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“To Get Rich Is Not Only Glorious”: Economic Reform and the New Entrepreneurial Party Secretaries*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 May 2012

Yan Xiaojun
The University of Hong Kong. Email:


This article examines the profound transformation market reforms have brought to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) rural grassroots organizations. Focusing on the political rise of private entrepreneurs and other economically successful individuals who recently obtained village Party secretary appointments in a north China county, the article explores their differing promotion channels, power bases, political resources and motivations to take up the CCP's grassroots leadership position. It demonstrates that the variety among the new entrepreneurial Party secretaries – from large factory owners to de facto farm managers – shaped the network resource, factional affiliation and socio-political capital they rely upon to exercise their newly attained power. It also shows the crucial role played by community-based endogenous forces in transmitting the power of economic liberalization into dynamics for the reshuffling of the Communist Party leadership at the grassroots level.

Copyright © The China Quarterly 2012

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1 In this article, “private entrepreneurs and other economically successful individuals” are defined as individuals who own and engage in private business successfully or professionals who own and run private practices for profit, which can range from self-employment to larger ventures. See Tsai, Kelly S., Capitalism without Democracy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007), p. 11Google Scholar. They are the economic elites in the local communities, who share economic success in the transition to a market economy. Throughout the article, “private entrepreneurs and other economically successful individuals” are used interchangeably with “private business owners,” “entrepreneurial elites” or the “new economic elites.” In Q county's official discourse, “private entrepreneurs and other economically successful individuals” are categorized as nengren (capable people), zhifu nengshou ( “get-rich experts”) or xin shehui jieceng (new social stratum) to avoid possible ideological ambiguity. Also see Gilley, Bruce, “The Yu Zuomin phenomenon: entrepreneurs and politics in rural China,” in Bonnell, Victoria E. and Gold, Thomas B. (eds.), The New Entrepreneurs in Europe and Asia (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2002) p. 74Google Scholar.

2 Putnam, Robert D., The Comparative Study of Political Elites (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1976), p. 2Google Scholar.

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11 Yongnian, Zheng, Will China Become Democratic? Elite, Class and Regime Transition (London: Eastern Universities Press, 2004)Google Scholar; Pei, Minxin, China's Trapped Transition: the Limits of Developmental Autocracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Shambaugh, David, China's Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008)Google Scholar; Dickson, Wealth into Power.

12 Walder, The Waning of the Communist State; Walder, Andrew G. and Zhao, Litao, “Political office and household wealth: rural China in the Deng era,” The China Quarterly, No. 186 (2006) pp. 357–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Tsai, Capitalism without Democracy.

14 Ibid.

15 Shue, Vivienne, The Reach of the State (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988), p. 2Google Scholar.

16 Burns, John P., Political Participation in Rural China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 8Google Scholar.

17 See Unger, Jonathan, The Transformation of Rural China (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2002)Google Scholar.

18 Interview no. 2005-001-001.

19 See Appendix.

20 For the “three-represents” theory, see Dickson, Bruce J., “Dilemmas of party adaptation,” in Gries, Peter Hays and Rosen, Stanley (eds.), State and Society in 21st-century China (New York & London: Routledge, 2004), pp. 141–58Google Scholar; Tsai, Capitalism without Democracy, pp. 60–66; for the renewed controversy over co-opting private entrepreneurs after the “three represents” speech, see Dickson, Red Capitalists in China, pp. 98–107; Dickson, Wealth into Power, pp. 70–79.

21 The author's notes taken at the Q county Cadre Conference on the Development of Rural Economic Co-operatives, September 2005, no. 2005-020-2.

22 Interview with township Party secretaries (no. 2005-002-001).

23 Feng, Huang, “Zhejiang cunguan you sancheng shi furen” (“About one-third of Zhejiang's village leaders are rich people”), Xiangzhen luntan (Township Forum), No. 5 (2005), p. 12Google Scholar.; Zhengxi, Gu, “Woguo nongcun xianfu qunti canzheng de jili jiegou ji guifan zhidao” (“The incentive structure and regulation of our nation's new rich people's participation in politics”), Tansuo (The Inquiry), No. 1 (2004), pp. 3841Google Scholar; Zengjie, Wang, “Nongcun fu'er weiguan xianxiang toushi” (“An analysis of the ‘rich people serving in public offices’ phenomenon in the rural areas”), Zhonggong Urumuqi shiwei dangxiao xuebao (The Academic Gazetteer of the Party School of Urumuqi Committee of the CCP), No. 6 (2002), p. 16Google Scholar.

24 Qisheng, Pan, “Toushi fuhao cunguan xianxiang” (“An analysis of the ‘millionaire village leader’ phenomeon”), Lingdao zhiyou (Friend of the Leaders), No. 3 (2006), p. 28Google Scholar.

25 Cunmin xuanju de furen hua xiang yao yifa baohu” (“On the tendency of electing rich people in village elections and the legal protection of them”), Lingdao juece xinxi (Leaders and Decision Making), No. 39 (2003), p. 24Google Scholar.

26 Hongyan, Ma, “Meiyou zhifuzhao, buneng dang cunguan” (“No ability to make yourself rich, no village leadership position (for you)!”), Jiangsu nongcun jingji (Rural Economy of Jiangsu), No. 4 (2003), p. 41Google Scholar. It is worth noting that the author of the article was from the CCP's central newspaper Peasant Daily (Nongmin ribao).

27 These “local Party bosses” usually include the secretary, deputy secretaries and members of the township Party committee, of whom the secretary and deputy secretary in charge of personnel affairs have the most important say.

28 Lianjiang, Li, “The two-ballot system in Shanxi province: subjecting village Party secretaries to a popular vote,” The China Journal, No. 42 (1999), pp. 103–18Google Scholar.

29 According to Q county's “Regulations on the work of village organizations,” “Party secretaries who fail in village-level democratic elections and are not elected to the village council or village administrative committee shall resign from post.” In the first village council election in 2001, only 85.4% of the incumbent VPSs in Q county won a seat and those who failed were immediately removed from office. In the second council election in 2006, the passing rate increased to 92.8%. See Zhonggong Q xian xianwei bangongshi (The General Office of the Party Committee of Q County), Qingxian cunzhi moshi ziliao huibian (Collection of Materials on the Village Governance Model in Q County), 2005, p. 73; Zhong gong Q xian xianwei zuzhibu (The Organization Department of the Party Committee of Q County), Quan xian di qi jie cunmin weiyuanhui huanjie xuanju gongzuo Q kuang tongji biao (Statistical Form on the Seventh Re-election of Village Organizations in Q County), 2006; Xiaojun, Yan, “The democratizing power of economic reform: revival of a representative institution in rural China,” Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 58, No. 3 (2011), pp. 3952CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 After accepting their appointment, these VPSs will move back to their local community to resume responsibility. Some will bring family members, while others leave their family in the cities and travel back and forth. Because of the close distance between Q county and major cities like Beijing or Tianjin, some such entrepreneurs choose to attend their businesses for two days a week and spent the rest of the week in their village.

31 Interview with the deputy Party secretary of M township (no. 2005-007-001).

32 In Q county, zongli is responsible for arranging weddings and funerals for members of his/her lineage(s). Zongli's help is necessary for these important life events and ordinary families just cannot afford to destroy the relationship with their zongli. Zonglis are very authoritative figures in the local community.

33 In Q county, as in other regions of China, farm land is collectively owned by the village committee and is not considered private property. Under the Household Responsibility System, rural households possess the right of use over their shares of collective farm land. However, in the 1990s, because of the excessive levies and fees charged on agriculture, many rural households decided to lease out their right of use. The land was taken over by private entrepreneurs who wanted to develop large-scale organic agricultural businesses. After a decade, in many villages these agricultural entrepreneurs now control a large portion of the farm land by lease and have become de facto farm owners.

34 Interview in G village (no. 2005-009-001).

35 See Madsen, Morality and Power in a Chinese Village; Burns, Political Participation in Rural China.

36 See Shue, The Reach of the State.

37 The motivations behind the donations varied. At times they involved governmental pressures; on other occasions entrepreneurs found business potential in some welfare programmes. But the different reasons for donation did not prevent the villagers from acclaiming the contribution made by the economic elites to the community's general welfare.

38 Interview with county cadres (no. 2005-011-1).

39 Farming lands not allocated to individual households.

40 For discussions on corruption under partial reforms in China, see Oi, Jean C., “Partial market reform and corruption,” in Baum, Richard (ed.), Reform and Reaction in Post-Mao China (New York & London: Routledge, 1991)Google Scholar; Wedeman, Andrew H., From Mao to Market (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 Interview no. 2005-015-001.

42 Interview no. 2005-106-001.

43 See Zhongguo siying jingji nianjian (China Yearbook of the Private Sector 2004–June 2006) (Beijing: Zhonghua gongshang lianhe chubanshe, 2007), p. 57Google Scholar.

44 Interview no. 2005-037-001.

45 Putnam, The Comparative Study of Political Elites, p. 166.

46 E.g. see Dickson, Red Capitalists in China; Tsai, Capitalism without Democracy.