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Dealing with Local Officials in a Changing China

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 affect 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

China 2020 44 (January 2007)

The Current Environment

Working in China demands relating to the Chinese government. While the degree of relatedness required can vary from region to region, and from project to project, it is impossible to completely avoid all government gatekeepers. This paper will address some of the current factors impacting government relations before providing a few suggestions for building and maintaining healthy official relationships. Along the way, a number of common misperceptions will be highlighted in the hopes that increased clarity will contribute to increased effectiveness in service.

The following discussion will focus on the situation in more conservative northern China. As is often remarked, in southern China if something is not expressly prohibited by the current regulations then it is allowed; in the north, if something is not expressly permitted then it is probably forbidden. While the more restrictive northern context skews the following observations towards the extreme, the general principles should also apply in southern contexts. Many of the issues discussed below are certainly more complex than this presentation suggests, but it is hoped that this broad overview will serve as a helpful guide for those just beginning to interact with official China.

Regulatory Transition

Over the last few years there has been a lot of talk about a nationwide government campaign in China to “crack down” on religious activities, especially as it pertains to foreign Christian organizations working in China. Leaving aside the question of whether or not this is actually the case, a broader look at China today reveals that a more fundamental change is occurring—one with implications for more than just the religious sectors. If we focus only on the religious connotations, we risk losing sight of this deeper transformation.

China has historically been a society operating in accordance with the basic principles of rule by man (人治). Traditionally, laws and regulations have been seen as tools to be used by the divinely ordained righteous ruler to enforce heaven’s will throughout the land. As such, the actual letter of the law is understood to be subservient to the policy goals/will of the ruler. Rules and regulations can be bent or appended when the official perceives this to be in the state’s best interest.

Practically, the line between the state’s best interest and the individual official’s best interest has always been negotiable—and this is precisely where so much of what is often called corruption occurs. As can be seen all across China, when there is no policeman on duty at a particular intersection many traffic regulations cease to apply: it is the individual authority holder and not the rule itself which has weight. This principle also explains local variations in policy implementation: what looks good from Beijing may not be good for Hunan. Thus, the successful official in this environment is the one who can couch his or her own interests in terms that at least appear to coincide with the agreed upon interests of the higher authorities.

As a simple example, imagine a local official with a brother who is a contractor. City beautification is a national priority, and, as such, projects that contribute to city beautification have relatively open access to government funding. So, the local official lobbies for a new park in the center of town—and then he makes sure that his brother gets the contract and the income it brings. Personal interest coincides with a government initiative—and everyone wins.

However, this traditional political culture is under attack: China’s bureaucracy is currently facing increasing pressure from national level leaders and common citizens, as well as international observers, to operate in accordance with the principles of rule of law (法治). Where the rule of law operates, rules and regulations function more as objective standards to which all government officials are held responsible. Under this system of governance, the interpretation of the law is ideally outside the purview of the officials implementing the regulations, and so a given official’s “room to maneuver” (余地) when executing laws is comparatively restricted.

Notice how different these two systems are. For officials raised and trained under the first system, this new approach to governance is foreign and often perceived as threatening. Old instincts are no longer reliable guides for negotiating the local government. Chinese progress towards increasing rule of law has also expanded the number of regulations a given official must observe and enforce: existing present regulations that have gone unenforced are now being implemented while new regulations are being drawn up to address areas not previously covered by China’s current legal code. Moreover, many of these regulations—or at least their interpretations—seem to be constantly in process, with the result that nearly everyone is caught in the uncomfortable situation of having to implement regulations that they are not familiar with that will likely change again soon.

All of this means officials today face ever more new regulations, greater pressure to adhere to the regulations, and increasing expectations that they will interpret those regulations accurately in accordance with standards outside themselves that they themselves do not control.  

Comments from Swells in the Middle Kingdom:

The above information remains true today, as there seems to be no end to the proliferation of new regulations and institutional reforms. Officials are generally quite unhappy with the current situation, as they are squeezed by regulations and the pressure from above to perform politically, while they no longer have access to many of the rent-seeking (corruption) activities that compensated them so richly for their troubles. If anything, a given official’s “room to maneuver” is even more restricted today than it was at the time of the original article’s publication.

In a repeat of ten years ago, the state bureaucracy has just gone through a radical restructuring, causing the same turmoil and pressure discussed by the author above. These changes were complicated, however, by the automation of many bureaucratic procedures—a little-known aspect of Xi Jinping’s recent anti-corruption campaign. This was not so much an attempt to increase efficiency as it was the deployment of a tool for shaping and constraining official decision making. By placing approval and review procedures on line, the state is able to use software design to force officials to commit to particular decisions. Replacing a paper form with blanks on it with an automated online form with pull-down menus forces official decisions and reports to conform to predetermined entries, thus drastically restricting official “room to maneuver.”

At the same time, placing everything online exposes officials to the threat of constant real-time monitoring from their superiors. By effectively shrinking the perceived distance between local officials and state “leadership” this new bureaucratic technology dramatically heightens officials’ already strong aversion to risk—a key factor behind the “frozen” bureaucracy that is plaguing many expatriates working in China today.

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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