Rural communities are taking active roles in conservation. However, the basic modes and content of community participatory approach are seldom summarised or reflected on in China, leaving the use of terms confused and their links to practice disconnected. By reviewing the literature, we traced back to the protected area-community relations from the perspective of features of rural communities, namely knowledge accumulation, social bond, collective actions, and risk-aversion, and reflected on changing roles of community conservation through recognition of these features. Combining case studies and our own research experience, we focused on the de facto practices behind the somewhat casual use of several terms and re-classified community participation in conservation to three modes of community participatory management, community co-management, and community dominant management, along a continuum in which, from low to high level, conservation is more a means rather than an end for the community to be empowered for their own resource management. We argued that the success of community participation must ensure stable and flexible land tenure so that the right to benefit can be guaranteed, and the collective action in managing resources can be achieved by empowerment. In practice, further institutional changes of improvement in the legislation and optimisation in benefit sharing and compensation are needed to promote community participation in a broader social participation context.
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