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Dealing with Local Officials in a Changing China, Part 2

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 China 2020, 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 2

China 2020, 44 (January 2007)

Official Motivations

It is easy to attribute sinister motives to uncooperative local officials. In some cases, Chinese nationalism seems to be driving an almost racist agenda: foreigners are not Chinese and are therefore inherently not to be trusted. In other situations, expatriate workers are often quick to see religious persecution behind official meddling. Since the Communist Party is no friend of religion, then it is often assumed that officials will actively seek to suppress and limit all religious activity. Certainly, in more conservative areas this kind of historical baggage can still impact official decision-making.

In most cases, however, official decisions are primarily shaped by more basic concerns. Our Western simplifications of China often lend a “monolithic” nature to Chinese decision-making that belies her decentralized past and present. This same assumption of unified, all-powerful central leadership causes us to lose sight of the tremendous influence local office politics and personal relations hold over Chinese bureaucrats. China’s tradition of collective responsibility is strong, but it is held in tension with an equally strong emphasis on personal status and achievement.

Chinese bureaucracy is highly hierarchical. Every official has an officially recognized ranking (级别), and the struggle to increase one’s ranking (and the income and privileges that attend) is often ugly and quite consuming. It is a fierce competition between a limited number of actors, all of whom are intertwined in a complex web of relatedness. Perhaps more importantly, job performance is a minimal factor in determining promotions. The candidate who can offer the greatest benefit to the relevant rank-determining official will generally receive the increase in position. The promoting official’s calculation of his or her greatest benefit can be influenced by many different factors including personal financial gain, a lighter workload, an amorous attachment, an enlarged personal relationship network, potential increases in personal status, access to additional privileges, etc.

Most Chinese government officials are extremely risk averse. Risk is only taken when the potential personal gain is great enough to offset that risk. At any given time, officials will understand themselves to be operating with a certain number of guiding directives from their higher authorities. If their activities result in benefit for the leaders directly over their heads, they then increase their chances of promotion and privilege. Conversely, if their activities expose their bosses to criticism of any sort, then those activities bring risk—specifically, the risk of losing opportunities for personal promotion and privilege. These relationships exist at every level of the bureaucracy.

Officials are usually glad to make decisions that they feel are safe, that is, decisions which will not produce risk or trouble for them in the future. However, any proposal or request that requires an official to step out and make a clear statement of support will likely be met with some hesitation. In China, the bird that flies at the front of the formation is the one that gets shot; the nail that sticks up is the one that gets hammered. The goal is not to be different, but rather to coincide perfectly with the higher authority’s will thus assuring the good favor and protection of the higher authority. Unfortunately, higher officials are often purposefully vague in stating their requirements. This ensures that if something goes amiss with their underlings, leaders have plausible deniability, enabling them to disavow responsibility before their own leaders and thus preserve their status.

Given the complex hierarchical nature of Chinese bureaucratic life, it should not be surprising that officials consider how their decisions will impact their positions. As they calculate the implications of their decisions, immediate concerns will almost always take precedence over abstract “national” issues. Bureaucrats must guess at what issues most concern their higher-ups and then act in such a way that they will be perceived as championing their leader’ s causes. Since this same pattern repeats at every level of the bureaucracy, most leaders’ causes also center around status seeking and self-preservation.

Any comment from a higher official can impact the decisions of his or her staff. One official’s casual remarks on the competition between bureaus and lack of cross-department communication that has created the almost universal regulatory turf wars within the Chinese system (a giant factor behind Chinese bureaucratic red tape) can result in decisions from lower-ranking officials that are specifically intended to frustrate a particular official in another bureau or even section.

In other cases, the reporting requirements of the last government campaign to sweep through town will shape decisions. Then again, one leader’s extra-marital affair with an official in another department may drive all of his or her underling’s decisions. Yet again, it may be as simple as the perceived need to fill out a new form in a particular manner that may shape an official’s request for further information. Perhaps the need to spend government allocated funds before the end of the year may produce tremendous opportunities; or the need to repay misappropriated funds before the end of the year may result in unexpected and irrational fines and levies. These seemingly small and extremely local factors have tremendous effect on bureaucratic outcomes and efficiency. The officials themselves see them as important because they perceive them as directly affecting their opportunities for gain in status and privilege.

Most lower to mid-level officials are striving to avoid anything that would attract their higher authority’s disapproval. This means they want everything to go smoothly. When our words, actions, or presence causes someone to contact our official friend’s boss or coworker with a concern, then that friend’s relationship with us is now inherently risky. We have made his or her standing less secure, and so he or she may take action out of a motivation for self-preservation. The relationship may become cold, and official refusals may be forthcoming. This distancing is necessary to contain whatever damage our behavior and its implications may have wrought within the official’s professional network.

“Reading the tea leaves” and sensing which way the wind in Beijing is blowing are certainly valuable exercises that cannot be ignored. National changes come and they do impact society. However, far more essential to the smooth, day-to-day functioning of our lives as foreigners in China is a deep and nuanced understanding of the smaller factors that determine bureaucratic decision-making. Increased cultural sensitivity in this area can yield tremendous fruit in terms of increased efficiency and greater opportunities for service.

Comments from Swells in the Middle Kingdom

One of the biggest changes over the last ten years is the aggressive expansion of surveillance technology. While Chinese citizens and expats living in China are all adjusting to this new environment, it is important to recognize the changes this technology has brought to officials as well. Coming on the heels of the profoundly disruptive anti-corruption campaign, the roll-out across society of new surveillance technologies has further increased official fears of being criticized by higher-ranking officials. The use of biometric scanners to clock in and out of meetings, ubiquitous social media snooping, facial recognition cameras, and near universal video surveillance are constant reminders that their words and actions are being observed.

At the same time, the Xi Jinping years have also seen a reversal of the Deng-era trend towards decreasing Party involvement in all aspects of society. The return of regular political study meetings, aggressive state propaganda, and cultic reverence for the “core” leader, has brought political orthodoxy (“red”) back to the center of official decision making. All of this means that officials are being watched and monitored more closely than ever before, but are increasingly being measured for political orthodoxy (an anxiety-inducing moving target) as well as work performance. Of course, stresses to the international political context only increase the anxiety levels of local officials.

Implications for Today

When China’s broad regulatory shift is viewed in light of her particular culture of bureaucratic decision-making, the implications for working in China today are not encouraging. As China moves through this transition phase, legal compliance and local political support may be very difficult for foreign entities working in China to maintain. Local officials must manage to interpret and implement all these new regulations, often with little guidance from above as to how to do so. Given Chinese bureaucratic aversion to risk, few officials are likely to step out and make unilateral decisions as to how to apply new rules. At the same time, bureaucrats realize that they could at any time be asked by their higher authorities to demonstrate their successful implementation of these new policies. All this makes for an awkward situation where compliance is required but no one is willing to say how it can be achieved.

More than inconvenient, this “damned if you do damned if you don’t” approach to governance can produce unexpected changes requiring tremendous flexibility from effected projects. Previously routine permits and visas may suddenly become difficult while long-term partners may one day announce they are no longer able to be partners. In most cases, this is not personal but rather the end result of particular local officials’ attempts to fall in line with the new regulations and requirements they are now facing—all the while pleasing those individuals who control their access to future ranks and privileges. In order for the nation’ s regulatory “desk” to be cleaned up, things must be put in their proper places. While it is not yet clear just where everything belongs, it is clear that the desk must be cleaned up—just don’t make any mistakes!

The increased transparency and efficiency which these changes promise should be a welcome sight to expatriate workers in China; but these same changes, at least during the transition period, will require far more due diligence on the part of foreigners seeking to work legally in China. It will be more important than ever to cultivate multiple networks of official support. Official reporting, and the ways we legally present our organizations within China, will also require tremendous flexibility. In this new transitional environment, the successful projects will be nimble, able to change the official shape of their organization to fit the reporting categories of their Chinese partners and official benefactors. They will also be deeply attuned to the bureaucratic world of their key local gatekeepers.

Comments from Swells in the Middle Kingdom

Unfortunately, the “increased transparency and efficiency” the author was hoping for has faded for most foreign companies, as an increasingly politicized Chinese bureaucracy uses the very tools and regulations that brought initial progress as weapons to constrain and hamper the activities of unwelcome foreigners within the country. Nevertheless, the same fear of making mistakes or upsetting superiors remains one of the defining hallmarks of the Chinese bureaucracy. And flexibility—both in terms of delivering official reports and defining the nature of one’s official identity within China—are if anything only more important than before. However, this flexibility is now limited by the shrinking number of acceptable categories for foreign operations in China, and the ubiquitous office automation (web forms) that remove power from local officials who in the past might have been able and willing to be gracious.

Image credit: Jürgen Jester from Pixabay

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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