AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 422

[ China and Inner Asia Sessions, Table of Contents | Panels by World Area Main Menu ]

Session 422: Local Policy Experimentation in the PRC: From Mao to Now

Organizer: Patricia M. Thornton, University of Oxford, United Kingdom

Chair: Christine Wong, University of Washington, United Kingdom

The Chinese Communist Party’s remarkable record of achievement over the last three decades presents a direct challenge to conventional political science models that assign little institutional flexibility to Communist party-states. Recent scholarly speculation has honed in on the important role played by China’s distinctive tradition of local policy experimentation as a key factor contributing to the resilience and adaptability of the CCP regime. Whether the regime’s recent successes can be attributed to local innovation spurred by a historical tradition of “local experimentation under hierarchy” (Heilmann, 2008) or the post-Mao creation of regionally-based “laboratories for change” in the form of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) (Gallagher, 2002), the broader political context within which policy experimentation is encouraged and reported upon deserves closer examination. The papers for this panel survey and critically examine the historical role of policy experimentation in post-49 China, paying particular attention to the political and ideological agendas framing the context within which innovation takes place.

Policy Experimentation in the Mao Era
Mobo Gao, University of Adelaide, Australia

Given the Great Leap Forward disaster and the subsistence living standard at that time the collective system in rural China in the Mao era is either dismissed or condemned by the post-Mao Chinese government, the Chinese intellectual elite as well as Western observers. However, this paper argues not only that the failure of the collective system is not as it appears, but also, more importantly, that policy experimentation of the collective period had made a great difference in rural life and had actually benefited the vast majority of the rural poor in many ways. This paper will present evidence for the above argument and proposes that the ideas and practicum of the policy experimentation in the Mao era can and should be taken as source of inspiration for new policy construction in rural China for the years to come.

Learning Locally during the Deng Era
Lawrence C. Reardon, University of New Hampshire, USA

With the initiation of the GATT accession process, the establishment of the fifth special economic zone on Hainan Island, and the announcement of the coastal development strategy in the late 1980s, Chinese elites agreed to join the other East Asian economies in adopting outwardly-oriented development. This paradigm change was the result of a complex learning process that occurred between 1979 and 1987, during which time elites initiated localized experiments with foreign capital, technology, and the market place. Focusing on the Special Economic Zones, this paper will explore how elites could disagree with the implementation of the localized experiments, but incrementally learn the limitations of previous development strategies. By completing the complex learning process, elites learned to embrace an outwardly-oriented technological development regime, whose long term goals mandated the building of a strong, prosperous state, in which the party would only partially control the economic sector.

State-led rural development in contemporary China
Kristen E. Looney, Georgetown University, USA

The Chinese state has tried through various modernization campaigns since the 1920s to stimulate rural development. And yet, Chinese rural development lags significantly behind urban development and behind other countries at comparable levels of development. In contrast, Taiwan and South Korea, starting in the 1950s and continuing through the 1970s, also attempted rural modernization campaigns and by many measures succeeded in accomplishing their development goals. Although scholars have produced many studies comparing East Asian industrial development, considerably less academic work has been devoted to understanding approaches to rural development in this region. Based on twelve months of field research in Mainland China, Taiwan, and South Korea and part of a larger dissertation project on state-led rural modernization in East Asia, this paper focuses on China‚s post-2005 rural development framework, Building a New Socialist Countryside (xinnongcun jianshe). First, the paper explores the historical and intellectual origins of the campaign. Important debates such as the role of the state and farmers‚ organizations in promoting rural development are ongoing in China, and many Chinese have actively consulted the development experiences of Taiwan and South Korea for guidance. Second, I argue that despite the ambiguous nature of Building a New Socialist Countryside as national policy, the debates taking place at every level of government, combined with the state‚s efforts to shift fiscal resources from urban to rural areas has led to unprecedented government investment and policy experimentation in the countryside, especially in the areas of village revitalization (cunzhuang zhengzhi) and farmers‚ cooperatives (nongmin hezuoshe).

Post-Mao Collectivism: Debating “Red Millionaire” (hongse yiyuan) Villages in the Era of Market Reform
Patricia M. Thornton, University of Oxford, United Kingdom

Local policy innovation, whether supported by the centre or furtively pursued at the grassroots, has played a key role in shaping market reform during the post-Mao era. The fateful secret pact signed by eighteen Xiaogang Village farmers in Anhui’s Fengxiang County in 1978 is now part of both official narrative and popular folklore surrounding the central impetus in favor of the reintroduction of free market forces in the Chinese countryside. Peasant entrepreneurs and self-made millionaires are lauded in the official press as models and exemplars, and local cadres in poorer regions are prodded to learn from the development strategies honed in China’s Special Economic Zones. Yet the recent proliferation of an alternative set of model villages—those that have spurned market reform in order to either strengthen or return to Mao-era collectivist institutions—reveals the existence of powerful cross-currents at work in the countryside. This paper critically examines the recent controversies and debates brewing over the case of Nanjie and other so-called “red villages” in order to shed light on the highly-charged political context within which the practice of grassroots policy experimentation takes place, and how the results of such experiments are evaluated, in contemporary China.