This is the sixth installment of an occasional series on China's transformation.
One of the most distinctive features of the Chinese political system is the central government's perennial struggle to ensure local compliance with national policy. Since the start of "Reform and Opening" in 1978, the distribution of fiscal and administrative power among China's central and local governments has fluctuated. But despite enormous changes in China's political system in the decades since Mao's death, local governments continue to evade or subvert central policies. As President Xi Jinping's ongoing anti-corruption campaign suggests, the gap between central and local interests — and the constraint this gap places on the state's ability to govern effectively — remains a fundamental concern for China's leaders today.
To explain the conflict of interest between the central and local governments in contemporary China, one must first consider the effects of the country's regional geographic, cultural and economic diversity on its rulers. China cannot be understood as a monolith. For much of its history, it has operated as a collection of regional clusters — nine "macro-regions," according to historian William Skinner's model of late imperial China — with diverse geographies and resources, distinct cultural and linguistic traditions, and disparate economic needs and political interests.
This diversity has created political challenges for China's central rulers throughout history. More than just a barrier to central coordination and oversight, however, regional diversity has informed rulers' strategies to manage a unified China. Over successive generations of central rulers, these strategies have been based on distrust of regional and provincial administrations. Throughout the period since the 1949 Chinese revolution, central leadership has viewed regional and provincial governments as potential obstacles in communicating with and, by extension, managing local societies.
A Lesson Learned
Distrust of intermediate administration is by no means unique to modern China. As historian Mark Edward Lewis observes, the denigration of regional identities and customs was central to the Qin and Han dynasties' campaigns to legitimize their regimes across the vast empire. The concept of the region as a threat to the imperial system became embedded in the literary and philosophical traditions through which subsequent dynasties represented the Chinese state. Regional and subregional governments were seen as dubious units of territorial administration, necessary but potentially dangerous components of the central government that could break away from the empire if not properly controlled. Consequently, preserving strong influence over regional governments and restricting the autonomy and authority of lower governments became core features of central administration.
This lesson was not lost on China's modern rulers. It undoubtedly helped justify both the Nationalist and Communist parties' turns to Leninism. But the push to centralize power and to marginalize lower levels of government, especially in a country as regionally fragmented as China, has yielded unintended consequences. By over-centralizing political control without fortifying local infrastructure, the Nationalist government undermined its hold on power, overwhelming its own ability to administrate. More than once, the excessive centralization of power has threatened to do the same to the People's Republic. In short, history attests — and the Communist Party's occasional attempts to delegate authority to local governments confirm — that too much central control is as problematic as too little.
While the Nationalist and Communist propensity for centralization certainly embodies the Leninist emphasis on central political authority, one finds striking similarities in the wider body of Chinese political thought that also viewed regional and local administrations as inconvenient and even harmful to central state interests throughout history. Both traditional and Leninist conceptions of the Chinese state, including the perils facing it and the administrative structure best poised to ensure its survival, view lower levels of government as a threat to central interests. As a result, local administrations are poorly institutionalized and often undisciplined, weakening the center's influence on them.
Implementation and Local Deviance
Unlike in the United States and other federal systems, where sometimes-disparate policies are made and implemented at the state and local levels, the Chinese policymaking process has long been characterized by centralization and uniformity. The central government designs and decides on nearly all major policies. Because local conditions vary widely even across regions, it is impractical to expect uniform implementation of centrally devised national policies. As Beijing well understands, effective implementation of its wishes requires a degree of openness to local autonomy over how policies are carried out.
This arrangement has positive and negative consequences for governance in China. On the one hand, it helps mitigate the friction that inevitably arises when policies made in Beijing are carried out across regions and localities that share little in common with the capital or with one another. On the other hand, it makes pushing through important national reforms exceedingly difficult. As Beijing attempts to move from an economic model geared toward growth at whatever cost to one that prioritizes goals such as work safety, environmental protection and improved social services, these obstacles to effective policy enforcement will take on renewed political significance.
In many ways, the policy trends that defined China during the first two decades of Reform and Opening trace back to the fundamental tension between uniform central policymaking and flexible local policy implementation. In the 1980s, Beijing decentralized fiscal and administrative powers, substantially improving the autonomy and power of provinces and localities. Though decentralization may have been necessary to preserve political integrity and spur economic rejuvenation in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, it nonetheless generated new pressures that, by the late 1980s, threatened to undermine the Communist Party's grip on power. In response, the central government recentralized power in the early 1990s. Remarkably, the central-local gap persisted largely unabated under decentralization and recentralization alike, continuing through the 2000s and into the era of President Xi Jinping.
The unshakable local deviation from central government mandates reflects China's size and regional diversity. Furthermore, that the gap has endured both hypercentralized and relatively decentralized political conditions suggests a problem not only in the central government's level of authority but also in its structure. If anything, the past 30 years of political reform should dictate that the current political structure, with its high degree of formal central control and informal local autonomy, inherently limits the central bureaucracy's ability to monitor local activities, the enormous improvements in the state's surveillance technologies notwithstanding.
Unfortunately, as China's export sector stagnates and construction activity slows, Beijing cannot afford to continue as it has with regard to local government. As the economy slows, ensuring good — or at least better — governance at the local level will become politically imperative, not least because sluggish growth will force the party to justify its continued rule anew: Economic doldrums and poor governance do not make for social tranquility.
The gap between central and local interests, and the government's persistent inability to bridge it, perhaps explains past Chinese rulers' attention to what Mao called "correct thought." If local officials cannot be monitored or controlled effectively through professional incentives, then perhaps the best option is to strive for control over their minds. This, after all, was not Mao's idea; its roots run to the very foundations of Chinese dynastic statecraft.