Ralph Thaxton’s generous and perceptive review raises four questions, which touch on three issues. The first issue has to do with the empirical question about state–society relations in the Maoist era. Were Mao’s cadres “poor peasants” or “brutes,” people from the ranks of “drifters, rogues, and ruffians”? Did Mao’s cadres encourage petitions or suppress them? It is undeniable that many of the poor peasant activists who were recruited to become grassroots cadres in the villages were brutes. Being poor peasants in general or being brutes in particular both indicate that the grassroots cadres originated in the villages and lacked common networks with their superiors in the townships and counties, as suggested by my book. As for the treatment of petitioners, there were multiple waves of political turbulence during the Maoist era, during which petitioners and rural protests were encouraged, mobilized, repressed, or ignored at times. It was not my intention to simplify state–society relations in the Maoist era. Although I did acknowledge the systematic retribution by local cadres against protestors, the dynamics of contentious politics during the Maoist era should be a book-length project, one that many scholars, including Ralph Thaxton, have examined carefully.
The second issue has to do with an interpretation of “significance.” Village officials in the late 2000s only led 4% of collective petitions. Is this significant enough? I think the answer is yes for the following reasons. The existing scholarship has discussed at length the other 96% of rural protests. My book points out an alternative type of village activists—village officials—who could have a profound impact on regime survival because they were system insiders. In addition, increasingly large numbers of village officials, in both developed and impoverished areas, have become disgruntled and motivated to undermine the work of their superiors. Furthermore, given the clandestine nature of their actions, we should also expect that a much higher percentage of petitions are actually being led or encouraged by village officials in reality.
The third issue concerns the overall development of Chinese politics. Ralph Thaxton and I agree about the importance of path dependence for a proper understanding of China, but hold differing perspectives on path dependence itself. Thaxton notes similar behavioral patterns over time, such as pandemic cadre corruption, lying, coercion, and the continuous struggle of villagers, as shown in his book. I focused instead on the mechanics that enabled the working of the state machine, both during the Maoist era and the reform period. I argue that the cohesion among officials across multiple levels of local governments was the institutional path that made possible both state-led growth and repression. However, broad socioeconomic and political changes altered incentives underlying the cohesion, which in turn, seeded off-path possibilities.