The Crisis and Experiment of the Commons: The New Rural Reconstruction Movement in China

By Ou Ning*

Outdoor Film Screening at Bishan Harvestiva 2011. Photo by Hu XiaogengOutdoor film screening at Bishan Harvestival 2011. Photo by Hu Xiaogeng.

When China joined the WTO in 2001, it became a part of the global economy. The Chinese government has warmly embraced globalization, pushing the process of urbanization more radically forward. Urbanization is a kind of redistribution of social resources, including land and property; it is in some sense more radical than a revolution. China’s current land ownership system was established in 1949 when the Communist Party of China (CPC) took power. Land in urban areas is owned by the state, while in rural areas villagers own the land collectively. When local governments in rural areas need land, they change the land status, grabbing the land and selling it to developers; in the process, many villagers lose their farmland, and as a result farmland across China is shrinking. According to Reuters, China will become the world’s largest importer of agricultural products in 5 to 10 years.[1] As China grows increasingly dependent on international trade, its food situation is becoming dangerous. It is only a matter of time before a global food crisis occurs, and then it will be a huge challenge to feed China’s population.

Rural villagers constitute more than 60% of China’s population. During the latter half of the twentieth century, villagers exchanged their agricultural products for support from the Soviet Union in the industrialization process, contributing their land and labor to urbanization and the new economy but never sharing in its benefits. Since most young people have left the countryside for jobs in the city, China’s villages are almost empty, with only a few old people and children left behind. Fields lie fallow, and local governments take control of the farmland, giving little compensation to villagers. Over the course of the past 30 years there have been a great many protests concerning land issues, the biggest of which was the Wukan Protest[2] in 2011-2012. At the same time, former villagers who now work in urban factories are in danger of becoming “uncertain workers” should they lose their jobs in a global financial crisis. All of these factors place China in a very urgent political situation.

When we look at rural society in China today, we see that its social structure was severely damaged by the People’s Commune Movement (1958-1982) and that this damage has not yet been repaired. The CPC’s village committees replaced the self-rule system based on clan power and led by the rural gentry, but few villagers feel that the village committees really represent their interests. This is a typical crisis of representative politics in China today. After the Household Responsibility System was adopted in 1982, Chinese rural society became increasingly atomized and individualistic. Elites leave the villages, and they have no interest in taking care of their parents; the wealth they accumulate does not feed back into their hometowns, but remains in the cities, where their families are. Confucian values have evaporated, and the rural-urban relationship is becoming fraught.

This is where the New Rural Reconstruction Movement (NRRM) comes in. Unlike the Rural Reconstruction Movement (RRM)[3] in the Republican era (1911-1949), the NRRM has to contend with a rural situation set against the backdrop of globalization, and must grapple to a greater degree with issues of social and environmental justice. It has more intellectual resources at its disposal, but less government support. Most Chinese intellectuals involved with the NRRM are New Leftists, sharing the same set of anti-globalization and anti-urbanization ideals, which are radically different from the government’s current policy. Some of their activities in rural areas are likely to be seen as “sensitive” by the government, so it is crucial for them to approach it as “construction” rather than “opposition,” in order to create more space to operate within the political system. It is imperative that the NRRM appear as a positive power in the government’s eyes, otherwise it will not be sustainable in a society so tightly controlled by the CPC.

"Mutual Aid & Inheritance"Exhibition_2011 Bishan Harvestival_Bishan Project_photo by Hu XiaogengPhoto exhibition “Mutual aid & inheritance” at Bishan Harvestval, 2011. Photo by Hu Xiaogeng.

The NRRM was first shaped by Wen Tiejun, a researcher who coined the phrase “the three rural problems” (rural people, rural society and the rural agriculture), now dean of the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development at Renmin University in Beijing. In 2003 he founded the James Yen[4] Rural Reconstruction Institute at Zhaicheng village in Hebei province, and has sent many young intellectuals to the countryside to develop various programs and concepts, such as community colleges, community-supported agriculture (CSA), ecological villages, and “Workers’ Homes”[5] in different villages and cities.[6] In addition to Wen’s movement, there have been other spontaneous projects such as the ones run by He Xuefeng in Hubei province, Li Changping in Henan province, and Liao Xiaoyi in Sichuan province.[7] Currently, there are more than 200 projects that fall under the umbrella of the NRRM.

These projects attune themselves to the peasants’ needs, giving them more education, trying to activate their subjectivity in the local economy, and helping them advocate for themselves; so far, they have shown significant effect. For a moment I would like to examine three current projects as case studies of how the NRRM works, especially regarding the new collective economy and the experiment of the commons, an alternative to economic liberalism. The first is Shi Yan’s Shared Harvest project, located in Mafang village in suburban Beijing. It is a CSA farm with more than 170 acres of land. The local farmers and the consumers from Beijing are the shareholders of the farm. The farmers get funding in advance from the consumers, and then the farmers can farm in the traditional organic way. Risk is distributed between farmers and consumers, and the consumers receive healthy food from the farm in return. The concept of the CSA is not original to China, but Shared Harvest is the most successful CSA project in the country now; it has proved a successful tool for balancing the rural-urban relationship.

The second is the Haotang Project, located in Haotang village in Henan province and led by Li Changping and Sun Jun, the co-founders of CNRPD (China New Rural Planning and Design). CNRPD helped set up a financial co-op in the village, pooling funding from the villagers (they also can join in with their land) and investing it in the village’s tourism business. Profits from the investment will be used to provide care for the elderly, found a kindergarten and school for children, and build a common house for the villagers. CNRPD provides professional planning and design services in an effort to make the village more like a village, not an urban community. It does not rely on funding from the government or capital from outside companies, is self-organized by the villagers with help from CNRPD, and is an innovative approach toward collective economy based on the village itself.

The third is the Bishan Project, located in Bishan village in Anhui province and founded by myself and Zuo Jing. We work primarily on historical preservation, cultural production, and public life in the village. We bought several old, empty houses in the village, restored them, and settled down there to live. In the beginning we launched a two-year research project on local traditional handcrafts, inviting designers and artists to work with local craftsmen to create new products in the old way. In 2011 and 2012, we organized three major festivals in the village, inviting international and domestic artists, designers, architects, musicians, filmmakers, writers and activists to develop activities with the villagers, and published books and magazines based on our research about the village. This year, we transformed a deteriorating clan hall into a bookstore. The villagers own the building collectively; we do not have ownership of the property, and the villagers do not charge rent from us. It has become a successful public space both for villagers and for people from outside.

To put the idea of the commons into practice, whether Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons or Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Commonwealth, we need to go beyond the idea of property ownership inherent in economic liberalism, and find a new way of sharing. 3000 years ago, China developed a land ownership system called jingtianzhi (the “well-field system,” or “nine squares system”): one large square piece of land was divided into nine small plots (like the Chinese character 井, which means “well”), the eight outer ones allocated to people who had to cultivate the central plot as common land. This is similar to the notion of cohousing in some intentional communities in Western countries today. The jingtianzhi was a kind of practical utopia founded by our Chinese ancestors, and has influenced generations of Chinese dreamers, including practitioners in rural areas. The NRRM has done some interesting experiments involving the idea of the commons both in economic and cultural spheres, seeking alternative methods for rural development, improving village life, and making Chinese society more resistant to crisis as a whole.

September 15, 2014
Christiania, Copenhagen


* The text of this article is based on a presentation given at YNKB, Copenhagen, on September 16, 2014.

1. “China to become world’s top farm products importer”, from Reuters:

2. Ou Ning, “What Wukan Means”,

3. To learn more, please see Philip A. Kuhn, “The Rural Reconstruction Movement,” in John K. Fairbank and Albert Feuerwerker, eds., The Cambridge History of China, vol. 13, Republican China 1912-1949, Part 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

4. Y. C. James Yen, a figure in RRM in the Republican era.

5. Programs target migrant workers living in cities.

6. Ou Ning, “Rural Reconstruction in China”,

7. To learn more, please see Alexander F. Day, The Peasant in Postsocialist China: History, Politics, and Capitalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).