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Since the dissolution of the commune system in 1978, Chinese peasants have struggled to get by in a society that lacks the imposed moral economy of Maoism but retains its hierarchical shell. In most respects, China resembles the West with its liberalized central government that has removed the barriers to capital and voluntary business. However, regional governments still claim absolute authority over their citizens, and promotions within the Chinese system are still made from one’s superiors on the basis of party loyalty rather than democracy or appointment from one’s inferiors. Therefore, in between the village cadres and the policy makers in Beijing, Chinese government can scarcely be distinguished from cronyism.1 While some villages have developed alternative power structures (notably lineage groups, temples, and Christian churches) to provide a counterweight to government, these structures are only useful when they encompass the village population, which makes them much less effective at the county level or in more diverse areas.2 The solution most peasants have chosen, rather, is resistance to local government, either actively through protest and petition, or passively through illegal migration to an industrial city. Indeed, foreign journalists have noted that both of these activities seem to be ubiquitous throughout rural China.3

The post-Mao governmental reform in the 1980s gave provincial and municipal branches the lion’s share of political power in rural areas,4 with the central government essentially relegated to reinforcing economic policy and reprimanding local branches if their schemes are causing unrest.5 Most centralized programs such as pensions, housing reform, and the national trade union are more relevant to industrial workers in urban areas than to peasants in the villages.6 Legally, peasants have the ability to petition the central government for redress of grievances, and active resistance often employs the principle of petition, but in practice this is met with extralegal capture and detention either by municipal cadres7 or by operatives in Beijing.8 One exceptional option for petitioners is approaching township leaders, when they are democratically elected and have sway with local cadres; this currently happens in a minority of villages.9

Of the two remaining options for peasants, active village protest is seen as more in line with past moral economies, at least as they were glorified in period propaganda and official history. The most important aspect of this moral economy, it appears, is not whether the protest is for or against the laws of the current neoliberal government, but rather its relevance to the “rights of the people” emphasized by the mid-century Communists. When the people of Yizhang county rose up to protest illegal tax on Dongcun village, locals characterized the successful revolt as the “Second Xiangnan Rebellion”, recalling fond memories of a grassroots Communist uprising in 1927.10 However, when 40,000 workers came to prevent the police from seizing factory property, a technically illegal protest, an activist considered this, too, an enforcement of “our laws, Mao’s laws”.11 The concept of “laws” or “rights” as used here cannot be limited to what is spoken by local authorities or written in law books, but operates perhaps in the realm of morality. Urban workers, too, use the image of Mao in protest to promote this egalitarian sense of justice.12

The second method of resistance, fleeing the district through illegal migration, falls squarely within the expected developments of laissez-faire capitalism, and indeed one might question whether it could be considered protest at all. Because migrant factory workers leave their counties illegally, they have no representation within the government of the cities they work in.13 However, in terms of capital flow, migrant workers work for their own ends against the desires of local governments. Obviously when they have left the countryside they cannot be taxed by the county, nor do they have to participate in the functions of government; indeed, cadre and kinship, so fundamental to village life, ceases to play a role in their everyday lives, except for their annual return to their extended family during the Chinese New Year. Many migrant workers still consider themselves “peasants” rather than “working class”, and often can recall failed attempts at active resistance in their own villages.14 While migrant workers are not free from corruption or mistreatment, by escaping a poor political climate they gain the power needed for upward economic mobility.

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