Bruce Gilley, Model Rebels. The Rise and Fall of China’s Richest Village

One of the most remarkable aspects of the reforms in China over the last twenty
years has been the enormous variation that they have produced in the nature of
local state-society relations. A mixture of the decline in central state capacity,
the de facto fiscal decentralisation, and the ability of local governments to
raise their own finances have led to a variety of outcomes. It is clear that real
politics in China is now local politics. Different political, economic, and social
resources have created a range of relationships that researchers have labelled
predatory, corporatist, developmental, entrepreneurial, etc. Gilley provides an
important contribution to this rapidly expanding field of the study of the local
state in China.

Gilleyís highly readable account covers the history of Daqiu village, near
the Municipality of Tianjin, under reform. He shows how, under its inspirational
leader, Yu Zuomin the key figure in the story, the village pursued reforms during
the 1980s against the resistance of higher level administrative officials to become
Chinaís richest village. In many ways its development represents a textbook example
of what made for economic success during the 1980s with the growth of rural industry
supplying new markets that the old state industries did not cater to. The village
had the benefit of entrepreneurial leaders blessed with foresight. However, while
its economy modernised, its politics did not. The village ran into trouble as
its increasingly autocratic leader began to challenge and clash with higher-level
authorities resulting in a brutal murder that in turn led to the sentencing of
Yu and associates to lengthy terms in prison.

While the bookís title is the rise and fall of the village, it is more about
the rise and fall of the village leader, Yu. The village has, while reorganised,
survived relatively well, certainly better than other model villages in the past,
and it has continued to grow. Gilley makes large claims for Yu: that he sought
to speak on behalf of the farmers against the Chinese Communist Party and that
he mounted a significant political challenge. In fact, he claims that Yuís real
crime was not so much breaking the law as being an ideological enemy of the communist
state (p. 141). Certainly, he rose high, although not as high as some others
did, and initially he manipulated the media and his connections well. However,
Gilley has to stop short of making Yu a hero in his story as clearly he was a
fairly unpleasant, authoritarian character whose flagrant breach of law and decent
practice brought temporary disaster to the village. However, Gilley does propose
that this kind of populist leader is not uncommon in reform China and that they
may bring benefits to the rural population and possibly the country as a whole
(p. 165). Local leaders are amassing resources greater than ever before and this
is allowing them to ignore many central exhortations and manage local affairs
to their own interests. It may be true that in some cases this is beneficial to
the farmersí interests. When combined with authoritarian rule, the outcomes are
far from certain and require further research.

The book is full of interesting observations of rural life under reforms and
it raises interesting questions about the role of model villages in Chinese politics
and the political and social consequences of the new wealth that has arisen in
many villages. Of particular importance is how irrelevant the official organs
of village governance, the party and the villagersí committee, were. Gilley provides
a well researched account of the formation of a village conglomerate that oversaw
village activities and operated as a kind of Village Inc., headed by Yu surrounded
by his close associates. Family and clan networks ran this conglomerate that effectively
substituted for village governance.

As noted above, the book is really about the rise and fall of Yu and in the
afterword, Gilley notes how economic growth has continued after Yuís dismissal
and the attempts to curb the conglomerate and to restore Party rule. Importantly,
Gilley draws on the work of Lin Nan to show how important subsequent ownership
changes have been resulting in privatisation in all but name. This is the next
revolution in the countryside and we need to understand this process more carefully.
Under Yu, the assets of the conglomerate were used to improve the lot of all the
village dwellers. Will this still be the case with assets now concentrated in
the hands of a small number of company executives? It would be ironic if the return
of Party rule to the village coincided with the marginalisation of many villagers
from the new found wealth.

Gilley has written a great book on the changes taking place in rural China.
It is vividly written, as one would expect from a professional journalist, and
his arguments are clearly and forcefully presented. He makes the story of local
resistance, the presence of determined leadership, and new sources of wealth to
challenge the party a compelling one. All interested in developments in rural
China should read this book.

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