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Farmer Politics: Confusions and Reflections


Zhao Shukai, Development Research Center of the State Council

In current studies on farmers, “politics” seems to be overlooked. On the one hand, among discussions of “farmers”, politics is often not regarded as a research perspective. On the other hand, among discussions of politics, famers are little discussed. Facts have proved that attempts to divorce farmers from national politics are dangerous. The history of politics is in sync with that of human society, but in traditional societies, farmers are divorced from politics. Explanations on the relation between farmers and politics in traditional theories of politics might be a mere reflex of then political reality and could not be adopted as applicable political rules either in the past or at present. Farmers in present-day China have become increasingly concerned about politics and strive to participate in political affairs. There are three basic choices or ways for formers to get involved in the process of political affairs. 1. Farmers accept established political governance or political order. 2. If they can make choice of some other countries for settlement, farmers can choose one kind of political governance they are satisfied with according to the governors’ governance and management performance. 3. If they have no choice but to accept current political governance, then they can rise in rebellion against current governors. The political identity of farmers is revealed usually when social conflicts grow sharpened. However, this does not mean that farmers’ daily life is not politically loaded. Farmers in different historical stages, countries, or even regions have different kinds of political identities. Viewing from history, it is observed that in most cases farmers’ political identity is shaped via “passive participation” in politics. Nevertheless, in the present and future political life of China, farmers are forces that cannot be overlooked. Farmers, while changing China’s agricultural management mechanism, change China’s grassroots and upper-level politics as well. The reason why the political identity of Chinese farmers should be paid attention to lies fundamentally in the fact that farmers at present are no longer those farmers in the past. In modern political process, entitling farmers to opportunities of political participation and expressing consent is an institutional step of modern democracy. In a vocational sense, farmers, as a special class, are close related to particular production modes and living patterns. Yet, are farmers politically compatible to authoritarian systems? In modern times Chinese farmers are farmers of a country that is experiencing the transformation from a traditional society to a modernized one with a dual structure in urban and rural economy. Therefore, whether farmers are willing or unwilling to support which kind of political system cannot be viewed or judged by traditional views. The process of “modernization” means a thorough transformation of resource allocation and interest distribution. It is an undeniable fact that the forces of a modern state power could penetrate into every corner of the society and control huge resources. Thus, in order to maintain their own interests and express their own appeals, farmers must either actively or passively get integrated into a modern socio-political rule system. Hence, efforts to improve governments’ supply of public services and advocate civil life and civil spirit would facilitate the actual process of farmers’ integration. Since the launch of reform and opening-up, changes in rural development indicate that Chinese farmers are not just concerned about the pursuit of economic interests. Facts show that such pursuit would ultimately propel reform in the political system. Chinese farmers are, no doubt, imbued with more political rationality although we could not judge for certain their political capacity. In the new era, to respect the political right of farmers is not a choice but a general trend. On the whole, farmers could accept the present established political order but still have doubts about specific political arrangements in local governments. Over the recent years, farmers have expressed their complaints and appeals through letters and petitions, which have clearly mirrored China’s grassroots problems and social conflicts. Increased farmers’ petitions suggest increased social conflicts and the governments should be concerned about that. Modern Chinese farmers earnestly call for respect for their political right.

Farmer Politics: Confusions and Reflections