How China's Leaders Steer a Massive Nation

Nevertheless, he still had to demonstrate that his proposed reforms were feasible and not too costly. He had learned that while it was important to have many meetings with officials, the reports had to be no longer than three pages and the restaurants had to be good. "Dinners can create an open and friendly atmosphere in which to champion your interests," says Ding. Guanxi thrives at such dinners, where participants are freed of the constraints of their respective roles. Banquets and politics are Siamese twins in China.

And because Ding kept bringing journalists to his project villages, and his ideas were even featured on a party website, he was successful. He believes that his model will become part of the provincial government's policy in 2014. He also expects 2016 to be a very big year for him, when his ideas will be incorporated into Beijing's next five-year plan.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government is asking for help in governing the country, for reasons Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has candidly admitted: "Given the complex and varied economic situation, it would be impractical to expect a few top leaders to always make the right decisions. Therefore, we need to seek advice from experts in order to make the decision-making process more scientific and democratic." Apparently Beijing also aspires to professional management, another dimension of good governance.

A Unique Think Tank Culture

One of the brains behind it all, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), is located in a light brown high-rise building. It is one of China's most important think tanks. However, unlike their counterparts in the West, whose credibility is enhanced by their independence from the government, influential Chinese think tanks tend to have close ties to the government.

Sometimes the State Council assigns certain tasks to the Academy. For example, professors working for CASS were asked to develop proposals for a new civil law. In another case, the Ministry of Railways wanted to know what would happen if passengers were required to provide identification when buying tickets. CASS also provides impetus for reforms that might, for example, involve the combining of government agencies. Of course, the premier also consults with CASS experts to obtain advice on economic policy. Sometimes CASS even publicly corrects elements of the administration. For instance, it has accused the National Bureau of Statistics of inaccuracies in calculating the rate of inflation.

The deference given to experts began with Deng Xiaoping, who sought to replace the emphasis on Mao and ideology with a focus on professionalism and knowledge. He wanted the intellectual to contribute to China's modernization. Today the University of Pennsylvania counts 425 think tanks in China, making it second only to the United States, where there are 1,815 think tanks.

In China, Experimentation Is the Norm Chinese policies always follow the same pattern: First ideas are considered and then they are simply tried out. The government has turned the concept of the experiment into the norm. It uses small, local testing laboratories to try out a pilot project, but only once a proposed reform has been shown to be successful and applicable in multiple locations does the government venture to implement it more broadly. This stands in contrast to the Western concept of the constitutional state, in which the law comes before implementation.

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