Political Responsiveness: A Case Study of Land Reforms

When one considers political responsiveness, one often compares the extent of responsiveness between different countries that operate with varied political systems, institutions, ability of civil society and citizens in generating political pressures, and other characteristics. In China, political responsiveness differs across localities. So what explains these differences in government responsiveness? Arguing that there has been limited attention paid to the factor of individual characteristics of political decision makers, Junyan Jiang, an Assistant Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, studied how configurations of politicians’ informal networks create conditions for political responsiveness. 

Jiang conducted an empirical case study on Chinese land market reform. In China, there are two systems of land control: urban land is mainly owned by the state, while rural land is mainly owned by farmers’ collectives. To transform rural land into urban land, a land conversion process is required. In this process, the state typically dominates land requisition and development projects. Farmers are often under-compensated which creates a major source of grievances in contemporary China. To address these grievances, local governments can implement land market reforms. These reforms essentially grant permission for farmers to directly sell collectively-owned rural land to buyers on the land market without going through government land expropriation. Through this policy, farmers gain more power and better compensation. However, this policy hurts certain local bureaucratic and business interests. Thus, although some localities implemented this reform policy, a majority of cities still have not adopted this policy. 

Jiang’s central argument is that responsive reforms are more likely to occur when policymakers have access to external support networks that are independent of the entrenched vested interests. External networks provide politicians with incentives and identities distinct from the special interests that they interact with on a daily basis. Such networks can take the forms of family networks, school networks, and other forms. In China, one prominent form of networks is patron-client relationships with higher-level political figures. These relationships, which provide fiscal and financial resources, better promotion opportunities, and a source of political support, can help lower-level officials resist local elites and special interest groups’ pressures.

To summarize, his main finding is that reforms depend on two conditions: intense public grievances against rural land-taking, and local leaders’ connections to higher-level authorities and elites. Thus, Chinese local leaders who have connections to higher level political elites are more likely to initiate economic reforms when they encounter pressures from the public. Jiang’s study contributes to the broader literature on the role of patronage networks and informal institutions in politics and governances, the role of central influence in decentralized systems, and conditions for government responsiveness. To learn more about his work, please click here.

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