic theory, cling hopelessly to the notion that economic liberalization inevitably brings political liberalization. Such arguments often point to village committee elections as the starting point of a bottom up initiative toward gentle democratization. The internationalization of the series of events collectively understood as the Wukan Incident is a good example of this fervor. However, a clear understanding of adaptive governance, outlined by Heilmann and Perry in their 2011 Book Mao’s Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance in China, challenges the conventional understanding. It encourages us to see village elections not as part of a democratizing mission, and may never have been, but as a directed effort by the central government in the 1980s to shore up inefficiencies and integrate itself by institutionalizing CCP authority at the grassroots. Furthermore, the procedural definition of democracy behind such narrowly optimistic appraisals as that trumpeted Wukan might actually contribute to forestalling more structural civil and political developments. This treatment of adaptive governance is especially germane to understanding the recent announcements of the Third Plenum.

Village Committees, An institutionalized Hoax

In late 1980 and early 1981 two counties in Guangxi (Yishan and Luocheng) began experimenting with village committees (cunmin weiyuanhui), then referred to as ‘village management committees’ (cun guan hui). This was an attempt to address the perceived impending crisis produced by decollectivization; as Naughton explains (2006, p. 89), the household responsibility system was effectively turning the collective into little more than a landlord. These early experiments in locally elected administration were done without the guidance or explicit knowledge of party representatives. Eventually, reports of Guangxi’s Village Committees reached Beijing. Vice-chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, Peng Zhen lauded the ingenuity of the newly formed VCs and subsequently instructed the NPC and the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) to send investigators to Guangxi in order to gain a deeper understanding of what was happening. He encouraged other provinces to experiment with village committees. In a short time experimentation with locally elected village committees was spreading throughout China.

The following year, 1982, villager’s committees were written into the Constitution as elected mass organizations of self-government. Article 111 of the 1982 Constitution reads:

“The residents’ committees and villagers’ committees established among urban and rural residents on the basis of their place of residence are mass organizations of self-management at the grass-roots level. The chairman, vice-chairmen and members of each residents’ or villagers’ committee are elected by the residents. The relationship between the residents’ and villagers’ committees and the grass-roots organs of state power is prescribed by law. The residents’ and villagers’ committees establish committees for people’s mediation, public security, public health and other matters in order to manage public affairs and social services in their areas, mediate civil disputes, help maintain public order and convey residents’ opinions and demands and make suggestions to the people’s government.”

In 1986, a Circular from the Central Committee and the State Council on the Creation of Rural Grassroots Self-Governing Institutions defined village democracy as, ‘self-education, self-management, self-building-up and self-service,’ and urged village committees to actively engage in village campaigns (Baogang, 2007, p. 24). Deng Xiaoping encouraged investigation into village committees as a means of “political reform to overcome the systemic obstacles to his economic reform (Pei, 2008, p. 50).” The Organic Law of Village Committees was first promulgated in 1988. This preliminary version had 21 articles. The 1998 version, with an additional 9 articles, nationally mandated village elections. The current version, with 41 articles, was promulgated in 2010. These legal developments support an understanding of changing political perceptions of local level ‘democratic’ participation as the result of evolving central policies. What was at the core of these changing policies?

The village committee and its leader have significant local economic power, says Landry et al (2010, p. 766), to oversee the redistribution or lease of collectively owned village land, which since the 1980s’ rapid private development has become exceedingly valuable. This has seen a parallel increase in land rights related corruption. The committee is also tasked with, inter alia, mediating local disputes and for serving as liaison between township party officials. However, while the village committee may be entrusted with economic rights by law—implementation is another matter—the effective autonomy of the village committee to make political decisions or engage in the legislative process does not appear to have evolved since initial experimentation in the early 1980s, outside of potentially more competitive elections with higher voter turnout. I argue, in line with Nathan (2003) and Yan (2011), that village committees should be treated as the localized institutionalization of CCP authority, a far more believable objective behind central government support of initial efforts at village level self-governance.

Nathan (2003) explains that, while authoritarian regimes are generally fragile due to the prevalence of legitimacy crises, destabilizing coercive methods of control, an overly centralized power structure, and the predominance of factionalism, the Chinese model of authoritarianism has remained resilient. It has outlived most of the 20th centuries other totalitarian states, and has far outpaced its neighbor the DPRK in international integration and economic development, while maintaining fundamental power for the party. Not least of all because of the perfection of ‘input institutions.’ These are institutions that allow for a modicum of autonomy for Chinese citizens to notify the regime of their grievances. However, as Nathan (2003, p. 14) implies ‘input institutions’ may only beguile individuals into believing that “they have some influence on policy decisions and personnel choices at the local level,” while generating support for the central legitimacy of the CCP.

Yan (2011) uses different terminology to expand on the same analysis. Inclusive regime institutions (IRI), he states, are attempts by the regime to expand its internal decision making boundaries, and to integrate rather than insulate itself with non-regime members of society. IRI incentivizes participation in the regime-dominated system, although strictly demarcating the methods of participation, while at the same time preemptively stalling demands for more long term or anti-systemic changes. Although directly speaking of People’s Political Consultative Congresses (renmin zhengxie), Yan (2011, p. 54) offers a further beneficial description of IRI that fits an examination of village committees, in that IRI represent “important platforms for co-opting potentially threatening social forces” and “a mechanism for offering material benefits to the regime’s most loyal and trustworthy collaborators.”

These institutions empower individuals with clearly delimited rights and responsibilities that are never capable of challenging or even engaging equally with the regime. One might inquire whether village committees as an institution began with the reformist objective of greater democratization or as part of Nathan and Yan’s framework.  Deeper understanding of adaptive policy making in China will address this concern and further develop an understanding of village committees as nothing more than regime supporting institutions.

Unlike other authoritarian states, “Mao’s China exhibited a trademark policy style that favored continual experimentation and transformation (or ‘permanent revolution’) over regime consolidation (Heilmann and Perry 2011, p.7),” a regime feature that has not been abandoned in post-Mao China. I would argue that the trajectory of village committees from 1980 to 2010 can be seen as part of what Heilmann and Perry term the ‘experimentation under hierarchy’ approach, where “trial implementation of controversial or risky reforms in limited domains regularly precedes the enactment of national laws: risky policies are tried out first, spread to larger areas secondly, and only written into national law as a last step (Heilmann, Perry, 16).” Both the legal evolution and institutionalization of village committees proceeded, as part of a carefully choreographed effort by central party authorities to address overcentralization, without foregoing the efficiency of technical central decision-making, incrementally through a series of trial implementations, investigations, central discussions, and cautious extensions.

As noted above, Deng advocated measured ‘democratization’ as an effort to bolster his economic reforms. He may have noted, in 1979, that, “we have not propagated and practiced democracy enough, and our systems and institutions leave much to be desired… (Baum, 1996, p. 81).” But in 1987, when presented with ‘The General Outline on the Reform of the Political System’ (Zhengzhi tizhi gaige zongti shexiang), a report conducted by a task force for studying and discussing reform headed by Zhao Ziyang, Deng stressed, “we cannot abandon our dictatorship. We must not accommodate the sentiments of democratization… Efficiency must be guaranteed (Pei, 2008, p. 55).” For Deng, democratic reform was about little more than maintaining efficiency, which can be understood as a constituent concern of decentralization within Nathan’s typology of regime weakness.

“we cannot abandon our dictatorship. We must not accommodate the sentiments of democratization… Efficiency must be guaranteed.”

The regime logic behind the implementation of village committees should be seen as at least threefold, and part of the adaptive governance model. The first goal was maintaining efficiency, as explicitly noted by Deng. The additional goals, in line with Nathan and Yan’s regime institutions, are to generate greater support and legitimacy for the regime and to control local malfeasance among party and non-party individuals or provide material or symbolic support for collaborators, a concern for Chinese leaders with legacies stretching as far back as Imperial China. In this light we can understand village committees as inclusive regime institutions that, rather than having been hijacked from more democratic origins, began as experiments in localized party domination. If we accept village committees as the localized extension of party domination, then an over reliance on village elections, tout court, as the barometer of democratization must be unpacked as well. It presents a shallow and partial view that also benefits and legitimizes the authoritarian regime that, by nature, must firstly permit the election to take place.

Tilly (2007, p. 8) explains that procedural definitions fixate on a narrow range of governmental practices to determine whether a regime is a democracy. Adherents of this approach tend to focus their attention on elections, likely for reasons of observability and simplicity. He argues that the problem with procedural definitions is, “despite their crisp convenience, they work with an extremely thin conception of the political processes involved (2007, p. 8).” Tilly also elucidates the more sophisticated process-oriented approach. This approach is based on measuring five criteria: (1) effective participation; (2) voting equality; (3) enlightened understanding; (4) control of the agenda; and (5) inclusion of adults (Tilly, 2007, p. 9).

Adding critique to the procedural definition, Landry et al point out, “Officials who run authoritarian elections have strong political incentives to maximize turnout, and variation in turnout reflects not individual-level decisions but instead the performance of local officials as election organizers (Landry et al, 2010, p. 768).” Clearly, that elections are taking place in China, a procedural definition is more appealing for optimistic analysis, willing to shrug off the blocking of independent candidates at township level elections as outliers, but once a process-oriented approach is applied the degree of democratization represented by village committees is significantly diminished.

Speaking tangentially to a process-oriented approach, Pei notes that “the lack of effective channels for political participation and interest representation, creating an environment in which groups unable to defend their interests are forced to take high-risk options for collective protest to voice their demands and hope for compensatory policies (Pei, 2008, p. 15).” Pei’s reference to increasing contention points perhaps to the fact that the institution of village committees not only does not represent efforts by the regime to democratize but are also failing in their attempts to be inclusive regime institutions to bolster party support and promote local stability. In other words, while village committees may be nothing more than an extension of some Faustian bargain from the center, villagers are engaging in increased contentious politics demanding a more process-oriented, truly inclusive, approach to democracy that deeper research may reveal to be far more instrumental in democratization than any amount of village elections. Put a third way, self-organized contention by civil society is a far more robust indicator of democratization within an authoritarian regime than the hijackable village election.


Encouraging electoral politics at the grassroots level to ostensibly transfer the onus of regulating abuses and maintaining efficiency, by mildly increasing autonomy, through elections, may well be a more appealing strategy than the Maoist mass line and mass criticism, but it falls far short of democratization. The evolution of the village committee should, rather, be treated as a cautiously and centrally approved institution by the CCP toward the goal of localizing its legitimacy and control. Approaching village committees through a procedural definition of democracy will inevitably produce a flawed understanding based on a narrow conception of democratization that perpetuates a myth, framed in central policy dictates, that village committees are a sign of political liberalization in China.

Works Cited

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