‘Enemies of the State’ or ‘Friends of the Harmonious Society’? Religious Groups, Varieties of Social Capital, and Collective Contention in Contemporary Rural China


Yu Tao

PhD defended at: 

University of Oxford



This thesis is a study of the relationship between religious groups and collective contention in contemporary rural China. It is framed by two broad lines of inquiry. The first is empirical: which religious groups are more willing and able to mediate conflicts, and therefore better at preventing contained contention from escalating into transgressive protests? The second is theoretical and aims to provide a more thorough understanding of the three puzzles at the centre of some of the ongoing debates in political sociology: the roles of religious groups in collective contention, the relationship between contained and transgressive contention, and the impact that social capital has on contentious politics.

Drawing upon rich original empirical data, this thesis employs a mixed-methods approach. The statistical analysis based on national survey data first demonstrates that, contrary to the predictions of most existing theories, no obvious direct correlation exists between religious groups and collective contention in contemporary rural China. This contrast of findings, as then revealed by the comparative case studies based on my intensive fieldwork, is due to the fact that religious groups with different varieties of social capital tend to play different roles in contentious politics. In order to survive through hostile circumstances, religious groups in secular authoritarian countries such as contemporary China normally have strong bonding social capital – social ties between members of a network who are similar in a socio-demographic sense. Bonding social capital allows religious groups to mobilise their members to act together to achieve common goals, but such features can also make secular authoritarian rulers regard religious groups as threats to their regimes and hence limit the roles of these groups in society. Religious groups that play active roles in social cohesion and reconciliation under harsh circumstances often possess two other varieties of social capital. First, ‘bridging social capital’ between religious groups and secular social organisations allows the former to push its agenda through the latter. In so doing religious groups become less politically sensitive and more influential, and are thus more likely to proactively engage in local public affairs, including conflicts that could develop into collective contention. Second, ‘linking social capital’ connects religious groups with local state agencies. When combined with bridging social capital, it enables religious groups to serve as credible negotiation channels between the state and discontented citizens, allowing grievances and claims to be expressed through contained means, preventing trivial conflicts from escalating into collective contention. This ‘varieties of social capital’ framework that I have developed is also confirmed by statistical tests against the national survey data.

According to the findings in this thesis, although contained and transgressive contention may seem quite different, they are in fact not two separate categories of collective action but rather can transform into one another. Moreover, there is no absolute answer to whether religious groups increase or decrease collective contention, because religious groups that possess different varieties of social capital tend to play different roles in collective contention. Furthermore, social capital simply facilitates communication and coordination, and its actual impact on collective contention depends on who uses it and how they choose to do so.