How villages achieve resilient development

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-12-05

Cuandixia Village, located in the west suburb of downtown Beijing, is famous for its well-preserved quadrangle courtyards built in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Photo: YANG XUE/CSST

The 20th CPC National Congress report pointed out that “the most challenging and arduous tasks we face in building a modern socialist China in all respects remain in our rural areas.” Traditional rural areas, as relatively closed self-circulating systems, have gradually experienced disruptions to their internal balance as they have been reshaped by external and internal development. Thanks to villages’ varied capacities for self-adaptation and transformation, development in rural China differs significantly. Most villages encounter environmental constraints in their development, which may lead to fragility. A few resilient villages, however, actively adapt to shifts in the external environment, thereby achieving the desired transformation and restructuring. Therefore, embedding resilient village development within the grand narrative of national modernization is crucial in our contemporary era.

Development dilemmas

Some villages in our country now face multiple challenges to their development, struggling to adapt to the rapidly changing environment in the dynamic process of modernization.

While studying village development, researchers have observed insufficient autonomy. Each village must find its own internal momentum. To accelerate the modernization of agricultural and rural areas in terms of both material conditions and social aspects, the government has proposed a series of rural development policies. However, with local government practices slowed by inertia, the driving force behind rural development often remains externally sourced. The simple “injecting aid into poverty-stricken areas” type of assistance tends to overlook the villages’ capacity for self-improvement. Consequently, internal village networks lack sustainable developmental momentum. Excessive external intervention tends to increase the villages’ dependence on outside help. When external forces withdraw, villages struggle to access resources independently, leading to a failure to organically integrate internal and external resources.

At the same time, top-down decision-making and policy implementations often fail to effectively align with the actual developmental needs of the villages. This misallocation of resources and negligence of the villages’ own development capabilities can further erode their autonomy. By placing villages in the position where they are “waiting to receive,” greater uncertainties and risks arise, resulting in negative feedback that deviates policy practices from their intended goals. Under the influence of governance techniques and resource constraints, rural societies may face a composite governance risk of external environmental interventions coupled with insufficient internal driving forces.

Diminished interactions among local actors weakens their connectivity. Local governments typically play a decisive leading role in rural development processes. However, some local governments lean on administrative tasks and bureaucratic pressures to drive rural governance. Often, their focus is on formal participation and villagers’ involvement in procedures, not on substantial engagement in actual governance practices. Village committee members, as acting managers of village-level collective organizations, wield varying degrees of personal authority that affect their influence and appeal in rural development. Members of these committees who lack the innate talent for mobilization and integration find it challenging to consolidate governance resources on a larger scale. They not only fail to actively seek development resources but also tend to avoid certain allocated resources, leading to an inability to effectively connect resources with the rural population, thus hindering progress in rural development.

As it turns out, some villagers are gradually “excluded,” directly or indirectly causing them to become indifferent to rural development. In addition, after exclusion they often choose to become the “silent majority.” Under the complex rural governance environment, the various forces at play not only struggle to effectively aggregate but also reveal a web of fault-lines.

The transformation of rural villages has led to weaker social networks as rural society is changed. Traditional rural societies were built upon the foundation of kinship, relationships, and social bonds, often referred to as a “relationship society” or a “guanxi society.” Renowned Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong posits that “Chinese society is fundamentally rural.” People in rural China know no other life than that dictated by their own parochialism. It is a society where people live from birth to death in the same place, and where people think that this is the normal way of life.

However, as urbanization and marketization accelerate, not only have many young individuals migrated out of rural areas, but these changes have also led to a significant exodus of rural elites. The transformation of local kinship-based rural society has caused disengagement from traditional values like rural culture, family ties, kinship relations, and clan networks. Instead, people are concentrating on economic rationality within collective actions.

Issues like weakened internal cohesion within villages and declining community identity have increased the time and labor needed to reach a consensus in rural development planning. Traditional rural culture struggles to coexist and integrate with modern governance techniques in the pursuit of standardized governance. Consequently, the resilience of rural areas is somewhat compromised, leading to developmental challenges for certain villages.

Moreover, rural elites, as a crucial segment of the village’s social structure, are pivotal forces within rural society. However, they have not effectively contributed to strengthening the interconnectedness of rural social networks.

How to ensure resilient development

Resilient development guarantees that localities can continuously adapt and make corresponding adjustments when facing external environmental interferences and shocks, thereby achieving sustainable development. Going forward, rural areas can adopt the following approaches to achieve resilient development.

First, villages require greater levels of autonomy to enhance their resilience in action. Autonomy is a prerequisite for resilient development in villages and a critical motivation for maintaining local social structures and promoting development in rural areas. With strong autonomy, villages can break away from rigid standardized models. Based on autonomy and agency, villages can choose adaptable frameworks and models in dynamic developmental contexts, adjusting to the changes in their environment. Actors involved in rural development are participants and catalysts. Actors with strong agency can flexibly adjust strategies, harness external energy to improve their interactions with the external environment, create new conditions, and ensure the sustained and expanded development of rural areas.

Therefore, there is a need to focus on enhancing the capacity of individual villagers, village elites, and collective organizations. By organically integrating the capacities of actors at different levels, the overall resilience of villages can be enhanced, fueling the endogenous driving force of village development. This approach propels rural societies toward sustainable development in a stable and orderly manner. In a longitudinal analysis of the development trajectories of two villages in northern Zhejiang Province, researchers discovered a real-time example of villages continuously adapting to changing environments through “active agency” and thus achieving positive development.

Second, strengthening resilience and integrating action network resources are pivotal for rural areas seeking resilient development. Network connectivity stands at the core of achieving resilience in villages. The combined efforts of diverse entities, through resilient relational connections, can effectively address the complexity and uncertainty of external influences. In the process of rural development, a single entity often struggles to withstand the uncertainties brought by societal changes. Therefore, establishing platforms for dialogue, communication, and negotiation among diverse entities is essential. This fosters regular interactions between these entities, expanding resilient social action networks within villages.

Village development necessitates leveraging the strengths of local entities and integrating resources from both within and outside the village. Through resource accumulation and knowledge-sharing among different stakeholders, collaborative actions can drive village development and counter risks. It is worth noting that villagers’ involvement in rural development is critical, so we need to offer them more opportunities for participation and integrate them into the action framework, which is the foundation of a village’s resilient developmental mechanism.

Finally, we need to activate local resilience and unearth its intrinsic cultural richness. Local resilience is a crucial pillar for villages working towards resilient development. The local culture within rural societies carries the strength of communal adherence to rural norms, possessing inherently resilient advantages. This culture can persist and transform in various forms, playing a critical role in maintaining order and fostering development in rural societies.

Rooted in cultural inertia, rural habits have ingrained themselves in the instincts and actions of individuals over thousands of years. Amid the transition of modernizing villages, there should be emphasis on exploring traditional rural societal relations and cultural values. Creatively transforming the mindset of neighborly and cooperative assistance, as well as sentiments like “mianzi” (face) and emotions, is essential.

We need to advance the individuality of rural culture in the new era through inclusivity and openness, matching modern cultural ideologies with the core of traditional rural culture, to achieve a localized modernity that extends into culturally distinctive spaces. It is necessary to internalize the “new rural culture” as an inherent directive for individual thoughts, consciousness, and behaviors. Cultural activities such as rural development projects serve as vehicles to enhance villagers’ sense of belonging to their community. To say the least, we need to encourage villagers’ enthusiasm for participating in village development to create an internal support network within the village. The interpersonal relationships within the village — built on shared sentiments and consensus — will fortify the village with resilient internal strength to counter external disturbances.

In summary, rural development faces both opportunities and challenges in the face of increased uncertainties. Modern social sciences can offer crucial support but cannot establish a universal model for all villages. Villages should enhance their own resilience based on their distinct characteristics, adapt flexibly to change, and strive for sustainable development in an ever-evolving environment.


Hu Yixuan (associate professor) and Jiang Jiaqi are from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Fuzhou University.

Editor:Yu Hui

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