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Chinese Suburban Villages’ State-Society Relations in Flux: A Factor of Collectively-Owned Land Development
The Korean Journal of International Studies 16-2 (August 2018), 283-309
Published online August 31, 2018
© 2018 The Korean Association of International Studies.

Wooyeal Paik [Bio-Data]
Received February 23, 2018; Revised April 18, 2018; Accepted April 28, 2018.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License ( which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Suburban China’s state-society relations have been in flux throughout the rapid urbanization, industrialization, and modernization during a three-decades-long market reform. One of the key consequences of different grassroots state-society relations in the suburbs is whether or not villages achieve sustainable profit-sharing development of collectively-owned land. This paper sheds lights on the relations between village leaders and villagers that determine the outcomes of collective land development. This paper argues that once the patron-client relationship between village leaders and upper-level state officials is cooperative, an important condition for many land developments in rural China, the nature of the relationship between village leaders and villagers—whether it is corporatist, patron-clientelist, or neither corporatist nor clientelist—determines the extent to which land-generated revenue is shared among villagers, a consequence of the suburban land business. Through such a conceptual approach and empirical findings based upon three sets of in-depth case studies with multiple comparative references from coastal regions in China, this paper shows that state-society relations in the suburbs and beyond is not fixed as a constantly contentious one, but rather is largely in flux and evolving.
Keywords : China, suburban village politics, state-society relations, land business, corporatism, clientelism, developmental state

China’s state-society relations have been in flux throughout the rapid urbanization, industrialization, and modernization of a now three-decades-long market reform.1 One of the key consequences of the different grassroots state-society relations in China, especially in its suburbs (chengjiao), is whether the village achieves development of its collectively-owned land through sustainable profit sharing among village leaders and villagers (Yu 2005). As largely acknowledged in the literature,2 land is a highly coveted resource in most suburban villages due to the expansion of urbanization caused by market reforms. China has a two-fold dual-track land system that “separates land ownership and land use rights” and “distinguishes between state ownership in urban areas and collective ownership in rural areas.”3 Despite the premise of the state’s general dominance in the land market, rural collectives such as villages own rural land and its use rights, not the upper-level states in which they are situated. These village collectives are allowed to sell and lease their land for profit. Under such a legal framework, suburban villages belong to rural areas despite their proximity to cities, giving suburban villages a unique advantage in the land business.

The value of such village land has greatly increased over the last two decades during an unprecedented real estate boom, and involved stakeholders are competing for control over that village land. Accordingly, each suburban village’s economic development, accumulation, and distribution—its political economy—largely revolves around the land business.4 In this context, this paper analyzes one of the key consequences of the different grassroots state-society relations in the suburbs: whether or not the village achieves a sustainable profit-sharing development of its collectively-owned land (jititudi). In other words, this paper sheds lights on the relationship between the village leadership (village Communist Party branch and village committee) and villagers that determines the extent to which land-generated revenue is shared with those villagers, which is a critical consequence of collective land development. This research argues that when the patron-client relationship between village leaders and upper-level states is cooperative—which is a controlling condition for many land developments in rural China—the nature of the relationship between village leaders and villagers—whether it is corporatist, clientelist, or neither corporatist nor clientelist—determines how revenues from the suburban land business are shared. This paper contributes to a growing body literature on the local political economy and state-society relations in both comparative politics and Chinese studies.

Through such a theoretical approach, this paper provides three sets of empirical findings based upon three in-depth case studies—Village ‘A’ in Shanghai, Village ‘B’ in Beijing, and Wukan Village in Guangdong—along with several comparative references from other coastal regions. The analysis depends on a large volume of data collected through intensive interviews and observations during fieldwork from 2007 to 2015. The first section of this paper provides a brief literature review and introduces the research questions, background, and main arguments. The second section focuses on the main arguments. The third section supports the arguments with the aforementioned case studies. The results of these case studies are further complemented with comparative references from neighboring villages and other regions in China to make the empirical findings more generalizable. The final section concludes that state-society relations in the Chinese suburbs and beyond are fixed neither as constantly contentious nor cooperative, but are largely in a state of flux and evolving.



The collectively-owned land of villages is the most critical economic resource in suburban China. Sharing profits from developing this land among villagers and village leaders, however, happens in some villages but not in many others. Moreover, its sustainability varies across the villages that do share the profits. What makes such differences? Even though many factors are involved, this research focuses on a set of conditions at the point of the political-economic interaction between the village leadership and villagers.

A cooperative relationship between the village leadership and upper-level states is essential for most land business in a suburban village collective in China. Cooperation from upper-level states, such as administrative assistance securing political permits, licenses, land usage changes, and expropriations, is indispensable for any village to develop its collectively-owned land and sustain revenue sources from various real estate developments such as apartments, factories, commercial businesses, and others. To be sure, there are contentious and conflicting relationships between higher-level government officials of townships and counties and the village leadership they interact with. If those relationships are marked by conflict, the village’s development of collectively-owned land becomes very difficult.

Under authoritarian and often unscrupulous local political systems in suburban China, political exchanges revolve around the patron (upper-level state officials) and a client (village leadership) in many cases.5 As both Hicken (2011) and Stoke (2007) point out, many working definitions of patron-clientelism or clientelism share common features. Clientelism is a quid pro quo relationship between an individual of higher status (the patron) who uses his or her resources to provide protection and/or benefits to a person of lower status (the client), who reciprocates by offering support and assistant to the patron.6 Such “[c]lientelism exists in all politics. The form it takes, its extent, and its political functions vary enormously, however, across time and place” (Van de Walle 2007, 50). Clientelism in suburban China is no exception.

The village is not an official administrative unit in China; instead, villages are politically weak and easily subjected to the policies of immediate upper-level governments, such as those of townships, counties, districts, and cities. Land business is also important for these upper-level governments because it plays a significant role in promoting local capital accumulation, government funding, and urbanization (Lin and Yi 2011). Despite regional variations, the basic land development approach of upper-level governments can be simplified into two types: ex-ante plans and ex-post plans. If the upper-level government initiates village land development with a plan of aggressive urban expansion (ex-ante), many villages are then forced to sell their land to the government. In this case, villages have no choice but to hold onto their rights to collectively-owned land as long as possible and to eventually maximize the compensation for land that will be expropriated by official means.

If upper-level governments do not initiate development, however, villages can be more proactive in pursuing development of collectively-owned land and may lobby upper-level governments to endorse their land development and management (ex-post) plans, which is often quasi-illegal. Ex-post plans allow those villages to maintain long-term autonomy over a more sustainable real estate business via collective land ownership. In either case, a close and cooperative relationship between the village leadership and its superiors is essential, and more often than not, this relationship is deeply rooted in cooperative and often patron-client relations between the two groups. Therefore, the cooperative and often clientele relationship between upper-level government officials and village leadership is more likely a given condition for any type of land business at the village level. This paper accepts this condition as a control variable to understand the role of the relationship between the village leadership and villagers in collective land development plans and revenue/profit sharing patterns.

The relationship between village leaders and villagers can vary to produce the following three simplified consequences of the extent that to which revenue from development of collectively-owned land is shared among villagers: 1) sustainable and shared with more villagers; 2) temporary and shared with fewer villagers; and 3) shared with no villagers.7 The outcome depends on what kind of relationship village leaders and villagers form, and, on whether that relationship can be described as corporatist, clientelist, or neither, respectively.


The relationship between village leaders and a majority of villagers is critical for the successful development of the village land business. First, villages with more corporatist characteristics in this conceptualization are examined. Corporatism was originally developed as a major theoretical framework to understand the complex relationship between political economy and state-society relations (Baum and Shevchenko 1999).8 At the national level, corporatism is generally defined as a political system where the state and various societal groups that are recognized and largely controlled by the state cooperate rather than compete or come in conflict with each other. The idea is to promote sustained economic development and political stability by structuring interest representation but discouraging the respective groups’ conflicting demands. However, for corporatism at the local level, although the aforementioned theoretical insights are still useful, “the role of the central state in the vertical integration of interests within society as a whole” is not of concern, but the relationship between the local state and society when pursuing local economic development is. Oi (1999) and Edin (2003) distinguish corporatism at the national from local levels in market reform China. Oi’s (1992) influential theory of “local state corporatism” refers to “the workings of a local government that coordinate economic enterprises in its territory as if it were a diversified business corporation” (100-101). This is the local version of state corporatism.

State corporatism emphasizes domination of a coercive state in economic development, accumulation, and distribution with top-down decision-making and implementation. Village corporatism, which this paper analyzes, is, however, based upon more voluntary and bottom-up agreements in economic affairs between local state (or village leadership) and society (villagers), as Hsing (2010) and Sargeson (2011) argue. Local state corporatism is dominated by local states—village, township and even county governments—creating a top-town structure that largely excludes villagers from collective business affairs. Village corporatism, on the other hand, is usually driven by village leaders, but many villagers are involved in the local state’s decisions. By forming corporatist relations, villagers get included in the land business.

Such ownership and management of collective land for business purposes is usually formalized by a shareholding company and/or village board. Such corporatist institutions allow the village leadership to manage the land business and engendered capital accumulation and distribution and to hold regular board meetings with village members to report, audit, and discuss the collective land business, creating a type of ‘checks and balances’ system between the leaders and villagers that at least partly hold the village leadership accountable. This corporatist structure, which provides villagers with substantial dividends, welfare programs, and other benefits, results in villagers who tend to favor a sustained collective land business in the long term, too. The established literature on village corporatism needs more theoretical sophistication in line with the four features listed below.

First, to localize this corporatist approach, understanding the co-existence of collective and private profit mechanisms is critical. This means that a village collective’s land business must create individual property and profit-making opportunities such as apartment units and land for rent, in addition to collective revenue generation by the village’s collective land business. Villagers need a safety net that is realized by de facto partial privatizations (bufende siyouhua) of collectively-owned (jitisuoyou) land in case the collective land business fails. It is a theoretical innovation for understanding the changing nature of China’s land ownership system, and the subject of academic and policy debates during the era of market reform.

Second, to contextualize such village corporatist dynamics, it is important to understand another relationship in China’s land business; one involving an important outside stakeholder, land developers (kaifashang). Scholars of Chinese local politics have studied the relationship between local states (villages, townships, districts, counties, and cities) and business elites, largely ignoring relations between local states and citizens (Baum and Shevchenko 1999; Ong 2012; Paik and Baum 2014; Wangk 1999; Golden and Picci 2008). This clientelist, and often unscrupulous, collusion has prevailed in the land business and caused rural unrest and contentious state-society relations in many suburban villages. This is because, if land developers dominate the development of the village’s collective land, the land rights of villagers tend to be severely limited. In cases of village corporatism, however, villagers can take patrons (village leaders and upper-level government officials) away from their customary clients (land developers), or at least share these patrons with those developers. In other words, villagers can have upper-level state officials as patron and village leaders as corporatist leaders. Then villagers will be included in the vertically-inclusive clientele structure with village leadership acting as a broker, even though those villagers are not direct clients of those upper-level state officials. The established literature has not explained this counterintuitive combination of clientelism and corporatism.

Third, it should be noted that village corporatism also should have some complementary clientelist elements visible between the village leadership and villagers. That is, many villagers exchange their collective land ownership and related political support for the patronage of village leaders in order to maintain a sustainable profit-sharing mechanism. In a sense, the villagers’ collective land ownership plays the role of a pseudo-voting right, or a critical resource to exchange with patrons through electoral clientelism. Indeed, villagers have a real vote during village committee elections, which are frequently subject to electoral clientelism. To be sure, corporatism includes a majority of the village population, while clientelism relates only to a minor number of villagers. Many argue that electoral clientelism connects a majority of voters with a politician. Many cases of village corporatism also have clientelist features. Nevertheless, if a village does not have a corporatist system, its clientelism includes a relatively minor number of villagers who are more connected to village leaders. The more villagers involved in the village’s collective land business, the better will be the profit sharing in the village.9

Finally, in the village’s corporatist structure, the village leadership can be a local version of state developmental leaders. Even though Ong (2012) distinguishes ‘developmental’ and ‘clientelist’ states in local manufacturing economies, she does not find a relationship between corporatism and developmentalism/clientelism in this context. Village leaders promote the village’s economic survival and prosperity, even though they are also labeled ‘local emperors (tuhuangdi)’ and act in a predatory fashion to some extent. In other words, village leadership plays the role of ‘pilot agency’ in the context of developmental state theory (Evans 1995). In China’s authoritarian system, an increasing number of suburban villagers have been able to constrain dualistic village leaders (Paik and Lee 2012).

Due to the 30-year process of marketization and land development, many suburban villagers have become aware of the market mechanisms that have gradually consumed their land and their neighbors’ land. Many have come to understand political tactics and their legal rights as a means of protecting their interests under China’s authoritarian political system. These villagers do not expect their village leadership to be completely honest even under conditions of corporatist relations. The villagers just try to make use of all available resources, such as the aforementioned clientelist relations with affective networks, resistance tactics such as collective petitions, demonstration, and riots, and semi-competitive village committee elections. These “weapons of the weak,” in Scott’s (1985) terminology, manage to hold village leaders partially accountable.10 In fact, a fine line exists between village leaders and villagers. As long as their lives improve via the collective land business, villagers are tolerant of some malfeasance if it leads to larger profit sharing from those predatory leaders of development, resulting in more sustainable state-society relations in village politics.


There are the three simplified types of relations between the village leadership and villagers in the development of collective land and the ensuing revenue sharing among villagers. The first, ‘more corporatist,’ provides a suburban village with the conditions necessary for sustainable profit sharing from land development. Relations between the village leadership and the majority of villagers can be described as ‘more corporatist.’ In these villages, the land business also follows ‘ex-post’ land development planning by upper-level state officials. A majority of villagers are included in profit sharing and more profits subsequently are allocated and remain in the village community. Political entities also have a longer time horizon in the land business. This double-layered state-society relationship in villages is more likely to have development-oriented village leaders rather than predatory ones.

The second, ‘more clientelist,’ creates the conditions for temporary profit sharing within the suburban village, but it diverges from ‘more corporatist’ in that a “patron-client relationship between village leaders and some villagers” develops, rather than a majority of villagers as seen in corporatist relations. By definition, clientelism does not include everyone in a relationship with the patron; in this case, the village leadership. With a ‘more clientist’ leadership-villager relationship shaping the collectively-controlled land business also follows the ‘ex-ante’ land development planning by upper-level state officials. This type of relationship exhibits more predatory leaders along with a shorter time horizon for land development.

The third of ‘neither corporatist nor clientelist’ provides almost nothing for a majority of villagers. Relations have neither a strictly ‘corporatist’ nor ‘patron-client’ character in interactions between village leaders and a majority of villagers. A very small minority of villagers is included in the profit sharing and few profits are allocated or remain entirely in the village community. Such a set of relations more likely produces notoriously predatory village leaders who just exploit the collectively-owned land and related land rights of ordinary villagers. Note that these three types are actually three positions along a continuum—mainly differentiated by the extent of villagers’ involvement in profit sharing of the village’s collective land development. Table 1 below categorizes the three villages in the following case studies according to the three summarized criteria.


The three theorized sets of conditions for a suburban village’s profit-sharing land development are applied to the following three cases: Village A in Shanghai for the ‘more corporatist’ type, Village B in Beijing for the ‘more clientelist type, and Wukan Village in Guangdong for the ‘neither corporatist nor clientelist’ type. These cases are complemented with comparative references from neighboring villages and other regions to make the empirical findings more robust. The most important criterion for case selection is a village’s location in proximity to a large coastal city in China with a thriving economy. This makes it possible to control for presuppositions of the land business, such exorbitant or rapidly increasing land values, yet allows for the suggested patterns of village land development and revenue sharing. Data were collected through intensive ethnographic interviews and observations during fieldwork in Shanghai (2011-2013), Beijing (2007, 2008, 2011-2015), and Guangdong (2007, 2008, and 2012), with complementary fieldwork in other coastal regions such as Qingdao City in Shandong Province, Yiwu City in Zhejiang Province, and Shenzhen and Dongguan Cities in Guangdong Province (2008, 2011-2015).


Village A is part of the Shanghai Municipality, which has experienced some of the fastest economic growth and urbanization in China’s market reform era. Village A is located in a newly-added suburban district, which was traditionally a poor farming village known for the production of rapeseeds. Shanghai citizens rarely visited this village because, until the 1990s, it was a shantytown with poor living conditions, little industrialization, and a lack of manufacturing ‘town and village enterprises,’ or TVEs (Interviews: Villagers, Shanghai, 10 January 2011; Land Developer, Shanghai, 27 April 2011; Journalist, Shanghai, 23 April 2011). The immediate upper-level government (township, district, and city) of Village A did not actively engage in development of the village’s collectively-owned land until after self-initiation of development. In fact, government superiors tailgated the village’s independent and aggressive land development and incorporated it into their ex-post-planned urban expansion. This is slightly surprising because Village A is near to a city, making its land very attractive to upper-level governments and outside land developers. In this region, upper-level state officials allowed villages in their jurisdiction somewhat extensive autonomy to develop their localities, while providing some basic infrastructure on a per request basis. If a village succeeded in urbanization and formation of prosperous local residential and commercial hubs, the district and city governments would then connect these developed localities to expand its territorial border and direct involvement (Interviews: Villager, Shanghai, 9 January 2011; Land Developer, Shanghai, 26 April 2011 and 1 July 2012; Scholar, Shanghai, 21 January 2013). In the early 2000s, land prices in Village A were 50,000 yuan per mu for agricultural use, 200,000~350,000 yuan per mu for industrial use, and 2~5 million yuan per mu for commercial use.11 This is a proper administrative and economic setup for the corporatist type of collectively-owned land business.

In the late 1990s, the village party branch secretary and the village committee chief, whose name was Chang, and his group of village advisers were approached by several land developers, alerting the villagers of the value of their village’s collectively-owned land. A Taiwanese land developer proposed an attractive deal to the village leadership, suggesting that Village A sell a large chunk of land to the developer via official expropriation to state-owned land (i.e., it would no longer be the village’s collectively-owned land) and to persuade the township and district governments to rezone the land from agricultural to commercial use in exchange for a massive compensation that would have been fully paid by 2002. The village leaders, led by Chang, accepted the offer and utilized a corporatist institution in the form of Village A’s shareholding company (Shanghai A Shiye Gongsi), while the majority of the villagers agreed to delegate their land use rights to those village leaders (Interviews: Journalist, Shanghai, 25 April 2011; Land Developer, Shanghai, 30 June 2012). The villagers knew that Chang, a Village A native in his mid-30s, was an ambitious and capable developmental leader. Even though he and other leaders were often rent-seeking, they were not excessively predatory. Fortunately, these villagers also quickly modernized throughout the 2000s, which re-enforced their negotiating power and helped ensure that village leaders sustained the land business.

From 2002 to 2008, the developer built a residential complex, ‘H Garden,’ with almost 2,000 apartment and villa units on the acquired land. The village collective, led by the village shareholding company, used the compensation money from the sale of the land to create the Village A apartment complex ‘A Garden. They hired a local builder to construct 66 six-story apartment buildings. In total, 1,584 units of two- (61 m2) or three-bedroom (86 m2) apartments became the village’s common property (Interviews: Real Estate Agents, Shanghai, 18 April 2011). Part of the profits from this land sale was shared with upper-level officials in the township and district governments based on the village leaders’ well-established cooperative and clientele relationship. In addition to the local economic growth and urbanization resulting from this village collective land business, which played a major part in the officials’ promotions, this quid pro quo was a key reason why these superiors endorsed the village’s massive land sale and expropriation ex-post to private developers throughout the 2000s (Interviews: Villagers, Shanghai, 18 April 2011 and 24 April 2011; Land Developers, 25 April 2012 and 30 June 2012; Journalist, Shanghai, 25 April 2011).


In other words, the Village A collective traded part of its land for the opportunity to own an apartment complex. This common property was diversified into both the common goods and private goods of individual villagers. While the village collective still owned many units (i.e., collective capital accumulation), it distributed two or three units to each household as compensation for relinquishing farmland to sell or rent to outsiders.12 This was a de facto partial privatization of collectively-owned land and a mechanism for individual profit-generation and capital accumulation. Units soared in value, ranging from 20,000 to 27,000 yuan per m2 in 2012, from an original price of 10,000 yuan in the mid-2000s. An 86-m2 unit now costs more than 1.8 million yuan, with a typical monthly rent of 6,000 yuan, which is twice an average city worker’s monthly salary (Interviews: Real estate agents, Shanghai, 1 July 2012). At the same time, the village’s infrastructure and living environment began improving dramatically when the township and district governments supported the village’s land business ex-post. Such a change accompanied an even faster increase in land values, which in turn awarded more opportunities to the village’s collective land business, as well as to individual villagers.

The Village A collective allowed the Taiwanese developer to continue constructing apartment complexes throughout the mid-2000s. In addition, another land developer approached the village leadership and offered a similarly lucrative deal. The village corporatist collective again obtained the villagers’ agreement to sell the requested land and spent the money primarily on improving village living conditions, as well as on compensation in the form of substantial dividend distributions to individual villagers. The ‘I Garden’ apartment complex, with two hotels and more than 1,000 units in 38 luxurious 20-story apartment buildings, was completed in 2006 (Interviews: Real Estate Agents, Shanghai, 5 January 2011). Through this second deal, mutual cooperation between leaders and villagers was enforced by the repeated pattern of development of the village’s collective land business. In addition, even though there was substantial bribery, rent seeking, and embezzlement involved in the transactions between the village leadership and the contracted land developers, the village leadership neither ignored the villagers’ welfare nor excluded them from the deal. Ordinary citizens of Village A protected themselves from outside land developers by maintaining substantially corporatist relations with the village leadership, and by holding these leaders at least partly accountable to those ordinary village citizens. By 2010, the village’s landscape had completely changed and was attracting not only poor city workers from the city center, but also wealthier business people and even foreigners.

The Village A collective not only sold land but also started its own commercial land business to consolidate its sustainable corporatist structure. In addition to one-time compensation from deals with outside land developers, the village created more sustainable collective revenue sources, such as from the construction of shopping malls and hotels, which allowed them to profit from their land without selling it. However, limited commercial land was available after the aforementioned real estate developments, so the village collective resorted to clientele lobbying with development plans, enormous bribes, and even donating a portion of the collective land to the municipal government’s subway depot (Interview Land Developer, Shanghai, 27 April 2011). Nevertheless, the leaders found a loophole, converting their land from agricultural to industrial use, including a small portion that was converted for recreational use and factory worker accommodations. From late 2000 to early 2010, two shopping malls and four hotels were constructed on this land without rezoning for commercial use (Interviews: Journalist, Shanghai, 27 April 2011; Land Developer, Shanghai, 2 July 2012). This is another example of the cooperative relationship between upper-level state officials and the village leadership, as this maneuvering act was potentially illegal but was overlooked by township superiors.

This land and the commercial buildings on it were neither sold nor expropriated to become state-owned land. In other words, this village collective is now equipped with a profit-generating enterprise not only for the current generation but also for their descendants. This means that this corporatist land business has become largely sustainable for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, Village A is currently building three more shopping malls and two more hotels (Interviews: Villagers, Real Estate Agents, and Land Developer, Shanghai, 19-20 January 2013) and still owns about 250 mu2 of undeveloped land, which continues to increase in value (Interviews: Villagers, Shanghai, 10 January 2011, 18 April 2011, and 20 January 2013; Real Estate Agent, Shanghai, 2 July 2012). Village A and its villagers have thrived through the village’s collective land business. With a series of successful land business transactions, the village’s developmental leaders and their shareholding company have been able to turn a “dung-manure” rapeseed field into an urban center with multiple high-rise apartment complexes, popular shopping malls, and luxurious hotels (Interview Land Developers, Shanghai, 27 April 2011). Most of the original village households now own three or four apartment units in their village complex, receive substantial dividends from the village collective from the commercial land business, as well as many welfare benefits, and have ample job opportunities in and around the village. Most importantly, Village A has remained intact and will remain this way for the foreseeable future.

Along with developmental leaders, a majority of villagers have made this a village corporatism that is also combined with some elements of electoral clientelism. The villagers support the patrons—village leaders—in collective board meetings, village committee elections, and other political situations, while the patrons provide economic benefits to their village clients. This does not mean that these suburbanites are so democratically-oriented as to hold their village leaders strictly accountable (Kennedy, Rozelle, and Shi 2004). Rather, the village chief, Chang, and his subordinates were able to win the semi-competitive election three consecutive times in the last decade due to strong support from the villagers, even discounting the impact of such electoral fraud as vote buying.

All villagers who were interviewed were well aware of their legal and political rights and how those rights protected their interests. Some clearly recognized that they could use ‘contentious political’ tactics, such as collective petitions, demonstrations, riots, and the mentioned other failed cases of villages engaged in the collective land business that they had heard about from the media or friends in other regions (Interviews: Villagers, Shanghai, 6-10 January 2011, 27 April 2011, 20 January 2013). The village leadership was also well aware of hidden constraints challenging its ability to sustain profit sharing from the land business. To some extent, the leadership has become predatory, as exhibited by the rising number of bribes, crimes of embezzlement, and higher dividends poaching. Chang and other leaders live like very wealthy businessmen.13 Nevertheless, villagers were willing to tolerate a certain amount of corruption from their development leaders as long as they were content with their returns. They also understood that they must be integrated into a vertical patron-client relationship with the township government via their middleman broker, the village leadership. In addition, they had their own private profit-making properties via the aforementioned partial privatization of the collective land, and this was not to be ignored by the leadership.

The case of Village A is not an exception. There are many similar cases not only in the neighboring villages of Shanghai but also in other coastal regions. According to multiple interview subjects, Village A’s neighboring villages were eager to mimic the village’s corporatist land business model, and some have succeeded to varying degrees. Overall, this strategy was widely employed by many suburban villages in Shanghai in the late 1990s and 2000s (Interview Land Developers, Shanghai, 26-28 April 2011and 2 July 2012). Many suburban villages in other rapidly developing coastal regions in China have also experienced such development planning. Fieldwork from 2007 to 2015 identified dozens of successful cases in suburban villages, such as in Qingdao City of Shandong Province (Interviews: Villagers and Entrepreneurs, Qingdao, 23-25 May 2008, 3-5 July 2012, 15-17 January 2013, 1-2 April 2015), Yiwu City in Zhejiang Province (Interviews: Villagers and Traders, Yiwu, 29-30 June 2012), Shenzhen City and Dongguan City in Guangdong Province (Interviews: Entrepreneurs and Managers, Shenzhen, 21-23 August 2012; Villagers, Dongguan, 2-5 August 2008 and 30 June -1 July 2008), and in the Beijing Municipality (Interviews: Scholar & Land Developer, Beijing, 1 February 2008; Villagers 11-12 June 2008).

In particular, villages with so-called ‘Minor Property Housing’ (xiaochanquanfang) in Beijing’s suburbs have pursued a similar strategy for developing their collective land businesses. Minor Property Housing are illegal residential buildings constructed on rural collectively-owned land to be sold or rented to non-local urbanites who seek inexpensive housing outside the city (Interviews: Real Estate Managers, Beijing, 11 June 2008; Land Developer, 5 May 2008; Journalist, Beijing, 10 May 2008; Land Developers & Villagers Qingdao, 1-3 April 2015; also Paik and Lee 2012). Even though these suburban villages are largely free from ex-ante land development plans, Minor Property Housing has been severely criticized by central and upper-level government officials as being a violation of the law (Xinhua 2007). Unlike with Village A, the township and district governments associated with these villages have not endorsed such collective land development plans, ex-ante or ex-post. In these villages, villagers are defying their superiors in order to pursue the village’s collective interests. Minor Property Housing has become a major trend in China’s suburban real estate market, and in recent years has come to represent approximately 20 percent of China’s entire rural collectively-owned land available for construction.14 Fieldwork in 2015 revealed that about 35 percent of the apartments in suburban Qingdao built since 2012 were this illegal type of housing (Interviews: Land Developers & Real Estate Agents, Qingdao, 1-3 April 2015). Such land development is not as consolidated as in Village A, and thus may result in a different outcome in the future, as demonstrated by the next case of Village B in Beijing.


Village B, located in Beijing Municipality’s suburban district, became a village-in-the-city (chengzhongchun) when Beijing started to rapidly develop and expand in earnest in the 2000s (Tian 2008). Unlike the case of Village A, upper-level state officials above Village B at the district and township levels have been aggressive in establishing ex-ante urban planning to launch massive real estate development on the village’s collective land. The district government’s own land-development company spearheaded the projects, which did not allow the village collective to pursue its own land-development business (Interviews: Land Developer, Beijing, 3 June 2008; Villagers, Beijing, 5 May 2008; Scholar, 21 April 2011; Journalist Beijing, 13 August 2012). Such a government-led development approach, almost the opposite of that of Village A’s in Shanghai, pushed the village leadership and a minority of villagers to find different clientelist strategies to make possible the temporary profit sharing through the development of collectively-owned land.

In many cases with this type of ex ante governmental planning, the village leadership is more likely to collude with their superiors and outside land developers, which has a negative impact on the interests of the village collective and villagers. A critical difference for Village B’s land business, however, was that it took a long time for the district government to expropriate all the collective land to execute the planned land development. Unlike other cases of forced land expropriation and house demolition for land-development business, this village succeeded in slowing the process partly through shrewd negotiation with superiors in township and district governments. In addition, the district’s urban planning changed and implementation was delayed (Interview Journalist, Beijing, 13 August 2012). In order to maintain the collective land business, such a delay and piecemeal land expropriation were critical, even though Village B could not avoid its eventual demise when it was physically replaced with new high-rise apartments (Interviews: Villagers, Beijing, 1 June 2008; Journalist, Beijing, 13 August 2012).

In the early 2000s, the district had expropriated half of the village’s collective land, which was converted from collectively-owned to state-owned. Along with some state-owned enterprises and government organizations, the district constructed four apartment complexes on this land, made up of more than 4,000 units in total. Although some client villagers received cash and one apartment unit in the complex, this compensation was paltry in comparison to the profits of the district developer. The other non-client villagers, who did not have a strong relationship with the village patrons, obtained much less. Regardless, the compensated villagers acquired a substantial return for further land business drawing from that compensation. The value of these apartments has soared. In 2012, a 100-m2 unit in the second complex was valued at 25,000 to 35,000 yuan per m2 or 2.5 to 3.5 million yuan in total. Monthly rent for a unit of this size was generally 12,000 yuan or more, which was four times a city worker’s monthly salary (Interviews: Real Estate Agents, Beijing, 11-13 August 2012).

Under a clientelist relationship between the village leadership and a minority of villagers, the village collective and villagers pursued two different strategies to maximize their interests. First, the village leadership acted as a patron of a minority of influential villagers and continued to negotiate with the district government and its developers in an effort to sell the remaining collective land and secure higher compensation. Second, the villager-clients built more one-story houses to rent to outsiders, even though most of the remaining land was zoned for agricultural use. Although some villagers left the village permanently, a majority of the villagers moved into their compensation apartments and rented their houses to migrant workers or stayed in their houses and rented their apartments to wealthy citizens and the rooms in their humble village houses to migrant workers (Interviews: Villagers, Beijing, 2 June 2008; Journalist, Beijing, 13 August 2012; Real Estate Agents, Beijing, 11 June 2008; Migrant Workers 12 June 2008). There has been a massive influx of migrant workers into Beijing’s factories, offices, shops, and restaurants in recent years. From the early 2000s to 2011, village leaders and villagers profited greatly from this rental business, for which they gave up farming. Even though many from Village B did not benefit from the land business in the same way as their counterparts in Village A, a substantial number of well-connected villagers during this period secured a method of private profit generation with a partial privatization of collectively-owned land.

Unlike with Village A, Village B was not able to implement Village A’s collective or shareholding company model because the district government would have expropriated the remaining land for its own land business. The village leadership did not have much of a developmental strategy. This village collective could not provide a village apartment complex, welfare programs, or regular dividends, as were provided in Village A. Nevertheless, the village leaders and many villagers of Village B took advantage of their opportunities under the given conditions. The village leadership played the role of patron to those villagers, and such a symbiotic patron-client relationship was possible because they shared much of the compensation for land expropriation and managed the aforementioned villager’s rental properties through a strong collective management system. Village B’s development also possesses some corporatist elements. This village leadership established two forceful institutions, the Village B Command Office for Land Expropriation and the Village B Management Office for Renting Rooms to Migrant Populations. These institutions were de facto apparatuses for temporary corporatist cooperation between village patrons and village clients to maximize the returns on the remaining land.

Successful temporary and partial profit sharing was possible because village leaders acted as mediators between upper-level state officials and the villagers whose land was expropriated. The leadership was well connected to the district and township governments via personal networks and typical illegal exchanges, such as bribery. At the same time, they prevented villagers from resorting to violent protests to protect their land. As seen in Village A, these villagers were familiar with the market situation, their legal rights, and the political tactics of contentious politics (Interviews: Villagers, Beijing, 2-4 June 2008; Scholar and Migrant Workers, Beijing, 26 April 2013; Scholar, Beijing, 9 August 2013). In exchange for the political supports of village leaders in certain political situations, such as village committee elections, many villagers received administrative protection and economic benefits. For example, villagers had to obtain a permit from the village government to expand their houses from one-story to two- or three-stories. Village leaders have discretionary power over this issue, with input from district officials as well (Interviews: Villagers, Beijing, 2 June 2008). Therefore, villagers must maintain connections to their village patrons. By adding levels to their houses, they can rent more rooms to migrant workers and expect more compensation from the district government. As one villager put it, “The more rooms, the more compensation!” (Interviews: Villager, Beijing, 2 June 2008; also Scholar, Beijing, 21 April 2011; Journalist, Beijing 13 August 2012) Villagers were thus incorporated into the vertical patron-client system via the clientelist relationship they had with village leaders. This widespread use of the village’s collective land—which could be considered a type of the aforementioned illegal Minor Property Housing—was overlooked by the district government for several years. This intentional oversight was likely a concession to the village for land expropriation and relocation, while the district received a substantial portion of under-the-table money via the vertical patron-client network (Interviews: Villagers, Beijing, 2 June 2008; Journalist, Beijing, 13 August 2012; Real Estate Agent, Beijing, 20 April 2011). Again, many villagers, who were excluded in this village’s clientele structure, were largely excluded from the profit sharing in comparison with those villagers who lived in Village A.

In 2012, the remained half of the village land was completely expropriated, and all the houses were demolished to make room for more than 2,000 new apartment buildings. From the villager’s perspective, Village B’s land business was a partial success. Although they lost agricultural land, at least a minority of influential villagers and their families obtained enough material resources through collective land development to become urbanized. If the tidal wave of ex ante urbanization and land development by upper-level state officials cannot be reversed, the best strategy is to make use of functional clientelist relations. Clientelism helps to extend the merger process and make as much profit off the land as long as possible, while preparing for the eventual dissolution of the village. The case studies of Villages A (corporatist) and B (clientelist) generally confirm the illustrated empirical logic within the village’s collective land development in suburban China.15 The final case study of the experiences of Wukan Village in Guangdong (neither corporatist nor clientelist), which has been a major focus of the established literature and has garnered much attention from the media, was very different from the experiences of Village A and or Village B.


Wukan Village, a suburb of Lufeng City in Guangdong Province, became internationally known when several thousand villagers staged a violent riot against their corrupt and predatory village leaders. The entire village attacked the village’s government building, police station, and industrial park, and finally the village fell under villager control in September 2011. Barricades were set up to block any upper-level government police or officials from entering the village after one protest leader was allegedly killed during a police interrogation (Zhongguocaijingribao 2011). Protesters held signs saying “Give us back our farm land,” “Let us continue farming,” and “Please save the Wukan villagers, Central [Communist Party] Leaders!” Facing the villagers’ violent protests, the village leaders asked their patrons in the township and city governments to dispatch police, who blocked every road to the village, disconnected water and electricity, and prevented food from entering the village. This only further angered the villagers. Meanwhile, nine targeted leaders of the village government and its shareholding company for collective land business escaped from the village. Surprisingly, the contentious villagers received support from the provincial and central governments as a model case to demand justice, won the struggle, and ultimately had removed their predatory leaders, who had formulated neither corporatist nor clientelist relations with an absolute majority of villagers.

Such contentious state-society relations were largely caused by the predatory practices of the leaders of the village’s collective land shareholding company (wukancun shiye kaifa gongsi), who were excessively exploitative and collusive in patron-client relations with land developers from outside of the village, while excluding an absolute majority of villagers from its management. Such a political structure prevented village corporatism from coming into existence. These leaders sold a large portion of the collectively-owned land to an outside land developer for the construction of ‘County Garden,’ a lucrative real estate development. Wukan villagers said that they were unaware of the sale of their collectively-owned land until the developer began construction. Villagers also alleged that the village leaders’ patrons in township and city governments had profited from the deal, which had paid one billion yuan (156 million USD) to the land developer. They were completely excluded from the collective land business and the aforementioned vertical patron-client relations to reach upper-level state officials. These villagers asserted that, since 1998, about 400 hectares of farmland had been expropriated without individual compensation (Lau 2011; Interview Villagers, Shenzhen, 22-23 August 2012). Hundreds of villagers had petitioned to the township, city, and provincial governments but to no avail, accusing their unscrupulous leaders of “pocketing more than 700 million yuan (110 million USD)” that, by law, should have been distributed to local farmers as compensation (Choi 2011 ). After a series of investigations, it was determined that the village’s shareholding company had excluded most villagers and had sold 60 percent of the village’s collectively-owned land to outside land developers since 1992, while providing villagers with little compensation. A majority of villagers were already facing severe hardship with no agricultural land to work, and so they had difficulty in buying food on their meager urban incomes.

This village’s business with its collectively-owned land had an outcome opposite to those observed in Village A and even Village B. The engine of sustainable profit-sharing land development in Village A, the village shareholding company, did not create a corporatist structure for collective and individual revenue generation from the land in Wukan. It happened even though upper-level state officials approached the land development ex-post just as in the case of Village A. The vertical patron-client network excluded, consequentially, most villagers; that is, the village patrons did not protect the villagers from outside developer clients or upper-level state government patrons. The leaders were developmental but excessively predatory because they were not constrained by any mechanisms until the riots broke out. Unlike their counterparts in Village A and B, the Wukan villagers were not able to use methods of clientelism, affective networks, village committee elections, and contentious political tactics before the breakout of riot in 2011. As widely reported but not systematically theorized in the media and policy/academic circles, such ‘neither corporatist nor clientelist’ development plans are found in many suburban villages in China, which are riddled with contentious state-society relations. Nevertheless, the Wukan villagers were surprisingly successful in their violent protests. Accordingly, they were eager to protect their rights to the remaining 40 percent of the village’s collectively-owned land. With the new village leadership, which was elected via semi-competitive village committee elections, the future development of Wukan Village is a good barometer for the viability of ‘clientelist-corporatist’ relationship structures for managing the development of collectively-owned land in suburban villages.


Which type of state-society relations makes for a sustainable profit-sharing type of collectively-owned land development in contemporary suburban China? This research analyzed one of the key consequences of the different grassroots state-society relations in the suburbs; whether or not the village achieves a sustainable profit-sharing development of its collectively-owned land (jititudi). This paper contends that relations between the village leadership and villagers largely determine the extent to which the village’s collective land-generated revenue is shared with villagers. Once a cooperative relationship between village leaders and upper-level states is functioning effectively—an indispensable condition for most land business in rural China—the nature of the relationship between the village leadership and villagers—whether corporatist, clientelist, or neither corporatist nor clientelist—determines suburban land development. In such interactions, village leaders also play the role of a pilot agency for the local developmental state, or they play the predatory role of extortionist.

Theoretically, this study verifies the validity of the correlation between patron-clientelism and village corporatism, which produces either a developmental or a predatory state at the grassroots level. It is shown that the first ‘more corporatist’ relations provide suburban villages with the conditions for sustainable profit sharing from land development. If the village has ‘more corporatist’ relations between the village leadership and a majority of villagers, the profit-sharing mechanism is more likely to be sustained in the long run. A majority of villagers are then included in profit sharing and more profits are allocated to, and remain in, village communities. This double-layered state-society relationship is more likely to have developmental village leaders than predatory ones. The first case study of Village A in Shanghai shows this logical mechanism clearly.

As detailed in the second case study of Village B in Beijing, ‘more clientelist’ relations provided this suburban village with the conditions for temporary and narrow profit sharing in the village’s land business. The patron-client relation between village leaders and some villagers did not include a majority number of villagers in relations with the patron, the village leaders. This type of relationship produces less developmental, but more predatory, leaders along with shorter time horizons to maximize private profits rather than sustain profit sharing. The last, ‘neither corporatist nor clientelist,’ provide almost nothing for a majority of villagers. Having the same conditions as those of the higher-level relations, this type of village has neither corporatist nor clientelist relations between village leaders and a majority of villagers. A small minority of villagers, who are tightly connected to those predatory village leaders, take part in the profit sharing and few profits are allocated and remain in the village community. Such state-society relations, and ensuing contentious conflicts due to the lack of strong relationships between village leaders and ordinary villagers, have been extensively described in numerous cases, such as the study of the Wukan Village in 2011.

Overall, this paper demonstrates the changing nature of state-society relations in suburban China during the last two decades. The causes of contentious and uncontentious/cooperative relations in land development politics are not sorted out here because there are too many factors involved. This research tries to add to the literature, which historically has lacked a diversity of understanding of the state-society relations across China. The established literature in both China area studies and comparative politics has focused more on contentious state-society relations (Chen 2012; Guo 2001; O’Brien and Li 2006). These studies seem to underestimate the complex and changing nature of China’s market reforms under the condition of authoritarian state-society relations. This weakness seems to originate from a case selection bias and results in a limited understanding of suburban village politics. Despite the overwhelming number of academic and media reports on contentious politics and rightful resistance due to land disputes, there are a substantial number of cases involving cooperative state-society relations, as Village A and partly Village B show in this study.

The Chinese Communist Party does not want to democratize its local or national political systems, not even with semi-competitive elections, unlike many electoral authoritarian regimes in the past and present. The exception to this reluctance to democratize might be the village committee election, but even this has already been the focus of electoral clientelism. To be sure, the regime’s top leaders make the best ‘possible’ effort to improve the bureaucratic capacity of local officials and institutions, having in the past been riddled with corruption and clientelist collusion among political and economic elites. Villagers had better be included in the corporatist and/or the patron-client structures of local communities, for they can do much better with than without these relations. This means that local politics should include more ordinary villagers in political-economic decision-making for the local community’s overall economic development and more equitable distribution of the benefits of that development. This general logic can be applied to other rural and even urban land political relations under the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party regime.

Finally, this study shows another aspect of class differentiation in rural society. Villagers from Village A emerged as ‘winners’ with sustainable profit sharing and partially privatized real estate near a big city. A smaller number of villagers from Village B also joined this upper class, while a large number of villagers from Village B were positioned below the upper class with less profit sharing. Not to mention, the Wukan villagers, who were completely excluded from profit sharing, have fallen to the bottom of rural society. Suburban and rural residents have been experiencing a rapid class differentiation in the China’s mixed economy.

Table. 1. Three Types of Relations Between Village Leadership and Villagers
1)There are roughly two opposite approaches to the state-society relations in market reform China. One is the more dominant “contentious politics” approach and the other is the increasingly influential “cooperative/uncontentious politics” approach, while a minor number of works cover the gray and changing spectrum between the two, which is the primary focus of this paper. For more contentious relations, see O’Brien and Li (2006); Cai (2010); Chen (2012). For similar work from a Chinese scholar, see Yu (2010). For more on the general theory of contentious politics, see McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly (2001); Scott (1985). For more cooperative relations, see Hsing (2010, 122–154); Michelson (2008); Paik (2014); Paik and Lee (2012); Tsai (2007); Zhu and Guo (2014).
2)See footnotes 1 and 2.
3)For details, see Ho and Lin (2003); Meng (2005).
4)For a survey on land development in suburban China, see Sargeson (2011).
5)This does not mean that all relationships are patron-client, but this paper simplifies this to focus on the relationship between villagers and village leadership.
6)For theoretical and empirical surveys on clientelism in democratic and authoritarian regimes around the world, see Scott (1972); Chandra (2004); Fox (1994); Kitschelt and Wilkinson (2007); Hicken (2011, 290-310); Piattoni (2001); Stokes (2007).
7)Note that this classification is still simplified theoretically. In the real world, it is more a matter of degrees rather than that of discrete categories.
8)Also, for more on the general approach, see Schmitter (1974); Lehmbruch (1977); and Katzenstein (1984). For more on corporatism at the national-level in East Asia and China, see Unger and Chan (1995).
9)In this sense, “clientelism may be less than ideal, but if the alternative is a state that provides ever fewer benefits to citizens, especially the poor, then clientelism is not such a bad bargain. Clientelism can be one important mechanism for securing transactional benefits from the state” (Hicken 2011, 302).
10)How all the available resources—clientelism with affective networks, resistance tactics of contentious politics, semi-competitive election, and collective land ownership—interact with one another is a question for another study.
11)1 mu = 667 m2 = 1/15 hectare = 1/6 acre; 1 yuan = 0.12 USD (in early 2000s) and 0.15 USD (in early 2010s), approximately.
12)The village collective imposed a mandatory five-year ownership period on individual villager owners in order to maintain its public nature. However, after five years, villager owners were allowed to sell without restriction, meaning that they had complete property ownership rights (fangwuchanquan) that would be inheritable and guaranteed by law for 70 years.
13)The author personally witnessed the luxurious lifestyles of the village leaders and their families, which many villagers repeatedly confirmed (Interviews: Villagers, Shanghai, 6-10 January 2011 and 30 June 2012).
14)This estimation comes from the official government data of “The Bulletin of Village-Township Construction Statistics and National Statistics Data” (Dongfangzaobao) [Eastern Morning Post], 25 December 2007).
15)These two villages’ different patterns of collective land development and revenue/profit sharing demonstrate that corporatism and clientelism are not mutually exclusive but rather can be modeled along a continuum from more corporatist to more clientelist to explain the extent to which the land development-generated revenue is shared among villagers.
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