Private Rural Organizations Pose Challenge to Chinese Authorities

February 17, 2005

The number and influence of independent organizations in rural China is increasing, posing a challenge to the government's political control, according to a number of recent scholarly articles. Responding to this phenomenon, the Chinese government has begun to promote the development of rural cooperatives to direct the organizational energy of China’s peasants into approved channels (and also to raise rural incomes).

A recent survey of rural Chinese organizations and popular attitudes revealed significant gaps in Party and government control over different types of rural organizations. Only about 22% of all organizations to which rural respondents belonged were formally registered.

Survey respondents overwhelmingly perceived the village committee as having the most authority, but in a number of Chinese provinces, survey respondents ranked developing independent peasant "burden reduction committees" as a higher priority than developing village committees. As other researchers note, burden reduction committees often form the nucleus of peasant protests against government policies and actions.

In response to a perceived decline in control over existing rural organizations, Chinese officials are promoting professional farmers' cooperatives as an approved organizational model in rural areas. According to a recent People’s Daily article, farmers have established over 100,000 cooperatives to promote their common economic interests. Chinese scholars have suggested that the creation of such organizations may help alleviate conflicts in rural areas, without fundamentally challenging the Party's grip on power.

Chinese officials disagree about how to manage these cooperatives. As noted in an earlier analysis, the central government seems to prefer tighter regulatory control over the cooperatives, while some local authorities appear willing to allow the cooperatives more independence. The conflict between competing views has resulted in struggles over the legal status of cooperatives. This has led to the conflict described in a 21st Century Business Herald report. Local governments have recognized some cooperatives under liberal local regulations, but these cooperatives have subsequently encountered problems with banks and tax bureaus denying them loans or tax preferences because there are no national guidelines governing the status of cooperatives.