Vol. 16 No. 12 (December 2006) pp.948-950


RIGHTFUL RESISTANCE IN RURAL CHINA, by Kevin J. O’Brien and Lianjiang Li.  New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 200pp. Hardback. $70.00/£40.00. ISBN: 0521861314. Paper.  $24.99/£14.99. ISBN: 0521678528.  eBook format. $20.00. ISBN: 0511159153.


Reviewed by Hualing Fu, Hong Kong Faculty of Law.  Email: hlfu [at] hku.hk.


Kevin O’Brien and Lianjiang Li have written a book that is both sophisticated theoretically and solidly grounded empirically; it is also a readable (and re-readable) book. The book, as its title suggests, is about peasants’ rightful resistance against the exploitative and repressive (local) state. 


Rightful resistance is defined as “a form of popular contention that operates near the boundary of authorized channels, employs the rhetoric and commitments of the powerful to curb the exercise of power, hinges on locating and exploiting divisions within the state, and relies on mobilizing support from the wider public” (p.2). Rightful resistance thus consists of legally sanctioned actions taken to protect one’s legal rights. In carrying out rightful resistance, the resisters strategically engage the state, exploit the gaps within the state, and change the society using legitimate means.


Rightful resistance emerges because of the increase in political opportunities in China, broadly defined as the widening gaps between improved and increasing legal rights in law and policies (offered by the central authorities) and the violation of legal rights in action (by the local government). This “structural opening” provides the context for rightful resistance to develop. In addition, the peasants’ appreciation of the opportunity, willingness and ability to exploit the gap between law and practice is another important condition for rightful resistance. Because of improved transportation and communication, the penetration of mass media, and many other social and economic changes brought about by economic reform in China, peasants have become more aware of their rights and are prepared to assert and defend them. 


Rightful resistance is taking place throughout the countryside in China and aggrieved peasants are airing their complaints, mobilizing laws and asserting their rights. As O’Brien and Li succinctly demonstrate, regardless of the often seemingly insurmountable difficulties facing the peasant resisters, they continue their battles to protect their rights. Occasionally, with luck and sympathetic assistance, the peasants defeat their adversaries. A successful resistance depends on mobilization of peasant power which includes three aspects. The first is internal organization, mainly including the agitation, organization and coordination of peasants; the second is tactical and skillful use of external resources for support, such as courts, media, local congresses, or government offices at different levels; and the third is the types of action that peasants may take, [*949] including petitions, sit-ins and demonstrations.


The impact of rightful resistance goes beyond any individual claim. Resisters may win or lose their battle in individual cases, but their action can highlight the misdeeds of local officials, attract media and official attention to wide-spread social problems, and at the end of the day, improve policy implementation. More importantly, resistance itself is a meaningful training and educational process for peasants who are involved in or have witnessed the process. As the authors point out, rightful resistance “has led many of them to reconsider their relationship to authority, while posing new questions, encouraging innovative tactics, and spurring thoughts about political change” (p.103). In the long run, rightful resistance nurtures new rural elites, empowers village communities and creates citizens for future political participation.   


The authors are positive about rightful resistance and optimistic about what it could bring. Less optimistic commentators, however, may point out that the actual “structural opening” is more constrained than the authors have indicated. It is clear that rightful resistance in O’Brien’s and Li’s world is largely limited to protest against illicit levies and rigged village elections. But outside the two large policy areas, resistance, rightful or not, is much less likely. In areas such as the one child policy, religious activities, or the right to form or join associations, where peasants also enjoy rights under the law, their resistance meets strong and hostile responses from the state. It is extremely difficult to locate and exploit gaps within the state in those areas. 


The relationship between peasants and local government officials is also multidimensional. Peasants often place conflicting demands on village and township leaders. Peasants resist and reject village and township leaders when local government becomes predatory and repressive. Yet most of the grievances and complaints that peasants have are not directed at government of any level. Rather the vast majority of the disputes are inter-personal disputes that demand positive government intervention as a neutral third party. Peasants place strong demands for more effective and efficient government services, such as education, medical care, and social security. Like it or not, peasants place their reliance heavily on local officials in their daily social and economic life. 


This leads to the issue of villagers challenging the local government. As O’Brien and Li note, the whole political system in China is designed to make resistance, rightful or not, particularly costly. Peasants in China may not have the capacity to organize and sustain their rightful resistance. The unlawful extraction of taxation and fees and violation of rights are institutionalized and systemic, but resistance remains sporadic, spontaneous, and limited in scope and intensity, as reported by O’Brien and Li. With few exceptions, there is little organization and coordination beyond a single village. Resisters at each instance have to re-invent the wheel of rightful resistance, from gaining access to information, to finding helpful higher authorities, to [*950] designing suitable strategies. The spontaneous nature renders rightful resistance very costly on the part of the resisters. Given the systemic (and comparatively well organized) exploitation of the peasantry by officials, the question is not why rightful resistance has taken place, but why so few instances of rightful resistance have taken place and why they have been so ill-organized.


The principal reason for the lack of resistance is the continuous thinning of rural community and the steady decline of capacity in the rural villages in the last two decades. Facing the oppressive and predatory local state, few peasants organize or participate in resistance. Most remain silent, and a large proportion, mainly the able-bodied and skilled peasants, simply exit. The best example pertinent to sustained decline in capacity is the long-term and short-term migration of huge numbers of peasants to cities. Peasants are abandoning their villages physically and conceptually. As a result, there are homeless people in the cities, and there are empty houses in the countryside. Rural villages, as a result, have little capacity to defend themselves. They are made vulnerable to predators from the local authority, as well as societal forces. Rightful resistance is taking place in this distorted demographic context.


O’Brien and Li have written a very useful book for both specialists and non-specialists. The book will prove useful to political scientists, lawyers and anyone who is interested in political development in China. As an important contribution to the study of contentious politics and Chinese politics, the book will be referred to for many years to come.


© Copyright 2006 by the author, Hualing Fu.