How China's Leaders Steer a Massive Nation

There are also those in Lanzhou who would have preferred to invest in the old city instead. But they don't want to see their names in print. The Chinese efficiency praised by so many in the West comes at a price: the silence of critics. The government decides what is good for the people. And if something is deemed good for everyone, the individual must conform. How Five-Year Plans Keep Power in Check But the Lanzhou New Area is only one piece of the puzzle. There was always more at issue for Beijing in its development program for the west. Most of all, it wanted to bring the west closer to the rest of the country. This creates stability, and "stability" is the favorite buzzword of China's rulers. And so the "Go West" strategy was incorporated into the national five-year plan.

This plan is an idiosyncratic political instrument. Just writing it alone takes more than two years. First a subset of chief planners within a larger group of chief planners, that is, the Department of Development Planning of the NDRC, develops the initial proposals -- under the leadership of the Central Committee and the Politburo, of course.

Then city and provincial governments are brought into the mix with their proposals, as are ministries and experts from universities and think tanks. Countless drafts are evaluated, adjusted and reviewed by the Central Committee, until a new plan is born and a consensus is reached. A beneficial side effect is that planning alone holds the giant Chinese administrative machinery together. Besides, the same principle applies here as it does elsewhere in Chinese politics, where draft documents are constantly being circulated and conferences never end: Consensus creates obligation, and those who have agreed to something later bear some of the responsibility for it.

In the third year of a given five-year plan, there is an interim evaluation. The last time this happened, the NDRC even asked the World Bank for its opinion, which led to the bank publishing its own report on implementation of the 11th five-year plan in 2008. By the fourth year, preparations for the next plan are already underway.

Of course, China's five-year plans have changed since the first one was launched in 1953. Whereas the Chinese initially emulated the Soviet Union, today Beijing doesn't seek to supplant the market's role in guiding the economy, but rather to steer the economy according to market principles. The terminology has also changed, with officials now referring to the plan as a program. But it still involves planning.

Five-year plans have their own dynamics, because the beginning of a new plan generally does not coincide with a change in leadership. This means that a new leader will likely remain tied to an existing plan and its established goals, and thus cannot immediately implement a radical change of course. This may irritate the individual at the top, because it prevents him from boosting his profile, but the principle creates continuity in the larger political picture. The plan keeps power in check.

China Experiments with Dual Approach to Governing Ding Wenguang dreams of being part of the central government's next five-year plan. Ding, 48, is a short, clever man who knows what participation, one of the key elements of good governance, can look like in China -- to those with patience. He also knows that Beijing has recently been trying to combine two approaches to governing: from the top down and from the bottom up.

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