Or at least, the returns from involvement in local politics in China are. From a new working paper by Jian Zhang, John Giles, and Scott Rozelle:
Recruiting and retaining leaders and public servants at the grass-roots level in developing countries creates a potential tension between providing sufficient returns to attract talent and limiting the scope for excessive rent-seeking behavior. In China, researchers have frequently argued that village cadres, who are the lowest level of administrators in rural areas, exploit personal political status for economic gain. Much existing research, however, compares the earnings of cadre and non-cadre households in rural China without controlling for unobserved dimensions of ability that are also correlated with success as entrepreneurs or in non-agricultural activities. The findings of this paper suggest a measurable return to cadre status, but the magnitudes are not large and provide only a modest incentive to participate in village-level government. The paper does not find evidence that households of village cadres earn significant rents from having a family member who is a cadre. Given the increasing returns to non-agricultural employment since China’s economic reforms began, it is not surprising that the returns to working as a village cadre have also increased over time. Returns to cadre-status are derived both from direct compensation and subsidies for cadres and indirectly through returns earned in off-farm employment from businesses and economic activities managed by villages.
For more about local politics in the context of developing countries, I would start with Michael Bratton’s 1980 book The Local Politics of Rural Development and his 1989 article in World Politics, Christian Lund’s 2006 article in Development and Change and his 2010 Local Politics and the Dynamics of Property in Africa.
More recently, Kim Yi Dionne has been doing some work on village headmen in Africa, although I could not readily identify which of her many papers deal with village headmen. Perhaps Kim can give some references in the comments section.
In the meantime, Kim has written about village chiefs on her blog in posts here, and here. In my own (very limited) dealings with village chiefs in Madagascar, I’ve gotten the impression that no survey, field experiment, etc. could take place without the approval of the fokontany chief.