When Capital Comes with a Familiar Face: Embedded Agricultural Capital and Failed Peasant Rent Protest

Tiantian Liu, Johns Hopkins University

Drawing on 10 months of fieldwork in a Chinese village, this article argues: 1. Under China’s unique agricultural land rental institution, land-rent disputes are emerging as a new form of rural contentious politics. Unlike in urban China and other countries, where change in control over land is often permanent and takes place under a change in ownership, change in control over farmland is only temporary and conditional upon rent payment in rural China. This sets the stage for continuous interactions and conflicts between agricultural capitalists and peasants, even long after land rental has completed. 2. Local elites and pre-existing kinship/village connections play contradictory roles in land rental and villagers’ rent protests. Village/kinship elites actively ally with commercial farmers. They use hierarchical, local social structures to mobilize and pressure weaker villagers to rent out land without extensive state intervention. However, this mobilization is only one-way. Ordinary villagers cannot use local social networks to collectively protest against commercial farmers over unpaid land rent, as the alliance with commercial farmers makes clan/village leaders unwilling to intervene. Moreover, farmers and peasants’ shared embeddedness in multiplex local social relations make villagers unwilling to escalate disputes into collective actions. Consequently, farmers have been able to fragmentize rent protests and contain social tension, without paying much land rent. 3. Land-rent disputes display several new dynamics. First, peasant grievances often target commercial farmers, instead of state actors, who were the main targets in rural contentions in previous years. Second, commercial farmers and local elites have appropriated many tactics previously used by state actors to contain peasant rent protests. Direct repression by state actors have decreased correspondingly. Lastly, when capital and villagers are embedded in the same social connections, land-rent disputes may not take the forms of large-scale, dramatic protests. Instead, they can be more hidden, everyday-based, and individualized.

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 Presented in Session 210. Work in agrarian times and societies