Government is key to understanding China's future


A grape harvest in rural China
Photo credit: 
Courtesy Xueguang Zhou

Over the past three decades, China's government, economy, and society have been undergoing a transformation, the momentum of which has intensified in recent years. Stanford sociologist Xueguang Zhou has been conducting a detailed ethnographic study in a rural township a few hours' drive from Beijing in order to understand these changes, especially in terms of China's political institutions. He is also beginning research about the behavior of urban government organizations and about the trajectory of personnel mobility in the Chinese bureaucracy.

Xueguang Zhou, FSI senior fellow and Kwoh-Ting Li Professor in Economic DevelopmentZhou (PhD '91), a senior fellow with the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Kwoh-Ting Li Professor in Economic Development with the Department of Sociology, chose to conduct his ethnographic research project in a rural township because it afforded him a chance to stay in one place over a long period of time and to get closer to the everyday life of local residents. "It is easier to conduct this kind of research in rural areas because people are always there and once they get to know you, you can gain access to and make sense of their experiences, feelings and views, and their coping strategies in response to large-scale social changes," he notes.

Zhou's rural governance study branched out into three interrelated directions. He has been studying agricultural markets, including: how they have been taking shape and evolving over time, how harvests are conducted, and where local elites and farmers interact with large outside companies. China's rural election system, which Zhou suggests has become more institutionalized in the past six to eight years, has been another area of focus. He has examined how the system was first established, and how it has evolved into its current shape. Finally, he has followed patterns of government behavior within the context of the significant changes now underway in China.
"From a research point of view, this is really a critical moment in the Chinese economic transformation.

-Xueguang Zhou

FSI Senior Fellow and Kwoh-Ting Li Professor in Economic Development

Gradually shifting his focus to the study of China's urban political institutions, Zhou has been working with a doctoral candidate from Peking University to study the behavior of urban government bureaus for the past three years, and they are now working on articles highlighting the major findings from this research. In addition, Zhou is in the process of selecting urban sites in which to conduct a more prolonged and detailed study similar to his rural township project. He is also working with a Stanford master's student to analyze twenty years of government personnel data, tracing the movement of specific individuals across offices and bureaus as they have been promoted through the bureaucratic system. "It is all a public record," says Zhou, "but once you piece these trajectories together, they shed light on the inner working of, and dynamics in, the Chinese bureaucracy."

China's overall transformation has greatly accelerated in the past decade, and even as urban life is changing, life in rural areas around China's coastal megalopolises is perhaps changing even more quickly. Zhou suggests that within the next five to ten years the contribution of China's shrinking rural areas towards the country's GDP will become quite insignificant. "The speed is really just astonishing," he emphasizes. As cities expand, local governments purchase up land from rural residents for commercial development projects like shopping centers and apartment complexes. Real estate is a huge source of income for city governments and so there has been an aggressive push toward urbanization. As a result, says Zhou: "Millions of rural residents lost their land and became urban overnight without any relevant work skills." Although they are compensated to various degrees for their land, the bigger question is how this will affect the new city dwellers and their families in the future as they must develop new skills and adapt to the social and environmental conditions of urban life.

"From a research point of view," states Zhou, "This is really a critical moment in the Chinese economic transformation: the way that they deal with the process of urbanization will have tremendous consequences for the years to come because it is creating so much tension and social conflict." Even away from coastal areas, government-driven urbanization is taking place everywhere in China—even in provinces with vast expanses of remote land like Xinjiang. "This is exactly why you want to study government," maintains Zhou. "Because they play a key role in this process." Understanding China's government institutional structures, its decision-making processes, and the way that resources are mobilized will lead the way to better understanding about the future impact of these decisions that are now so rapidly changing both the rural and urban landscape.