Political decentralization is often argued to strengthen political accountability by bringing government closer to the people. Social and civic institutions at the local level, such as lineage associations, temples, churches, or social clubs, can make it easier for citizens to monitor officials and hold them accountable. This article argues that strong social institutions also empower local elites who may use their informal influence to control their group and capture rents. Drawing on evidence from case studies of Chinese villages, the article shows that lineage group leaders who become village officials use their combination of social and political authority to confiscate villagers’ land. Evidence from a survey experiment suggests that endorsement of a land confiscation plan by lineage elites elicits greater compliance with property seizures. A national survey indicates that when a lineage leader becomes a village cadre, it is associated with a 14 to 20 percent increase in the likelihood of a land expropriation. The findings demonstrate how informal institutions and local civil society can be tools of top-down political control.
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