What The West Misunderstands About Power In China

Often overlooked in media portrayals of China, provincial and local officials in fact have the greatest impact on day-to-day governance, and their actions actively shape national politics.

Andy Gilmore for Noema Magazine

Xiao Ma is an assistant professor of political science at Peking University. His research interests include bureaucracy, political elites and development. He is the author of “Localized Bargaining: The Political Economy of China’s High-Speed Railway Program” (Oxford University Press, 2022).

BEIJING — China is often portrayed as a monolithic authoritarian country, with the whole government acting on the command of a few top leaders. But this is a very large country — as large as the entire European continent. No ruler can govern alone. For most ordinary Chinese, Beijing is as distant and abstract as Washington for someone in rural Arkansas or Colorado. As an old Chinese proverb goes: “Mountains are high, and the emperor is far away.” 

Instead, the government officials with the most impact on ordinary Chinese people’s lives are local officials, whose policies they interact with on a daily basis. Understanding how these administrations work not only reveals much about how nearly a fifth of humanity lives and is governed, but also helps to disrupt some commonly held myths and misperceptions about Chinese politics.

China has five levels of government. Under the national administration, there are 31 province-level regions, then 333 municipalities, 2,800 counties and, finally, at the bottom, more than 40,000 townships. Within each jurisdiction, leaders enjoy considerable autonomy over economic and social policymaking. They govern like national leaders, only with a reduced sphere of influence. 

Personnel appointment is the key to holding this extensive bureaucracy together. Leaders at each level are appointed by their superiors one level above them (e.g., central leadership appoints the provincial-level party secretaries and governors). In addition, the central government also holds regulatory power over key economic resources. The construction of new railway projects, for example, requires Beijing’s approval.

This elaborate hierarchy supplies high-powered career incentives for local leaders. The five layers, along with deputy positions at each level, produce a bureaucracy with 10 different ranks of increasing power and privilege. The desire to reach higher positions generates incentives for local officials to reach and balance goals such as promoting growth, attracting investment, preserving the environment and maintaining social stability. 

Local leaders have to be entrepreneurial to outperform their equally motivated peers in local development. Some resort to policy experiments, transforming the local bureaucracy to make it more amicable to residents and outside investors; others lobby their superiors, in particular those in the central government, for additional policy handouts. Local leaders differ significantly in their governance style, experience and achievements. Many are poker-faced officials, but some get the spotlight for unorthodox governing methods or unique personas. For example, Geng Yanbo, the former mayor of Datong, became the subject of an internationally acclaimed documentary for his aggressive leadership style as he tried to transform the once-industrial city into a coveted tourist destination.

Local leaders are closer to their people compared with decision-makers in the distant capital; they have better knowledge of local conditions and are more capable of coming up with policies tailored to local needs and endowments. They develop closer connections with their constituents and identify more closely with their interests than with the ideology of central leaders. In Zhejiang Province, home to some of China’s most successful private enterprises like Alibaba and Geely, leaders at the county level played an important role in protecting grassroots capitalism during the tumultuous periods of the Cultural Revolution and the early years of market reform, when private business was still constitutionally illicit. They allowed commune and brigade-run firms, for example, despite Beijing’s call to cut such “capitalist tails.”

“Local leaders are closer to their people compared with decision-makers in the distant capital.”

China’s central leaders are aware of the informational advantage local officials enjoy and encourage them to craft economic and social policies that befit local conditions. The center also has a number of channels to keep a close eye on local government behaviors. For example, journalists in state-owned mouthpieces such as Xinhua and the People’s Daily are regularly tasked with writing internal reports only for the eyes of top party leaders. These reports are, in theory, more forthright about governance problems than reports written for a general audience. Recognizing the influence of these reports, local leaders often treat these state journalists with great deference — inviting them to lavish dinner parties in the hopes of being portrayed positively.

As Chinese and Western scholars have shown, the central government allows room for discussion on social media partly in order to collect information on local governance. Censors don’t suppress everything that is critical of the government. Chinese netizens make all kinds of complaints about local officials on social media platforms such as WeChat, Weibo and Douyin, and scandals or misconduct that starts trending is often met with swift punishment. The most recent high-profile example is the removal of the party secretary in Feng County in Jiangsu Province in February, after a brief video showing a chained woman, later found out to be trafficked, went viral online. The county government gave inconsistent answers to the netizens’ inquiries about the case and demands for accountability, provoking further outrage online and eventually leading to an investigation by the provincial authority.

When local authorities lobby the central government for policy resources, their actions also provide a different kind of information to the central policymakers. Places across China differ significantly in their history, environment, levels of economic development and policy needs. Central policymakers need detailed information on local conditions to make appropriate decisions when they allocate critical resources in their control. Such information, however, is not easy to gather. The absence of a contested legislature eager to represent regional or group interests impairs central decision-makers’ ability to ascertain the true distribution of demands for policy benefits in society. 

Tolerating lobbying by the local governments mitigates this problem. In my study of China’s high-speed railway program, I found that local governments frequently send their leaders to the central ministries like the Ministry of Transport to make a case for the railway projects to be approved in their jurisdictions. Such emissaries also provide central bureaucrats with a superior grasp of the socioeconomic situations (e.g. fiscal capacity) and policy needs (e.g. transportation infrastructure) in specific localities. These interactions are so frequent that most Chinese provinces and cities have established permanent offices in Beijing (also known as the “Beijing Office” of the local government) to accommodate and aid officials traveling to Beijing. In a country with a strong central authority and decentralized governance, Beijing offices play the important role of facilitating communication between the central and local authorities.

China’s decentralized local governance system also allows leaders to test new policies in certain locales without jeopardizing the wider system if the experiment fails. Many of China’s economic reform measures of the late 1970s and early 80s, such as the establishment of the household responsibility system in rural China and the introduction of foreign investment in the cities, were first piloted in a few localities before they were implemented nationwide. These market-oriented reforms were hugely controversial at a time when the planned economy dominated. But the small-scale experiments created less internal opposition than massive reform, and when they succeeded, elites and the public became more willing to see the policies broadened. 

A more recent example of such experimentation was the adoption of cellphone QR codes for health status in the city of Hangzhou in February 2020, shortly after the outbreak of the coronavirus. The measure was quickly emulated elsewhere — including by the central government in an effort to make long distant travel more convenient. Of course, not all local experiments have gone nationwide. In 2011, the government introduced a property tax in a few selected cities such as Shanghai and Chongqing. But concerns over the tax’s disruptive impact on the housing market, one of the pillars of China’s economy, have prevented the experiments from spreading more broadly.

Because the country is divided up into units of similar sizes, endowments and economic structures, it’s easier to transplant policy experiments from one place to another. A policy that has increased economic growth in one city is likely to have the same effect in another city with a similar economic structure. 

“The central government allows room for discussion on social media partly in order to collect information on local governance.”

This differs from the Soviet Union, which was organized as a unitary system with subnational units. Each had its unique place in the planned economy system and differed significantly in economic specialization from one another. This limited Soviet leaders’ ability to carry out Chinese-style, “experiment-first, diffuse-later-if-successful” reform. They were forced to change the whole system at once, which was riskier and ultimately less successful.

While local government officials have the advantage of being closer to their people, new technologies have been giving the central government a more immediate window into residents’ daily lives in recent years. For example, it now has access to more than a billion people’s consumption, recreation and social network information through a few platforms like Taobao and WeChat. This development raises the question of whether decentralization is becoming obsolete — and whether China’s decentralized governance system can endure central leaders’ attempts to consolidate power from the localities. 

The answer to this question is multifold. First, decentralization is the natural consequence of scale. The scale of China means that any leaders have to share power with the localities if they want to accomplish goals like growing the economy. Modern Chinese history is not short of examples in which central leaders’ attempts to impose one-size-fits-all policies ended in disaster (e.g. the Great Leap Forward). 

Second, the CCP also has a few institutions in place to protect the power of localities. Within the CCP’s Central Committee — the 205-person top decision-making body that holds the statutory power to elect and remove the party’s top leadership — provincial leaders (i.e. party secretaries and governors) have been regularly taking a third of the seats since the beginning of the market reform, dwarfing other voting blocs. Provincial party secretaries and governors also gain the qualification to attend the annual Central Economic Work Conference, which takes place every December and sets the tone for the next year’s economic policies. Also, as an informal rule, the experience of serving as a provincial leader is considered a prerequisite for a politician’s elevation into top party leadership. Among the seven members of the newly elected Politburo Standing Committee at the 20th Party Congress, only two did not serve as a provincial party secretary before. 

Because of these formal and informal institutions, provinces are not just subordinates of the central government. They are instead important and powerful stakeholders of China’s political system. In the early 1990s, when the conservative faction within the party’s leadership tried to reverse the course of market reform, the provinces that had benefited from the reform put up strong opposition and prevented such a reversal. 

A more recent example of local influence in central policymaking is the stagnation of reform in the land market. The third plenum of the 18th Central Committee in 2013 pledged to increase farmers’ share of income in rural land transactions. But this would harm the interests of local governments, which earn a large portion of their extra-budgetary revenue by seizing farmland. As a result, progress has been slow so far.

While Western democracies rely on mechanisms external to the present leadership — such as the media, the legal system and opposition parties — to curb the opportunism of incumbent leaders, China relies on a different kind of power decentralization, one that exists along the hierarchies of the government. This system leaves room for innovation and competition on the part of localities, while also allowing the central authority to monitor its subordinates and hold the country together. 

As important stakeholders of China’s political system, local governments are not just subordinates who execute the orders of their superiors. Their actions and interests actively shape the policies of the central authority. Looking beyond Beijing, therefore, is crucial for understanding China’s politics and policies.