Document Type



When the collective declines, who manages the collective-owned land? When the socialist state fails, who possesses the state-owned river? This paper concerns the governance of land and natural resources that are still owned by collectives or the state in rural China. No effective community governance has evolved in rural China to fill the authority vacuum left by the People’s Commune system. As a result, such land and natural resources became real commons. I use the term “transitional commons” to indicate both the crucial influence of transitional political legal environment in their emergence and evolution and the transitional character inherent in their nature. Transitional commons are often in crisis: The tragedy of the commons occurs when the cost of exclusive use is too high. When the benefit of exclusive use exceeds the cost, contesting property claims arise over the common resources. I argue for an integrated approach to govern the transitional commons from the ground. Successful management of the transitional commons requires more than choosing the right property institution. A capable state and a well-functioning community are necessary to make the property institution, whichever it is, work. Rule of law is necessary to define the basic structure of a society and to guarantee the normal operation of the community self-governance. Self-governance can increase social capital for the local community to develop local consensus on property arrangements.

Date of Authorship for this Version

Spring 2012


Comparative and Foreign Law; Environmental Law; Land Use Planning; Law and Economics; Law and Society; Natural Resources Law; Property-Personal and Real