Maintaining Stability in Rural China: Challenges and Responses

Ray Yep
Ray Yep Professor and Assistant Head, Department of Public and Social Administration, City University of Hong Kong - CNAPS Visiting Fellow, 2001-2002, The Brookings Institution

May 13, 2002

Introduction: Implications and Sources of Rural Unrest

A stable China is crucial for the regional as well as global interests of the United States. Major social and political chaos and dislocation in China will interrupt the regional order in Asia, where half a million Americans live and work and US businesses make more than $500 billion in trade each year. Turbulence in China could also exert an unfavorable impact on the economy of major US allies in the region: Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. With China?s growing involvement in the global political and economic order, effective governance in China is in the best interest of the United States and the international community.

Then, how stable is China? While unemployment in urban areas, corruption scandals and Falun Gong protests may be seen by many as major threats to the country?s stability, the situation in the countryside warrants no less attention. With 75 percent of the population still residing in the countryside and the agricultural sector continuing to make a significant contribution to the buoyant economy, the question of rural stability has deservedly aroused the attention of China watchers in recent years. Mounting reports of rural unrest prompt genuine concerns among policy makers at home and abroad. In recent years Beijing has responded to growing rural tension with a series of political, administrative and fiscal reforms. However, China?s leadership overlooks the fundamental cause of the problem: the paucity of resources for effective governance at local levels.

In providing this analysis, this paper first presents an overview of rural unrest in China, followed by a critique of thus-far inadequate central government reform measures. Specifically, this paper argues that recentralization of fiscal discipline may actually exacerbate current tensions in the countryside. This paper also suggest a number of opportunities for the international community to assist Beijing in its social reform efforts.