Country Lessons

A Rural Incubator for China’s Political Reform?

People vote in a local election in Wukan, China, March 2012. BOBBY YIP / REUTERS

In the spring of 1989, students from Beijing's elite universities protested in Tiananmen Square to demand democratic reform. The military crackdown and repression that followed were not limited to Beijing, and its victims were not only students. But the Tiananmen movement of 1989 has nevertheless gone down in history as one of the world's great student movements for democracy.

In China and elsewhere, democratic student movements often disappoint. From revolutionary France and postcolonial Africa to Weimar Germany and today’s Iraq, history has shown that stable democracies can be built only on a broad base of politically educated citizens—ordinary people who believe that democratic decision-making and the rotation of leaders into and out of power are both normal and fair.

Democratic norms, of course, must be learned. And although they are often learned first by urban elites, it's no good having democratic leaders without a democratic society. If democracy flowers in urban squares such as Tiananmen, then it must also be rooted in the countryside. Even in rapidly urbanizing China, most people are still no more than one generation removed from the land—and so it is in China’s villages, through local elections and popular protests, that potentially transformative democratic habits might be forming.


Western political philosophers have romanticized the virtues of the countryside for millennia. In the Politics, Aristotle claimed that farmers make the best raw material for participation in representative democracies because they are too busy working to meddle in government. Romans of the early Republic revered the citizen-farmer Cincinnatus. And Thomas Jefferson believed so strongly in the political class of the small farmer that the very term "Jeffersonian democracy" has come to mean a republican government founded on the universal (white, male) suffrage of a largely agricultural population.

China's new urbanites have enduring ties to the land.

In India, Mahatma Gandhi looked to traditional village councils as the training grounds for democratic life. India's post-independence rulers discarded Gandhi's vision in favor of the centralization of power

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