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Wang, R., K. Eisenack, and R. Tan. 2019. Sustainable rural renewal in China: archetypical patterns. Ecology and Society 24(3):32.
Research, part of a special feature on Archetype Analysis in Sustainability Research

Sustainable rural renewal in China: archetypical patterns

1School of Public Affairs, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, China, 2Resource Economics Group, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany, 3School of Public Affairs, Xiamen University, Xiamen, China


Against the backdrop of rural deprivation during the rapid urbanization of China since the end of the previous century, rural renewal has been regarded as a vital strategy for facilitating rural sustainability. Rural renewal in contemporary China involves activities that replan, consolidate, and redevelop the extant and idle rural construction land and then convert such land for alternative uses, including new rural settlement construction and rural industry development. However, given the regionally decentralized authoritarian (RDA) regime of China, i.e., a combination of political centralization and economic regional decentralization, the governance of rural renewal and its performance show great diversity. The objective of this study was to explore and elucidate the underlying patterns of sustainable rural renewal. Thus, from the social-ecological systems (SES) perspective, an archetype analysis was conducted based on primary data from 27 cases from the eastern, central, and western parts of China. In total, eight archetypical patterns were extracted, and the following three overarching implications were observed: (1) a governance system aligning with the attributes of rural land resources, the characteristics of actors, and the properties of interactions is essential for sustainable rural renewal; (2) decentralized or self-organized governance emerges to facilitate sustainable rural renewal; and (3) a long-term perspective of designing and enforcing rural renewal and distinctive land resource endowment contribute to rural sustainability. These findings may benefit China and other regions pursuing rural sustainability.
Key words: archetypes; China; rural renewal; social-ecological systems; sustainability


For decades, rural land use in China has been characterized as extensive and inefficient (Liu et al. 2014, Long 2014). Moreover, the rural living environment in China is poorly planned and of a low quality (Fang et al. 2007). In addition, the social wealth gap between rural and urban sectors is relatively large. In 2017, the income gap between urban and rural areas had reached 2.71:1 (NBSC 2018). The issues mentioned above pose severe challenges to rural sustainable development (Liu et al. 2010, König et al. 2014). Gradually, rural renewal has become a vital strategy in China in the pursuit of rural sustainability (Wang and Tan 2018). In 2005, the Chinese government advanced a proposal for rural renewal (16th CCCPC 2005). After more than a decade of practice, a “rural vitalization” strategy was proposed, depicting a more detailed blueprint for rural renewal in China, namely, the construction of a new countryside with thriving businesses, pleasant living environments, social etiquette and civility, effective governance and prosperity (19th CCCPC 2017). In fact, rural renewal also occurs worldwide, such as the Rural Development Policy (2014-2020) proposed by the European Union (EU 2014). However, this study focuses on land-related rural renewal in contemporary China. This type of rural renewal involves activities that replan, consolidate, and redevelop the extant and idle rural construction land and then convert such land for alternative uses, including new rural settlement construction and rural industry development.

In China, the governance system is characterized by a combination of political centralization and economic regional decentralization, namely, a regionally decentralized authoritarian (RDA) regime (Xu 2011). Under the RDA regime, local government officials are motivated to follow the central government’s policies by making full use of the socioeconomic autonomy in their jurisdictions, while the central government controls the appointment and promotion of local government officials (Li 2018, Yang and Yan 2018). Because rural renewal is considered a national policy, local governments are motivated to directly lead, to encourage rural households to self-organize and to promote enterprises to participate in the projects. Consequently, different types of rural renewal exist in China. And more importantly, rural renewal performance exhibits even greater diversity. For instance, a successful type of rural renewal in one area may fail in other areas. Even in villages with similar conditions, the same renewal path can attain notable achievements in one village but perform poorly in other villages (Tang et al. 2014, 2016). Therefore, what contributes to sustainable rural renewal?

Numerous studies have investigated this question. The current literature on rural renewal in China not only reveals microlevel factors that might affect the performance of rural renewal, such as the endowments of rural households and villages, government functions, and the decision-making process, but also refers to macro-level factors, including fundamental institutions and the distinctive political, economic, social, and cultural contexts of China (Long et al. 2012, Li et al. 2014, Tang et al. 2015, Fang et al. 2016, Guo et al. 2017). From an international perspective, Osborne et al. (2004) note several challenges particular to rural renewal, including the spatial features of rural areas, the paucity of human capital in rural communities and a much lower resource level than that in urban communities. Furthermore, Osborne et al. (2006) emphasize the role of local voluntary and community sector infrastructure bodies in promoting and supporting rural renewal in the UK. Macken-Walsh and Curtin (2013) argue that the recent period of transition, historical experiences of socialism, and local variations determine the performance of rural renewal in postsocialist Lithuania. Rural renewal can be considered collective action. Drawn from a wide range of empirical studies investigating worldwide common pool resources (CPR) governance, such as forestry, pastures, fisheries, and irrigation systems, several critical determinants, i.e., design principles, of long-surviving collective action were delineated and illustrated (Ostrom 1990, 2005, 2009). From an Ostromian perspective, studies have explored the key to fostering and sustaining collective action targeting at rural development. Based on the role of common property organizations in rural development of a mountain area in Italy, Bassi and Carestiato (2016) suggest that local actors should self-organize and self-develop rules regarding the use of local resources and act collectively in the management of their own territory in harmony with local identity, culture, and natural resources. Jelsma et al. (2017) find that with strong collective institutions that involve shared income, regular meetings among members, and multiple relations among farmers, oil palm farmers can participate in supply chains on advantageous conditions and substantially increase productivity, thereby contributing to rural development of West Sumatra, Indonesia. Additionally, social capital and rural entrepreneurs are essential for collective action in sustainable rural tourism (Schmidt et al. 2016, Hwang and Stewart 2017).

However, to the best of our knowledge, these findings mainly stem from small-scale case studies, normally one to three cases; furthermore, the existing literature rarely explicitly reveals how the interplay or combination of various factors contributes to the performance differences in China’s rural renewal. Hence, this study aims to fill this research gap. Particularly, the research question of this study is as follows: Which patterns lead to the emergence of sustainable rural renewal? In other words, how does the interplay or combination of diverse factors lead to sustainable rural renewal in China? To this end, based on primary data from 27 cases, we intend to conduct an archetype analysis (Oberlack and Eisenack 2018, Oberlack et al. 2019). These archetypes can serve as guidelines for improving sustainable rural renewal governance in China.


Understanding sustainable rural renewal

Sustainable rural renewal should achieve several sustainable development goals (SDGs) that are overarching for rural sustainability in contemporary China (Chen 2010, 2013, UN 2015). Against the backdrop of rural deprivation during the rapid urbanization of China since the end of the previous century, rural renewal refers to reversing the trend of rural degrowth and bridging the rural-urban development gap (Wang and Tan 2018). Basically, a better living environment should be provided in rural areas to improve sanitation and human well-being (Huang et al. 2011, Griggs et al. 2013, Xu et al. 2014). Thus, rural renewal is expected to establish modernized rural settlements that are compatible with the rural landscape and living convention. Further, rural incomes should be significantly increased, and rural vitality should be enhanced to reduce rural poverty and diminish the inequalities between rural and urban areas (Huang et al. 2011, Griggs et al. 2013, Xu et al. 2014). Therefore, rural renewal is expected to create more decent jobs and accelerate economic growth by consolidating and redeveloping the extant and idle rural construction land for secondary and tertiary industrial uses; moreover, rural renewal is expected to strengthen the agricultural sector by directly restoring and consolidating the idle rural construction land for modern agricultural use while reinforcing agricultural investment by using the revenue from rural construction land redevelopment for industrial use. Hence, in this study, we selected rural living environments, rural income, and rural vitality to serve as indicators of the performance of rural renewal, and this strategy is also consistent with the goals of the recently proposed national strategy for “rural vitalization” (19th CCCPC 2017). Although the ecological indicator is vital for sustainability, the decision makers and stakeholders in contemporary China focus more on narrowing the rural-urban development gap and fulfilling rural sustainability in the socioeconomic aspect. The ecological implications of rural renewal occur gradually and are difficult to identify within the scope of this paper. Hence, we define the concept of sustainable rural renewal from a socioeconomic perspective.

Rural renewal is considered a dynamic process in which actors, e.g., rural households, government, enterprise, etc. (A-variable), under certain governance, e.g., government-led, self-organized, enterprise-participated, etc., system (GS-variable) redevelop rural construction land resources (R-variable) for new rural settlement construction and rural industry development through certain interactions, i.e., scheme design, implementation, and revenue appropriation (I-variable), which leads to certain outcomes, i.e., rural living environment, rural income, and rural vitality (O-variable). Therefore, the SES framework developed by Ostrom (2009) was employed as the analytical framework for this study (Fig. 1). Each component of the framework was decomposed for the further study. In particular, the governance system component was divided from the perspectives of the network structures among actors as well as the operational and collective choice rules regulating actions, information, payoffs, etc. (Ostrom 2010). The division of the interaction component was consistent with the major and shared stages of rural renewal in contemporary China, i.e., scheme design, implementation, and revenue appropriation. Distinguishing the properties of each stage is useful for characterizing the interactions (Wang and Tan 2018). Thereby, each interaction variable was further decomposed in the specific analysis process, such as complexity, uncertainty, asset, and site specificity and the time horizon (Hagedorn 2008, Ostrom 2010). The extent of each interaction property was also categorized as being high or low level and long or short term. The outcome component was decomposed in accordance with the aforementioned goals of rural sustainability.

A first-hand case-based archetype analysis


Rural renewal can be conceived as a comprehensive interplay of SES. Thus, we build upon the SES framework but further distinguish diagnostic attributes, design attributes, and outcome attributes. Diagnostic attributes are considered contextual, i.e., various rural construction land resource endowments, actor characteristics, and interaction properties. Design attributes are features that can in principle be changed by the actors under consideration, i.e., a set of governance systems. Under specific contexts and designs, different types of (non)sustainable rural renewal can be represented by outcome attributes, e.g., adequately improved rural living environment, significantly increased rural income and enhanced rural vitality. A major goal of studies investigating sustainable rural renewal in China is to explicitly portray this interplay among the attributes and extract the underlying patterns based on substantial cases. Fortunately, a series of studies exploring other resources and environmental topics have already addressed a similar concern by using an archetype analysis (Oberlack and Eisenack 2014, Oberlack et al. 2016, Oberlack and Eisenack 2018).

Archetypes are recurrent patterns of basic interplay in SES (Oberlack et al. 2019), and they function as building blocks of social-ecological interplay that recur in multiple cases. Put differently, not every case requires to be completely interpreted by a single archetype. One archetype can only partially cover a number of cases, and one case might be described by several archetypes (Eisenack et al. 2006). To perform such an analysis, the quality and design criteria of Eisenack et al. (2019) are used to orient this study. More quantitatively, archetypes can be defined from a set-theoretic perspective (Oberlack and Eisenack 2018). In this study, an archetype is defined as a recurrent, specific relation between diagnostic and design attributes and outcomes, taking the following form: for all cases c of a subset (Ci⊆C): if a set of diagnostic and design attributes (Di⊆D) holds for all cases c, then the outcomes (Oi⊆O) are expected to hold for all cases c.

Specifically, the index i indicates that multiple archetypes can hold in one case. The term “recurrent” requires an archetype to be observed in at least two cases. In other words, an archetype i covers a case c if c∈Ci and the diagnostic and design attributes Di and the outcome attributes Oi hold for the case c (Oberlack and Eisenack 2018).

Overall, archetype analysis is a reasonable approach to analyze rural renewal. It is expected that one archetype can be used to depict several rural renewal cases and that one rural renewal case probably encompasses several archetypes. However, different from the extant literature (Oberlack et al. 2016, Oberlack 2017, Oberlack and Eisenack 2018), the archetype analysis in this study is performed on primary data instead of a meta-study. Therefore, a relatively detailed introduction to case collection, coding and data analysis is required to clarify the procedure of the archetype analysis of first-hand cases.

Case collection and coding

Cases of rural renewal were collected by the author and research partners through a joint research project between Zhejiang University and the China Institute of Land Survey and Planning. The study areas were selected according to the criteria of typicality and diversity (Gerring 2007). Thus, in light of climate features, land scarcity, socioeconomic development levels, and population, the fieldwork was conducted successively in eastern, i.e., Zhejiang Province, Jiangsu Province, Fujian Province, and Shanghai City; central, i.e., Jiangxi Province and Hubei Province; and western, Sichuan Province and Guizhou Province, China from 2011 to 2016. Ultimately, 27 rural renewal cases were collected, with nine cases from each region.

For the fieldwork in each region, general information about rural renewal in the region, such as formal policies and procedures, was initially obtained from county-level and township-level officials in charge of rural land affairs. Subsequently, semistructured interviews were conducted at the village level with stakeholders participating in or affected by rural renewal, such as government officials, village cadres, village elites, villagers, and entrepreneurs. To select the interviewees, a stakeholder-based approach was adopted (Vatn 2005). During the interviews, we mainly focused on information about the natural and socioeconomic conditions of the study areas, the processes and outcomes of rural renewal projects, and the comments provided by the interviewees. All the relevant information was carefully recorded in written form and in a consistent narrative structure (Tan and Heerink 2017, Wang and Tan 2018).

A code book was developed based on the SES framework of rural renewal (Fig. 1). Initially, the first nine cases were coded to check the feasibility and suitability of the code book. Then, the redundant codes were removed, and equivocal codes were clarified. Finally, the 27 cases were coded according to the modified code book (Table A1.1 in Appendix 1) and our own knowledge of each case gained from our fieldwork by using the MAXQDA software.

Data analysis

A two-step approach was used to extract the archetypes from the 27 coded cases. First, all the cases were categorized into three groups according to the three extant outcomes (Table 1) to ensure that the performance differences among the groups were significant. In addition, the cases in the third group were further decomposed into three subgroups according to the scale of rural renewal (Table 1) because the extant research suggests that the amount of rural construction land and the number of rural households involved exert profound effects on sustainable rural renewal (Wang and Tan 2018).

Second, a formal concept analysis (FCA) was performed with Concept Explorer software to obtain the equivalence classes of the cases within (sub)groups. Each concept lattice generated by FCA determines all equivalence classes of the cases and characterizes them by configurations of attributes with maximal size (Ganter and Wille 1999, Stumme 2002, Kaytoue et al. 2011). A class qualifies as an archetype in this study if it also fulfills the following criteria (cf. Oberlack et al. 2016, Oberlack and Eisenack 2018; see Appendix 1 for a specific example):

(1) An archetype must consist of at least one diagnostic attribute, i.e., R-variable, A-variable and I-variable, at least one design attribute, i.e., GS-variable, and at least one outcome, i.e., O-variable, and needs to reappear in at least two cases, ensuring that archetypes originate from various cases and sources.

(2) An archetype must be interpreted by a coherent theory. Archetypes are characterized by a configuration of diagnostic, design, and outcome attributes. In addition, an archetype requires a rationale for the configuration to occur (Eisenack et al. 2019). Thus, a class qualifies as an archetype if theory can sufficiently explain the outcomes.

The following criteria aim at parsimony, and the objective is to characterize the diversity of cases without an excessive number of archetypes. Similar criteria are followed by Gotgelf, Roggero, and Eisenack, unpublished manuscript.

(3) Archetypes are considered building-blocks, suggesting that the causality displayed in an archetype should be unique and cannot be jointly explained by other archetypes. Therefore, within all the classes that meet the above two criteria, a class qualifies as an archetype if it cannot be composed of any other classes.

(4) The generality and the particularity of the archetype analysis need to be addressed, suggesting that a subarchetype is expected to provide more detailed data but not too specific or entirely repetitive information about the identified archetypes. Therefore, within all the classes that meet the criteria 1 and 2, a class qualifies as a subarchetype if it can only be composed of an identified archetype with certain additional attributes. However, the class that can be fully composed of two or more identified archetypes and subarchetypes as well as the class that can be composed of one or more identified subarchetypes with additional attributes, namely, the subarchetypes of subarchetypes, should all be excluded. Ultimately, eight archetypes covering all the cases were identified, and one to three archetypes held in each case (Appendix 2).


The text below illustrates the eight identified archetypes of unsustainable, semisustainable, and sustainable rural renewal in detail as well as highlights the features of and the coherence and differences among the archetypes to demonstrate the patterns of how sustainable rural renewal emerges and why renewal efforts often fail in achieving rural sustainability. Additionally, we selected a representative case for each archetype to provide more detailed and vivid information about the practices and outcomes of rural renewal in China (Appendix 3).

Unsustainable rural renewal

Rural renewal in all cases improved the rural living environment. However, the rural renewal in some cases (5 of 27 cases) failed to fit the context-specific conditions and induced side effects on rural sustainable development. The interviewees, particularly rural households, complained that the traditional rural landscape had faded and that the new residential areas were situated far from their workplaces, e.g., farmland and ponds, etc. Archetype 1 illustrates this pattern of unsustainable rural renewal (Table 2).

Archetype 1 is characterized by a government-led mode and a short-time perspective of rural renewal. Based on a top-down relation (subarchetype 1.1), the government manipulates almost all the processes of rural renewal. Admittedly, the government-led mode aligns with the governance demands of high specificity and internal heterogeneity (subarchetypes 1.1 and 1.2). Both the asset specificity and site specificity resulting from the large scale of rural renewal require the proper handling of the potential hazards to implementation, including high opportunity costs; the “lock-in” effect, in which the upfront investment of land assembly is meaningless without accessing all the construction land in the project area; and opportunistic behaviors of rural households, such as hold-ups (Williamson 1991, Alexander 2001). Fortunately, the government in China can afford to make an enormous investment because of its financial capacity, which is generally stronger than that of other actors; furthermore, the government can cope with the “lock-in” effect and prevent hold-ups and other opportunistic behaviors through coercive public power. Moreover, the government uses its public power to force stakeholders with internal heterogeneity to compromise. As a result, new rural settlements were built up in these cases. However, under the government-led mode, the absence of restrictions on coercive public power inevitably hampered individuals’ interests and rights, likely inducing severe social problems. For example, social tensions occasionally occurred between the rural households reluctant to participate in rural renewal and the local government, and certain rural households living in single houses with courtyards for a long time were not accustomed to living in multistory apartment buildings. Even worse, rural households who lost land and failed to find an alternative space for livestock breeding were confronted with a greater challenge to their livelihood.

As shown in archetype 1, the government-led mode faces the uncertainty of the scheme design because decision makers normally lack local knowledge. Moreover, the government-led mode is incompatible with high complexity (subarchetype 1.2), in that stakeholder participation, especially in decision making and revenue appropriation and distribution, is excluded under the government-led mode; thus, multiple interests cannot be sufficiently considered and well coordinated. Consequently, the improved rural living environment could not easily fit the local conditions, resulting in complaints from rural households. In addition, archetype 1 further suggests that based on the government-dominated appropriation mechanism, the government can obtain major revenue from rural renewal, but the gains of rural areas are relatively limited, which is also evident in the revenue distribution records in specific cases. Therefore, government-led rural renewal fails to increase rural incomes.

Notably, archetype 1 shows that a short-term time horizon of revenue appropriation and distribution as well as direct economic incentives without any long-term considerations (subarchetype 1.3) impede rural vitality enhancement. For example, rural households obtained only a one-time monetary compensation for moving out of their old houses. In addition, most of the incremental revenue from rural construction land consolidation and redevelopment was spent on constructing rural residences, and little was used for rural industry development.

Semisustainable rural renewal

Some rural renewal projects (6 of 27 cases) only adequately improved the rural living environment, that is, the built-up new rural residences fit the context-specific conditions, and most rural households were satisfied with the new living environment. An adequately improved rural living environment achieves the basic goal of rural sustainability. Two archetypes were identified in this category (Table 3).

Archetype 2 highlights that the mechanisms of transparent information and inclusive decision making are greatly important to adequate improvement of the rural living environment. Transparent information related to rural renewal creates favorable conditions for inclusive decision making. The mechanisms in favor of stakeholder participation can exploit dispersed local knowledge (Oates 1999) and then reduce the uncertainty but increase the rationality of the scheme design (subarchetype 2.1). Therefore, in these cases, townhouses rather than the multistory apartment buildings were built, and the new settlements were in proximity to farmers’ workplaces. Moreover, archetype 2 suggests that the small scale of rural renewal could be a double-edged sword for sustainable rural renewal. On the one hand, the small scale enables rural sectors to fully cover the cost of rural renewal (subarchetype 2.2). Consequently, a third party is unable to intervene in rural renewal by providing funds. Furthermore, a small scale is conducive to designing an appropriate scheme and implementing the scheme smoothly, reducing the complexity of the scheme design and revenue appropriation and distribution as well as the site specificity of implementation (subarchetype 2.3). On the other hand, during the fieldwork, we also found that small-scale rural land consolidation and redevelopment normally could not generate sufficient space and revenue for rural industry development. Consequently, the goals of increasing rural incomes and enhancing rural vitality could rarely be fulfilled because of the small scale of rural renewal.

Archetype 3 illustrates that even if the government intervenes in rural renewal, cooperative governance, particularly a horizontal relation between the government and village actors, is beneficial to adequate improvement of the rural living environment. The government and village actors are formally independent of each other, suggesting that village actors are not subordinated to the government and the government is not an exclusive decision maker. Thus, the horizontal relation between the government and village actors provides an institutional basis for stakeholder participation and decentralization (subarchetype 3.1). Consequently, the rural sector is no longer forced to accept decisions from a single central authority, e.g., the government, that are probably inappropriate for local situations. Thus, the government-village cooperative mode can reduce the uncertainty of the scheme design and align with high complexity, and the necessary government intervention can handle the hazards of high site specificity, such as halting hold-ups by coercive public power (subarchetype 3.2). In addition, the side effects of coercive public power on individuals can be mitigated or even avoided because of the aforementioned cooperative governance between the government and village due to the horizontal relation and decentralization. Notably, similar to archetype 1, subarchetype 3.1 underscores that certain instances of rural renewal are unable to effectively upgrade rural vitality because of direct economic incentives and the short-term time horizon of revenue disposition.

Sustainable rural renewal

Sustainable rural renewal emerged in certain areas (16 of 27 cases), simultaneously improving the rural living environment, increasing rural incomes, and enhancing rural vitality. Five archetypes describe its underlying logic (Table 4).

These archetypes share two major features. First, as shown in all the five archetypes, the revenue from rural renewal is appropriated and distributed based on a long-term time horizon in the pursuit of sustainability. For instance, the revenue was used to establish and strengthen agricultural cooperatives or collective-owned enterprises, and rural households could continuously obtain dividends in return. Additionally, long-term incentives, including job opportunities, social security, and periodic revenue dividends, were employed to reduce livelihood hazards after renewal and to diversify rural income sources. Second, subarchetypes 5.2, 6.1, 7.1, 8.1, and 8.2 jointly emphasize that a locational advantage or distinctive rural construction land quality, e.g., a unique landscape, could be an endowment for rural sustainability, especially for small-scale rural renewal (compared with archetype 2). In practice, the land revenue from the locational advantage directly increased rural incomes; furthermore, small-scale rural renewal with locational advantages was more appealing to investors than ordinary small-scale rural renewal. Additionally, hotels and other leisure facilities compatible with the local landscape were constructed to properly utilize tourism resources in specific cases (Fig. A3.4 in Appendix 3). Because of the operation of tourism facilities, off-farm jobs were created, and rural tourism was promoted, which in turn generated sustainable revenue for the rural areas and enhanced rural vitality.

The first three archetypes elaborate the determinants of sustainable rural renewal, given that the project covered a large amount of rural construction land and a large number of rural households. More specifically, archetype 4 highlights that government participation rather than complete control is sufficient to solve the financing issues resulting from high asset specificity and restrain the opportunistic behaviors caused by high site specificity in large-scale rural renewal. The mechanisms supporting stakeholder participation, i.e., transparent information and inclusive decision making, fit the high complexity (subarchetype 4.1); furthermore, in addition to adequately improving the rural living environment (see archetypes 2 and 3), these mechanisms are indispensable for rural wealth and rural vitality. In contrast to the government-led mode, the socioeconomic development claims of the rural sector are more likely to be considered and eventually fulfilled because rural households or their representatives are granted the right to express their interests during a more decentralized decision-making process. Apparently, the government-participated mode shows a similar competence but avoids the negative effects of the government-led mode on rural sustainability (compared with archetype 1).

Archetype 5 indicates that self-organization is able to facilitate rural sustainability in the context of large scale rural renewal. Generally speaking, self-organization aligns with the high complexity and specificity and can reduce the uncertainty induced by the large scale of rural renewal; furthermore, self-organization enables rural households to make their own decisions, appropriate and distribute revenue rationally, and shift to a suitable development path. Concretely, the self-organized mode shares several key components with the governance modes in archetype 4, which fits the high complexity of rural renewal. Moreover, self-organized rural renewal has its own features. First, rural renewal is initiated, led, and organized by village leaders/elites based on the collective action of rural households. Second, although the government may give advice regarding rural renewal in certain cases, the decisions are still made by local decision makers, i.e., village leaders/elites and rural households based on the majority or unanimity principle, thereby further reducing the uncertainty of rural renewal. Third, self-organization restrains opportunistic behaviors and other hazards triggered by high specificity through a well-functioning coordination mechanism. For instance, the renewal scheme was collectively discussed and approved through a village council or a village representative assembly. The members of the village council or the village representatives were the coordinators of project implementation and devoted to solving disputes among rural households (Jing and Zhang 2017). Fourth, the emergence of self-organized rural renewal relies heavily on sufficient social capital in the rural community (subarchetype 5.1). Sufficient social capital along with the other two conditions presented in archetype 8 can reduce the cost of collective action.

Archetype 6 illustrates the competence of the enterprise-participation mode in rural sustainability. Relying on a governance system similar to that of the former two archetypes, the enterprise-participation mode aligns with the governance demands of large-scale rural renewal. Particularly, regarding the high asset and site specificity, enterprises cooperate with rural households to cover the cost of rural renewal, and combine direct incentives with long-term incentives to handle hold-ups and promote the project implementation (subarchetype 6.2). In practice, we found that a win-win situation emerged. Enterprises gained long-term revenue from investment in a new type of industry, e.g., rural tourism, and the rural sector obtained off-farm job opportunities and annual dividends.

The final two archetypes reveal the determinants of sustainable rural renewal when the amount of rural construction land is small and/or the number of rural households involved is small. Concretely, archetype 7 and subarchetype 7.2 show that a small size of rural construction land possessed by many rural households aggravates asset and site specificity, in that every single actor tends to be a free rider in covering the cost and it is challenging to assemble the fragmented land property rights. Government participation functioning as an external coercive power along with an internal coordination mechanism among rural households, such as a village council or a village representative assembly, can mitigate the above governance hazards of sustainable rural renewal. In addition, similar to the situations in archetypes 3 and 4, the coercive power of the government is restrained under a decentralized governance system, leading the government to act as a participator rather than a dominator; thus, individuals’ interests and rights can be respected and protected. Archetype 8 further highlights the competence of self-organized rural renewal in rural sustainable development. Moreover, subarchetypes 8.1 and 8.2 display two more preconditions for self-organization, namely, local leadership/entrepreneurship and internal homogeneity.


Given the goals of rural sustainability, this study revealed the underlying patterns of sustainable rural renewal in China by using an archetype approach based on primary data from 27 cases from the eastern, central, and western regions of China. In total, eight archetypes were identified, of which one concerns unsustainable rural renewal, two concern semisustainable rural renewal, and five concern sustainable rural renewal (Tables 2–4 and Table A1.2). The overarching implications drawn from these eight archetypes are presented below.

First, in the pursuit of sustainable rural renewal, the governance system should be aligned with the attributes of rural land resources, the characteristics of actors, and the properties of interactions. An appropriately devised governance system can meet the governance demands of the context-specific conditions of SES. By contrast, a misalliance of the above components could induce unsustainable rural renewal. In addition, various hybrid governance systems can fit the large scale of rural renewal and its high specificity, and the government-led mode is not the only possible solution. These findings support the existing arguments regarding the governance fit and performance difference in rural renewal (Wang and Tan 2018).

Second, a governance system with decentralized features, involving government, village actors, and enterprises, contributes to sustainable rural renewal. A horizontal network structure and sufficient stakeholder participation can adequately improve the rural living environment. A decentralized governance system is also beneficial for increasing rural incomes and enhancing rural vitality. Furthermore, self-organized rural renewal can facilitate rural sustainability, and its emergence depends heavily on the favorable characteristics of actors (Ostrom 2009), including internal homogeneity, local leadership/entrepreneurship, and sufficient social capital. The above findings corroborate the determinants of sustainable rural collective action identified in the literature (e.g., Ostrom 2009, Bassi and Carestiato 2016, Schmidt et al. 2016), demonstrate the potentials of polycentric governance in rural development, and, to some extent, justify the views of fiscal federalism and the adaptability of polycentric governance in the politically centralized institutional context of China (Ostrom et al. 1993, Oates 1999, Ostrom 2010).

Third, a long-term perspective of rural renewal, including long-term incentives and a long-term time horizon of revenue disposition, contributes to rural sustainability. In contrast, rural renewal with a short-term time horizon usually fails to markedly increase rural incomes and enhance rural vitality. Additionally, the attributes of rural construction land resources affect the sustainability of rural renewal. A distinctive land resource endowment, i.e., locational advantages and a unique landscape, is vital for sustainable rural renewal, particularly for small-scale rural renewal.

Admittedly, these archetypes were obtained from 27 cases and may not precisely depict the whole picture of sustainable rural renewal. Thus, the inclusion of more cases in subsequent research is expected to confirm the present conclusions and broaden our theoretical and practical understanding. However, this research makes several contributions. First, this study adapted and specified the SES framework to analyze rural renewal in China. Second, this study provided a somewhat detailed procedure to conduct an archetype analysis of first-hand cases. Third, this study explicitly described the archetypical patterns of sustainable rural renewal, which reinforces the theoretical findings concerning rural collective actions, fiscal federalism, and polycentric governance with the empirical evidence from China, a typical RDA regime. Fourth, the implications of the archetypical patterns may benefit China and other regions pursuing rural sustainability.


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This research has received financial support from the Natural Science Foundation of China through project No. 71573231, the Social Science Foundation of China through project No. 16ZDA020, No. 14AZD028, No. 13AZD012, and No. 14ZDA039, the China Scholarship Council through project No. 201706320201, and Zhejiang University Academic Award for Outstanding Doctoral Candidates through project No. 2018011. The authors would like to thank the funding organizations for the grants. We also want to thank our partners from Zhejiang University and the China Institute of Land Survey and Planning for their excellent jobs in the fieldwork and for allowing us to use all the materials from the joint project.


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Address of Correspondent:
Rong Tan
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