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The Hollow State: Rural Governance in China

  • Graeme Smith (a1)

Over the last decade, rural township governments have been subjected to intensive streamlining and rationalization programmes. This article examines which ongoing reforms and processes are causing township governments to become “hollow shells,” and explores the effects of “hollowing out” on township government leaders, staff and rural residents. While the aim of local government reform was to transform extractive township governments into “service-oriented” agencies, this article finds that the current logic of rural governance has produced township governments which are squeezed from above and below. From above, township leaders face the political imperatives of inspections, annual assessments, the need to attract industrial investment and an ongoing process of “soft centralization” by higher levels of government. From below, township staff are drawn out to the villages to enforce family planning policies and maintain social stability. Unprecedented numbers are working as “sent-down cadres” in villages where their capacity to deliver services has been weakened by village amalgamations and the lifting of agricultural taxes and fees. Despite significant boosts to rural health and education investment, rural residents still face a level of government that regards them as problems to be dealt with, rather than citizens to be served.

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1 See esp. Kennedy, John James, “From the tax-for-fee reform to the abolition of agricultural taxes: the impact on township governments in north-west China,The China Quarterly, No. 189 (2007), pp. 4359; and Li, Linda Chelan, “Working for the peasants? Strategic interactions and unintended consequences in China's rural tax reform,The China Journal, No. 57 (2007), pp. 90106.

2 Mertha, Andrew, “China's ‘soft’ centralization: shifting tiao/kuai authority relations,The China Quarterly, No. 184 (2005), pp. 791810.

3 Due to the need to protect sources, Benghai is a pseudonym.

4 Shukai, Zhao, “Rural governance in the midst of underfunding, deception, and mistrust,” in Kipnis, Andrew and Smith, Graeme (eds.), Chinese Sociology & Anthropology, No. 39 (2007).

5 Wenfeng, Gu, Feichang zishu: yi ge xiangzhen shuji de meng yu teng (Extraordinary Accounts: the Hopes and Troubles of a Township Party Secretary) (Beijing: Xinhua chubanshe, 2006).

6 Yi, Wu, Xiao zhen xuanxiao: yi ge xiangzhen zhengzhi yunzuo de yanyi yu chanshi (Uproar in a Small Town: Interpretation of a Township's Political Operation) (Beijing: Sanlian shudian, 2007).

7 For an account of how township governments adapted to higher-level pressure to collect taxes during the reform period, see Yi, Tian and Xu, Zhao, Ta xiang zhi shui (Township Taxes) (Beijing: Zhongxin chubanshe, 2008).

8 It is near impossible to know how many staff are on the payroll of a township government. Gu estimated that 69 cadres were on his official payroll, but 124 drew a salary (or 150 if laid-off and retired staff were included): Gu Wenfeng, Extraordinary Accounts, p. 145.

9 See esp. Zhao Shukai, “Rural governance,” pp. 68–73; Licai, Wu and Hongxuan, Zhu, “Xiangzhen gaige: xiangzhen ganbu de suo si suo xiang – dui Hubei sheng xiangzhen ganbu de wenjuan diaocha” (“Township reform: what township cadres think – a survey of Hubei province”), Zhongguo nongcun jingji (China Rural Economy), No. 11 (2005), p. 64.

10 Contrast this with Kellee Tsai's description of Chinese businesses registering as foreign-invested enterprises to enhance their status and thus reduce interference from local government. Tsai, Kellee S., Capitalism without Democracy (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 2007), pp. 183–88. In Benghai, local cadres pressure businesses to register outside the county to enhance their personal political prospects.

11 This is common elsewhere in Anhui. My attempt to survey township staff in Wuhu county came to an abrupt end when it emerged that less than 10% of staff could be located. Their colleagues had all left the county to seek investors.

12 Liang Peng, Jiceng ganbu zhaoshang yinzi: nongmin xin liang (Making the Farmers' Blood Run Cold: Local Cadres Attracting Investment), China Elections and Governance website, 13 December 2005,, accessed 2 July 2009.

13 Such is not the case with commercial and residential property developments. See Tao Ran, Su Fubing, Liu Mingxing and Cao Guangzhong, “Leasing and local public finance in China's regional development: evidence from prefecture-level cities,” Urban Studies, forthcoming.

14 See also Gu Wenfeng, Extraordinary Accounts, pp. 146–49; Wu Yi, Uproar in a Small Town, pp. 577–81.

15 X Town Cadre Management System (Jiguan ganbu guanli zhidu), 2008.

16 Gu Wenfeng, Extraordinary Accounts, pp. 101–02.

17 The “one-strike rejection” (yi piao foujue) is applied to government tasks that have the highest priority, most consistently family planning and preventing social unrest. Failure to complete such tasks means that (at least in theory) all other achievements by the township government are annulled. See also Edin, Maria, “State capacity and local agent control in China: CCP cadre management from a township perspective,The China Quarterly, No. 173 (2003), pp. 3552; Zhao Shukai, “Rural governance,” pp. 64–73; and Smith, Graeme, “Political machinations in a rural countyThe China Journal, No. 62 (2009), pp. 5053.

18 Wu Yi, Uproar in a Small Town, p. 585.

19 Ibid. p. 590. See also Zhao Shukai, “Rural governance,” pp. 23–25.

20 Zhao Shukai, “Rural governance,” p. 39.

21 Ibid. pp. 21–25.

22 This echoes Li, Linda Chelan, “Embedded institutionalization: sustaining rural tax reform in China,The Pacific Review, Vol. 19, No. 1 (2006), pp. 6384. Li's arguments on the primary need for behavioural change among officials hold true for township governments in Benghai. At the county level, however, overstaffing is rampant, and is a major reason for cadre non-performance.

23 Kennedy, “From the tax-for-fee reform to the abolition of agricultural taxes,” p. 45.

24 Zhao Shukai, “Rural governance,” pp. 31–32.

25 Mertha, “China's ‘soft’ centralization,” pp. 793–94.

26 See Gu Wenfeng, Extraordinary Accounts, pp. 151–53; and Yep, Ray, “Can ‘tax-for-fee’ reform reduce rural tension in China? The process, progress and limitations,The China Quarterly, No. 177 (2004), pp. 4445.

27 See Mertha, “China's ‘soft’ centralization,” pp. 804–05.

28 Several sources in the county government estimated that the average township would receive at least 1,000 documents per year from higher levels.

29 Yingbi, Duan and Song, Hongyuan (eds.), Zhongguo nongcun gaige zhongda zhengce wenti yanjiu baogao (A Research Report on the Major Policy Problems of Reform in Rural China) (Beijing: Zhongguo caizheng jingji chubanshe, 2004), p. 57.

30 Weber, Max, Economy and Society, 2 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), p. 975.

31 Zhao Shukai, “Rural governance,” pp. 70–73.

32 Mertha, “China's ‘soft’ centralization,” pp. 806–08.

33 Another development with a similar impact was the combining of the posts of village Party secretary and (formerly elected) village head, referred to as “taking the load on one shoulder” (yi jian tiao). This had been implemented in 60% of Benghai's administrative villages, meaning that nearly two-thirds of village leaders were effectively appointed by township governments. This is in keeping with developments elsewhere in China, and has had the unintended consequence of increasing intra-village tensions between clans. See Gu Wenfeng, Extraordinary Accounts, pp. 176–78.

34 Author's interview, Beijing, April 2006.

35 See Man, Sent-Down Cadres and Village Self Governance.

36 Author's interviews, Anhui Academy of Social Sciences, November 2008.

37 Smith, “Political machinations,” pp. 35–38.

38 Shukai, Zhao, “Xiang cun guanxi: zai kongzhi zhong tuojie” (“Township–village relations: dislocated control”), Huazhong shifan daxue xuebao (Journal of Huazhong University), Vol. 44, No. 5 (2005), p. 4.

39 Ku, Hok Bun, Moral Politics in a South China Village: Responsibility, Reciprocity, and Resistance (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).

40 There are caveats to this. If a village is home to an influential cadre from a higher level of government, the township can, to an extent, be bypassed by the village government, particularly in attracting investment.

41 There are still many ways by which village cadres can squeeze extra revenue from their constituents to cover their entertainment expenses. With the increased social security coverage, village cadres can use their discretionary control to extract revenue from the poorest rural residents. If villagers refuse to “give back” a percentage of the minimum living allowance (set at 860 yuan per year in 2008), cadres will direct the funds elsewhere.

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