For most observers it has become conventional wisdom that protest in China have been on the rise as a result of a growing gap between rich and poor, generated by corruption and the special privileges of China's elites. "Seething discontent," which occasionally boils over into huge protests involving thoustands, would be the picture many would draw. Scholars point to the growing assertiveness of China's labor movement as the latest sign that society is fighting back against oppression.
This view is particularly visible is portraits of the Chinese countryside. Pulitzer prize-winning author Ian Johnson's book, Wild Grass, details the rising assertiveness of Chinese villagers, who find a lawyer to represent them in cases where their land has been expropriated. The more academic, Taxation without Representation in Contemporary Rural China, by Tom Bernstein and Xiaobo Lü, details how peasants' incomes have been increasingly eaten away about by a money-hungry local state, and that these burdens have led to a growth in rural resistance. The current issue of the China Quarterly has an excellent article by Graeme Smith entitled, "The Hollow State." Smith shows that township governments, which sit just above the village level, have become hollow shells, losing authority to county and provincial governments above them and their officials being seconded to villages to perform work closer to the peasants or sent out of province to attract industrial investment. The result, in his eyes, is a weaker governance regime which can't address the needs of China's 750 million rural inhabitants.
Times, though, may be a changing. Earlier this year Indiana University sociologist Ethan Michelson, working with a team of Chinese scholars, conducted a survey of villager attitudes about the state and their quality of life. The survey sites were in five counties in very geographic and economic circumstances. Although not "nationally representative," the counties constituted a broad cross section of the country. Even more important, these counties had been surveyed eight years earlier about the same topics using almost identical questions. We'll have to wait for Michelson and his team to publish thei full findings, but he gave an initial taste during a colloquium presentation hosted by IU's Research Center for Chinese Politics & Business last month.
What did they find? In a word, things have gotten a lot, lot better. In 2002, when the first survey was completed, there was a great deal of mistrust of local government, especially village cadres, and villagers believed that social services -- roads, education, health care, etc. -- were not being provided for as they should be. At the time, the fees and taxes places on villagers was quite high, and they thought they were getting screwed. By contrast, in 2010, respondents had a more positive assessment of government, including village cadres, and they believed the provision of public goods was substantially improved over the past.
What explains the changing perceptions? Changing national policies. In 2004-05, the central government passed new regulations banning agricultural taxes and began providing much greater funding for rural social services. The provision of these services expanded dramatically in the wake of the global financial crisis, as a substantial amount of China's stimulus plan was directed at rural areas.
One chart from Michelson's presentation, provided here with his permission, captures the heart of the issue.
Michelson was quick to point out that the data do not reveal placid contentment on the part of villagers. There are still things they are unhappy about, and some regions have more significant problems than others. But the gross change from 2002 is unmistakable.
There are many implications for these findings. I'll just mention one. Some argue that Chinese foreign policy has become more nationalistic because China's leaders are sitting on a domestic powder keg, and they need to keep the nationalist bona fides in tact or face the scorn of an upset public. At a minimum, it implies a less cooperative China on a range of foreign policy areas, from Taiwan to trade disputes. The most clear exposition of this view is Susan Shirk's Fragile Superpower.
If China's central leaders have the same data that Michelson has -- and they engage in extensive polling -- and believe their policies of the last 6 years are bearing fruit, then Chinese foreign policy should not be seen as a consequence of a jittery leadership; at least the trembling isn't originating in the countryside. China's national leadership is being more assertive on the global stage, expecting a higher standing in a range of international bodies and being more openly critical of the US military presence in Asia. This assertiveness is likely borne of greater confidence in China's domestic economic and political conditions, and not growing worries that their hold on power is more precarious.