Whither Rural Collectives: Village Communities and Economies Under Rapid Urbanization in China

Title: 1207 | Whither Rural Collectives: Village Communities and Economies Under Rapid Urbanization in China
Area: China and Inner Asia
Stream: Sociology
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Karita Kan, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong (organizer, presenter, chair)
Judith Audin, French Centre for Research on Contemporary China, Hong Kong (presenter)
Yang Zhan, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong (presenter)
Xi Chen, Sun Yat-sen University, Hong Kong (presenter)


Urbanization has brought transformational change to rural communities around China. While most extant studies focus on the impact on rural places and populations, this panel presents an alternative perspective that spotlights how urbanization has transformed and remade rural collectives. Merging administrative, economic and social functions, the village collective is an institutional legacy of agricultural collectivization and state socialism. Based on case studies in Shanxi, Hebei and Guangdong, the four papers in this panel present original and regionally diverse research that shares a common interest in exploring how village collectives may be reinforced, weakened, or transformed as they confront de-agrarianization and urbanization in post-socialist China. The authors demonstrate how village collectives have reinvented themselves and remained resilient despite challenges, including (1) the collective livelihoods of residents in a Shanxi mining village following the collapse of coal industries; (2) the repositioning of rural collective economies confronted with out-migration as providers of community care in Hebei; (3) the restoration of public life and collective identity in a Guangdong village following disruptive land expropriation; and (4) the revival of community ties and rural cooperation with the external participation of social work organizations in a Guangdong village facing depopulation and loss of gainful employment. Together, these four papers shed light on the different dynamics and prospects of rural institutional change under urbanization. As rural communities across Asia stand at the crossroads of rapid urban growth and sustainable rural development, this panel should be of interest to policymakers, researchers and practitioners.

Panel Abstracts:
A New Lease on Life? Rural Cooperation and the Collective Economy in a Chinese Village
Drawing insights from the experience of a village located in Conghua, Guangdong, this paper explores the potential of rural cooperation in revitalizing rural collective economies that are experiencing stagnation and decline in China. Since the inception of market reform, rapid urban growth has contributed to the continued exodus of the able-bodied rural population. The ongoing crisis of production in the Chinese countryside has nevertheless contributed to the emergence of a wide spectrum of alternative, community-based economic practices. In recent years, rural cooperatives for production, aggregated purchase and rural finance saw a marked proliferation in the 2000s, especially following the introduction of the 2007 Law on Farmers’ Specialized Cooperatives. This paper examines the potential and limits of rural cooperation in addressing the challenges faced by China’s village communities. It draws on the experience of F village, where a non-profit organization has been involved in fostering rural cooperation amongst villagers since the 2000s. To date, five cooperatives have been established, with varying impact on the revitalization of the collective economy. Based on field observations and interview data, it is shown that while rural cooperation creates opportunities for bringing gainful employment to and building collective solidarity amongst rural residents, the sustainability of these bottom-up initiatives is challenged by the lack of stable distribution channels and funding support. Nevertheless, these socially-organized, community-based initiatives provide useful lessons for exploring alternative means of rural revitalization that go beyond those driven by state policy and market forces.

The Ones Who Stayed: Marginal Spaces and Resilient Collectives in Sinking Mining Villages in Datong, Shanxi
Examining the way village collectives are shaped and reinvented in contemporary China, this paper focuses on the everyday life of the last remaining residents in Datong’s mining settlements. Between industrial and rural, the spaces of the coal mining industry in Shanxi province present a significant yet overlooked context. Since the development of the coal economy before and during the Mao era, farmers, coal miners and their families had started living near the mines in self-built houses with no direct access to water. The issue of dangerous housing (sinking houses) due to coal excavation in these mining sites lasted for decades. In the 2000s, the nationalisation of the coal industry led to a massive urban renewal operation implemented by Datong’s main coal danwei, Tongmei Group. In 2006, Tongmei implemented the construction of a new residential compound, “Penghuqu,” which now hosts a population of 300,000 residents. The bust of coal prices in 2013 left the renewal project uncompleted, but a proportion of families have remained living in these villages. The unfinished “great coal migration” constitutes an empirical case to reflect on the redefinition of village collectives as well as the way the last residents invent resilient lifestyles in a dilapidated environment. Based on fieldwork in the mining settlements between 2016 and 2019, this paper uses a micro-social perspective to demonstrate how danwei-based collectives remain a solid legacy that is still visible in local culture. However, the last residents are expressing uncertain prospects as this once solid economy enters an era of decline.

Collectives for Community and Care: Transition to Non-agricultural Functions for Village Collectives in Hebei, China
Under rapid urban expansion, many Chinese villages have been dismantled and are withering away. Those that have survived urbanization often experience “emptying out” or “hollowing” effects, as young people migrate to cities in search of jobs and urban lifestyles. These circumstances have led to important reconfigurations of village collectives in terms of their social functions. In Zhoulong village, Hebei province, young workers have been moving out to take urban jobs for the past decades. In 2009, the village went through a “forest rehabilitation program” and completely moved away from agricultural production. Taking Zhoulong as a case study, this paper explores the new roles taken on by rural collectives in the context of out-migration and industrialization. Ethnographic fieldwork has led to two major findings. First, although villagers have migrated out of the village to work, they still consider collective land their most important asset and insurance, and therefore have strong intention to remain members of the village collective. Second, the village collective has gradually shifted its focus from production to care and become the key facilitator for community-based childcare, elderly care and other related cultural activities. The paper argues that in the context where China’s major cities remain exclusionary to rural migrants, and where small cities lack attractions to entice rural migrants to settle, villages are becoming a place of retirement and recreation for its members. Even though its agricultural production function has withered away, the village collective is undergoing revival and taking on more social responsibilities as urbanization processes deepen.

Village Collective Economy and Changing Community Relations under Urbanization: A Case Study in Zhuhai, China
Under rapid industrialization and urbanization, many villages in China have changed from traditional farming communities to urbanized villages. Tang village, located in Zhuhai city in Guangdong province, was once an agrarian economy and a fishing village. With reform and opening up, especially since the 1990s, the mode of production of Tang village has undergone dramatic change due to land acquisition and industrial development. Based on fieldwork, this paper explores how these processes have transformed the village collective economy and brought changes to community relations amongst villagers. First, it is shown that the gradual marketization of the collective economy has undermined social ties between villagers. The relationship between villagers has become increasingly indifferent and the collective cultural identity of villagers has declined. Furthermore, land expropriation has posed challenges to the viability of the village collective economy and affected social ties. Farmland in Tang village has been gradually levied by the state and enterprises to build infrastructure and factories. Land has also been leased out to external capital. To realize collective ownership, the village has used the shareholding system to distribute land profits, but uneven distribution has led to conflicts between village cadres and villagers as well as tension within families. This paper explores how, based on action research, the building of public space and development of public life could help to re-establish relations amongst villagers, restore collective identity, and ultimately contribute to the sustainable development of the village community under the impact of urbanization

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