When villages in China began to introduce local elections in the 1980s it was, for many, a moment of great optimism about the prospects for local democracy in the Peoples' Republic. Yet village self-government has not curbed the power of local officials in China to confiscate the wealth from the rural poor. Following the introduction of village elections, over 60 million villagers have had their land seized by their local governments. These land seizures amount to a redistribution of trillions of dollars of wealth from smallholders to the government. In this talk, I argue that local self-government in China is a strikingly effective tool for top-down authoritarian control. I focus on the consequences of including communal elites, like the leaders of lineages or religious groups, in village institutions of self-government. The view that local democracy nurtures accountability would suggest that the inclusion of communal elites in village government would strengthen villagers' land rights. After all, these communal elites face strong social expectations that they cooperate with their group and enact policies that benefit them. Drawing on case studies and a new dataset, I show that when communal elites join local institutions of self-government, the state is instead able to expropriate more land than when these elites remain outside of government. I argue that these communal elites are important intermediaries that help China's authoritarian state control and extract from their groups.
Daniel Mattingly is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University. He received a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Berkeley in 2016. Starting in summer 2017, he will join the department of political science at Yale as an assistant professor. Dan’s dissertation focuses on the sources of state power in China, and shows how the ruling party uses democratic institutions to strengthen its political control over rural China. More broadly he is interested in local governance, state-building, authoritarian rule, and political accountability. His work appears in Comparative Political Studies and World Politics.