Oi Talks on Rural Distress in China

Roughly 50 students and professors packed into a small room in CGIS yesterday evening to hear Jean C. Oi, a professor of Chinese politics at Stanford University, speak about the effects of new land distribution policies in rural China.

The talk—which was hosted by the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies—focused on newly emerging institutions in the Chinese countryside called shechu, which are created by dividing, merging, and re-organizing existing townships.

In the process of these reorganizations, Chinese peasants are losing their homes and ancestral land, and are being moved into apartments, often in distant villages.

In her talk, Oi said that the reasons behind the reorganizations were not completely clear, but the new policies are likely an attempt by local governments to generate revenue.

Oi explained that the creation of the shechu is a product of local governments “hijack[ing] the vagueness” of policy pronouncements from the Chinese central government.

She quoted a top-level Chinese official who said, “The center cannot control the localities.”

Oi highlighted the fact that many of the newly-created villages are more crowded, and that the shechu committees which govern these merged villages are appointed, while earlier village officials had been elected.

But Oi also said that there are a few advantages to peasants in the development of the shechu. She noted that the apartments into which many peasants are relocated have running water and heat in the wintertime, an improvement on the conditions in some rural villages.

Some in the audience took a more positive outlook on the events in rural China.

Ying XiaoFei, a student at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, disagreed with Oi at the end of the talk, saying that peasants are voluntarily moving in many communities and are allowed to choose whether or not to give up their agricultural holdings.

Oi responded by saying, “Where I go, they tell me the same thing,” but she nonetheless maintained that there were “institutional problems with this procedure.”

Most of those attending the talk were graduate students and professors, and many could understand the speaker when she would crack an occasional joke in Chinese.

According to Professor Joseph Fewsmith of Boston University, who served as one of the coordinators of the event, some were interested in the talk because “China’s foreign policy has been much more assertive over the past year,” and “people are trying to figure out why.”

The seminars will continue in the next year.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: November 16, 2010

An earlier version of the Nov. 16 news article "Oi Talks on Rural Distress in China" incorrectly reported that the Fairbank Institute plans to host Hu Jintao, the president of China, for a talk in early January.

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