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Dealing with Local Officials in a Changing China, Part 3

An Update

From the series Dealing with Local Officials in a Changing China

Few aspects of living and working in China today are more important or more challenging than securing the good will and assistance of local Chinese officials. While a host of factors both internal and external to China are adding unwelcome strain to these vital relationships, the basic principles for understanding Chinese officials remain the same.

The following article was written by a contributor back in 2007 for China2020, an early publication from ChinaSource. It is reproduced here in three parts, each section containing comments in italics from Swells in the Middle Kingdom to bring the original author’s observations into the present. We trust that this brief journey to the past will give us hope for the future (we’ve been here before) as well as new tools for serving faithfully in the present.

Part one addresses the macro environment’s effect on official decision making. Part two looks at some of the factors that influence the actions of individual officials. Part three provides some practical suggestions for managing official relationships.

Dealing with Local Officials in a Changing China, Part 3

China 2020, 44 (January 2007)

Practical Suggestions

Despite the regulatory uncertainty many organizations are now facing, there are a number of unchanging basic principles that can increase the yield of any government relations program.


Meeting someone at a banquet and exchanging business cards does not constitute a relationship; rather, this creates an opportunity for building a relationship. Chinese officials are actually far savvier at finding concealed motives in personal relationships than most Western expatriates. If Westerners can tell the difference between a true friend and someone who is trying to sell them something, how much more so are Chinese officials able to see through our utilitarian approach to networking? Chinese value friendship. In our official interactions, do we value friendship?

If we do, then we will follow up initial introductions with a sincere, heartfelt desire to get to know someone—regardless of whether or not the relationship “pays out” in official dividends. Just like any kind of sincere friendship, these relationships take time but can yield long-lasting fruit. Good relationships (关系) are more than just relatedness; they also include real emotional attachments (感情). As foreigners, we often miss this last component and so fail to really develop our relationships.

At the same time, we should also recognize that for many officials, so-called “foreign friends” are more of a novelty than a priority; they may even include an element of risk. Especially for high-ranking officials, maintaining powerful personal networks can be quite taxing; adding an outsider is often traumatic, upsetting many of the other relationships within the network. In many cases there will be a limit to just how far our official friendships can go. This need not be a cause for concern; what is essential is the sincerity of our offer.


Without a keen awareness of current government priorities and initiatives it is extremely difficult to appeal to the interests of official gatekeepers. Local media can be an invaluable resource in assessing what a given official might value before seeking his or her approval. Given the broad and general nature of most high-level directives, it is usually relatively easy to couch our requests in terms that coincide with various official priorities. Often, all that is necessary is repeating the relevant sector’s latest government slogans. A little research beforehand can turn a hesitant official into an interested partner as he or she sees how cooperating with us can improve his or her own personal standing. The burden is on us to demonstrate how our proposal or request coincides with the latest directives from above: we need to show officials how to represent our partnership to the people who control their future. If we can help officials do their jobs, they may be more inclined to partner with us.

Of course, it is important to also recognize that there are limitations. Some requests are patently outside a given official’s authority while other proposals pose too great a risk for our official friends. This is where our ability to understand and sympathize with the various factors affecting a given official’s status comes into play. We should avoid anything that might expose the official to criticism while demonstrating an eagerness to make accommodations for his or her benefit. As local officials recognize our sympathetic considerations for their work conditions and relationship networks, they will come to see us as trustworthy. Demonstrate over time that we have our official partner’s best interests at hand, and he or she will be far more willing to go out of the way to assist us.

Build from the Bottom Up

Many Western expatriates oversimplify Chinese relationship networks, viewing top-level relationships as all-powerful. Tremendous effort is spent trying to secure a meal with a provincial or national level leader. In actual fact, however, Chinese bureaucracy is no different from bureaucracies anywhere else in the world in as much as the top and bottom levels of the system are not always in complete agreement. Different decisions require different levels of approval, and most of what we seek from government officials is decided and enacted at the lower to middle levels of the bureaucracy: governors do not approve foreign residence permits.

Yet, many Western expatriates working in China persist in focusing most of their energies on the cultivation of top-level relationships. A high-level friend may prove invaluable in a crisis or for making important introductions, but most day-to-day decisions happen at far lower levels. Basic, low-level decisions are generally policed by mid-level officials who then report on their activities to upper-level bureaucrats. A successful mid-level official is often gifted at defending most any decision she or he makes to the higher authorities, while a low-level official must be able to curry favor with his or her immediate mid-level boss. This means that the most important relationships, the friendships that will yield the most immediate concrete results, are not necessarily at the top of the government structure. Rather, the people who chop the forms and the leader who approves their decisions are positioned perfectly to dramatically increase or reduce bureaucratic red tape.

Moreover, top ranking officials change frequently as they are retired and shuffled from bureau to bureau, province to province. When a high level official moves on, his or her entire network is affected often bringing whatever benefits he or she previously provided to an end. “Losing” a contact of this sort thus means starting over from the ground up, finding yet another high-level official willing to accept the risks of association. Mid-level bureaucrats, on the other hand, seem to change less often or at least less dramatically, usually moving around within the same bureau or department. These seemingly less important officials generally have more free time to spend with foreign friends and often feel freer to do so. Since they are comparatively less involved in the local political and social networks, they are often more willing to discuss current political trends and gossip than higher-level officials— though they clearly know less. A friendly department chief (处长) in a key office can likely do more for your daily operations over the long haul than any passing governor.

Comments from Swells in the Middle Kingdom

While each of these suggestions remains useful for managing official interactions, building true friendships with local officials is much harder today than it was ten years ago. The anti-corruption campaign has made public socializing risky for local officials, driving the system of gift giving and entertaining deep underground and beyond the reach of most expatriates (though it does still exist). Surveillance technology, increased physical security measures at government offices (ID confiscation, key carded entry, etc.), and heightened emphasis on the dangers of foreign spies (a key internal propaganda front since Xi’s ascendancy), make it extremely difficult for expatriates to gain access to—let alone develop real relationships with—local officials.

Where relationships already exist, it is vitally important to realize that the current political environment may force official “friends” to distance themselves from their expatriate acquaintances. Preserving those friendships will require expatriates to recognize the political pressure their friends are facing, and to give friendly officials the physical and electronic distance they need to ensure they appear sufficiently “red” to their colleagues and superiors. As before, expatriates possessing a public identity that conforms to the categories the state is currently promoting will find it is easier for officials to interact with them and facilitate their lives and work in China. Of course, increasing politicization of Chinese society means that for the time being there will be fewer and fewer of these publicly acceptable roles for expatriates in China.


In the short-term, working with Chinese bureaucracy may become relatively more difficult—especially for those individuals and organizations that are gifted in working under the old system of governance. Some groups will have to develop new capacities as they learn the discipline necessary to work in compliance with Chinese regulations. At the same time, this transition time will see the advent of new hybrid local and foreign groups as various expatriate organizations and individuals explore new ways of being and working effectively in a changing China.

 Given the necessarily fuzzy nature of this transition process, there will likely never come a time when it will be possible to say conclusively that China has arrived at a point where her society is now fully ruled by law. Uncertainty and change are likely to accompany our official interactions for the foreseeable future. However, if we can come to see these bureaucrats as people—if we can grow to understand the pressures they face, as well as their hopes and their desires— then we have a much better chance of finding solutions to our difficulties that are mutually acceptable. At the same time, we will have opportunities to be salt and light in the key public sector of Chinese society. Now is the time; as these people face increasing stress, the otherworldly hope and peace we have to offer will appear all the more attractive.

Ultimately, the success or failure, even the existence of all of our projects in China, is in God’s hands. As always, we will need him to go before us and prepare the way. In our prayers we should ask God to lead us to “the worthy” people (好人) within the system (Matthew 10:11)—to provide us with grace in relationships and wisdom for all our official interactions. Perhaps more than in the past, we will also have to trust God to carry us through times of uncertainty, relying on him to calm official storms that appear to us to be insurmountable. Fortunately, we serve a God who is perfectly trustworthy and quite experienced at calming storms.

Comments from Swells in the Middle Kingdom

In the ten years since the publication of this article, we have already moved beyond hybrid local/foreign groups: more and more of the work previously driven by or initiated by expatriates is now completely in the hands of local brothers and sisters. This long sought-after development is being driven by all the things that make it so much more difficult for expatriates to work with and within official China (though there are other factors as well). The final paragraph above, of course, remains as true as ever: this constricted environment—as threatening as it most certainly is—has nevertheless been accounted for in God’s plan. We must always remember that this is not actually a contest, the end is not in doubt, and despite any present intentions to bureaucratically harm God’s people and his cause, we can trust that our God will continue superintending for good (Genesis 50:20).

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Swells in the Middle Kingdom

"Swells in the Middle Kingdom" began his life in China as a student back in 1990 and still, to this day, is fascinated by the challenges and blessings of living and working in China.View Full Bio

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