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Are Farmers Conservative?


Zhao Shukai, Development Research Center of the State Council

It is generally assumed that farmers are politically conservative. In light of classical theories, such an assumption is conclusive. In China, theoretical judgments that farmers are conservative used to be a political presumption and an intrinsic basis for the government to formulate national policies. However, farmers have given a powerful response to this issue through the process of rural reform and its historic achievements. Since the launch of reform over 30-plus years, there has been a significant transition in China's discourse system regarding farmers. Respect for farmers' initiatives has become a resounding policy slogan.

Apparently, challenges posed by the actual process of reform have almost overturned traditional theoretical judgments. At least, farmers are not described in general as conservative or backward. Considering great changes in China since the outset of reform, and viewing from the economic perspective, the household contract responsibility system is initiated by farmers; viewing from the political perspective, direct election in villages is launched by farmers; and viewing from the social perspective, farmers' appeals are strong and forceful and a new coordination mechanism of interests is developing amidst farmers' contending endeavour. Farmers' arduous efforts and outstanding performances with respect to challenging old systems, solving new problems, and establishing new mechanisms have been displayed in various aspects in present China. Farmers have demonstrated and continue to demonstrate tremendous potential to create history and propel China's reform. Hence, farmers are no longer passive forces during social changes but dynamic forces that make a difference.

Currently, China's policy making and academic research should adjust basic approaches toward observing farmers, rather than holding either advanced or backward views toward farmers or other social groups. Blindly borrowing foreign judgments to view China's farmers or using past judgments to view contemporary farmers is problematic, let alone that original judgments are not necessarily correct.

On the other hand, many things in the world can be neither judged as advanced or backward nor concluded with a thinking of advanced or backward concept. For instance, it is hard to say whether farmers stick to household farming for purpose of having enough to eat is advanced or backward. After all, it is difficult to say that obeying any instructions without question is advanced but having one's own ideas is backward. Such logic, obviously, cannot stand. The thing is that farmers are not entitled to such rights, but if they do, they should not be criticized to be backward anyway. Thus, both policy makers and researchers need not to be quibbled by the problem of being advanced or backward.

Rights, including economic, social, and political rights, may be a more desirable point for observation. In other words, it does not matter whether farmers are advanced or backward; what matters is whether farmers should enjoy such rights. In recent years, China's farmers have claimed their own rights and become the effective force to challenge established systems and mechanisms, or rather a driving force for reform. This should be an important angle to observe and ponder over issues relating to farmers. In this regard, traditional theory on farmers' conservativeness calls for theoretical review and criticism. In previous summaries of reform experience and studies on farmers, such review and criticism are far from enough. In a sense, China's reform is farmer-based reform and farmers in China are experiencing and performing reform.

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