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«ABSTRACT How do we characterize and explain the behavioral patterns of the Chinese bureaucracy amid China’s great transformation over the past ...»

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A Behavioral Model of “Muddling

Through” in the Chinese Bureaucracy:

The Case of Environmental Protection


How do we characterize and explain the behavioral patterns of the Chinese bureaucracy amid

China’s great transformation over the past three decades? The prevailing “tournament competition” model presented in the literature emphasizes the role of incentive design to explain bureaucratic behaviors. We develop an alternative model of “muddling through”—characterized by a reactive response to multiple pressures, constant readjustments and a focus on shortterm gains—to explain the behavioral patterns of China’s intermediate government agencies.

We explain the underlying multiple bureaucratic logics that induce these behavioral patterns and the institutional conditions under which such behavioral patterns prevail. We illustrate the research issues, analytical concepts and theoretical arguments, using a case study of a municipal environmental protection bureau implementing the Five-Year Plan, between 2006 and 2010.

A ligning the interests of local officials with the goals of the central authority in China’s transformation is difficult. The literature on the Chinese bureaucracy has given considerable attention to the role of incentive design. In early work on this subject, Walder and Oi showed that incentive mechanisms in the revenue-sharing taxation reform of the mid-1990s and the structure of decentralized authority at the local level led local governments to participate actively in promoting economic development in their jurisdictions.1 More recently, scholars have argued that the Chinese state’s incentive mechanisms for the career advancement of local officials have fostered effective governance and contributed to the leading role of the state in China’s economic growth and large-scale institutional change.2

1. Jean Oi, “Fiscal Reform and the Economic Foundations of Local State Corporatism in China”, World Politics, Vol. 45 (1992), pp. 99–126; Andrew G. Walder, “Local Governments as Industrial Firms”, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 101 (1995), pp. 263–301. See also Jean Oi, Rural China Takes Off: Institutional Foundations of Economic Reform (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); Susan H. Whiting, Power and Wealth in Rural China: The Political Economy of Institutional Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

2. For recent work in this area, see Pierre Landry, Decentralized Authoritarianism in China (New York:

Cambridge University Press, 2008); Yongshun Cai and Xiulin Sun, “Rural Cadres and Governance in The China Journal, no. 70. 1324-9347/2013/7001-0006. Copyright 2013 by The Australian National University. All rights reserved.

Zhou Li-an, an economist, proposed a “tournament model” of competition to explain the design of incentives created by the central government to influence the behavior of local government officials in China.3 The tournament model, first developed in the economics literature,4 describes an incentive design in which performance is evaluated comparatively among a pool of candidates competing for career advancement or other rewards. The high performers are promoted into the next round of the tournament for further career advancement. Tournament competition as an incentive mechanism has several advantages for a “principal” in ensuring that “agents” perform at a high level to meet the principal’s objectives.5 The most salient advantage is that it introduces competition within an organizational hierarchy based on rules set by the principal, thereby allowing the principal to align the agents’ interests with his or her own. Another important feature is that relative performance-based evaluation elicits valuable information about the agents’ performance, at relatively low cost in measuring the agents’ efforts.

Zhou posits that the Chinese central authority introduced competition among subordinate officials by basing promotions of chief officials in local governments on their relative performance evaluations, thus motivating local officials to act in ways consistent with meeting the goals of the central authority. For example, China’s central government has made GDP growth the main yardstick in evaluating the relative performance of local leaders, and this measure has provided incentives for local governments to foster rapid economic growth in their jurisdictions. At first glance, this line of argument seems consistent with widespread practices among Chinese governments, in which higher authorities rank-order their subordinate officials at lower levels of government, based on relative performance. Tournament-like practices have been employed extensively by local governments to introduce competition among subordinates in the pursuit of local governments’ goals, such as attracting inflows of foreign investment, enforcing family planning policies and meeting pollution reduction goals. For example, China”, The China Journal, No. 62 (July 2009), pp. 61–77; Frank N. Pieke, “Marketization, Centralization and Globalization of Cadre Training in Contemporary China”, The China Quarterly, No. 200 (December 2009), pp. 953–71; John P. Burns and Wang Xiaoqi, “Civil Service Reform in China: Impacts on Civil Servants’ Behaviour”, The China Quarterly, No. 201 (March 2010), pp. 58–78.

3. Zhou Li-an, “Jinsheng boyi zhong zhengfu guanyuan de jili yu hezuo” (The Incentive and Cooperation of Government Officials in the Political Tournament), Jingji yanjiu (Journal of Economic Research) (2004), pp. 33–40; Zhou Li-an, “Zhongguo difang guanyuan de jinsheng jinbiaosai moshi yanjiu” (Governing China’s Local Officials: An Analysis of the Promotion Tournament Model), Jingji yanjiu (2007), pp. 36–50; Zhou

Li-an, Zhuanxingzhong de difang zhengfu: guanyuan jili yu zhili (Local Governments in Transformation:

Incentives and Governance) (Shanghai: Gezhi Press, 2008).

4. Edward Lazear and Sherwin Rosen, “Rank-Order Tournaments as Optimum Labor Contract”, Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 89 (1981), pp. 841–64.

5. Gary J. Miller, “The Political Evolution of Principal–Agent Models”, Annual Review of Political Science, Vol. 8 (2005), pp. 203–25.

at the beginning of the 11th Five-Year Plan in 2006 in the province in which we conducted our empirical research, the provincial government implemented a 1000-point performance evaluation scheme covering a variety of subjects, and used the scheme to rank-order subordinate governments. Zhou’s tournament model has stimulated a sizeable literature, mostly in Chinese, on incentives determining local government behaviors and performance evaluation.

While Chinese officials commonly face such performance-based ranking schemes to advance in their careers, behaviors at odds with those predicted by the tournament model have been widely observed. In contrast to the expected highly focused attention to meeting state goals, what is often observed is collusive behavior among local officials and selective implementation of state policies;

this collusive behavior has led some scholars to treat local government offices as “strategic groups” within China’s governance system.6 Many empirical studies of the Chinese government portray local bureaucrats responding to state policies and incentives in haphazard ways and adopting improvised strategies that deviate considerably from the intentions of the higher-level policies.7 In a study of “audit cultures” in teacher evaluations in China, Kipnis observed that performance evaluations “often lead to such non- and antineoliberal outcomes as the production of new social ties and the related nonindividuated forms of personhood among the people audited and the development of new, efficiency-hindering practices, such as deception, formalism, and the shifting of employee attention away from organizational goals to the politics of selecting, measuring, and fulfilling audit criteria”.8 These contradictory images of the Chinese bureaucracy raise important questions. How do we explain the distinct behavioral patterns of the Chinese bureaucracy, which are both highly sensitive to policies and administrative directives from higher authorities and, at the same time, collusive and deviant in the implementation process? In this study, we propose an alternative model, based on what we term “muddling through” behaviors because of their resemblance to those

6. Maria Edin, “State Capacity and Local Agent Control in China”, The China Quarterly, No. 173 (March 2003), pp. 35–52; Kevin J. O’Brien and Lianjiang Li, “Selective Policy Implementation in Rural China”, Comparative Politics, Vol. 31 (1999), pp. 167–86; Gunter Schubert and Anna L. Ahlers, “County and Township Cadres as a Strategic Group”, The China Journal, No. 67 (January 2012), pp. 67–86; Ben Hillman, “Factions and Spoils: Examining Political Behavior Within the Local State”, The China Journal, No. 64 (July 2010), pp. 1–18;

Christian Göbel, “Uneven Policy Implementation in Rural China”, The China Journal, No. 65 (January 2011), pp. 53–76; Andrew Mertha, “ ‘Fragmented Authoritarianism 2.0’: Political Pluralization in the Chinese Policy Process”, The China Quarterly, No. 200 (December 2009), pp. 995–1012; Xueguang Zhou, “The Institutional Logic of Collusion among Local Governments in China”, Modern China, Vol. 36 (2010), pp. 47–78.

7. Ai Yun, “Shangxiaji zhengfu jian kaohejiancha yu yingdui guocheng de zuzhixue fenxi” (Performance Appraisal and Coping Strategies in the Chinese Bureaucracy), Shehui (Chinese Journal of Sociology), Vol. 31 (2011), pp. 68–87; Wu Yi, Xiaocheng xuanxiao (Noises in a Small Town) (Beijing: Sanlian Publisher, 2007).

8. Andrew Kipnis, “Audit Cultures: Neoliberal Governmentality, Socialist Legacy, or Technologies of Governing?”, American Ethnologist, Vol. 35 (2008), p. 285.

associated with Lindblom’s classic model of public administrators. We use the proposed model to explain behavioral patterns among Chinese officials at the sub-national level. Drawing on insights from behavioral theories of organizations and on our fieldwork at a municipal environmental protection bureau over a five-year period, the model emphasizes how multiple bureaucratic logics yield behavioral patterns characteristic of muddling through: adopting ad hoc, improvised strategies; exhibiting a course of action that focuses on short-run, incremental gains; and making sequential adjustments in strategy as conditions change, which leads to patterns of shifting paths of action over time. The multiple logics that govern the Chinese bureaucracy are used to explain how what appear as contradictory behaviors over short time-periods within local governments have, in fact, stable institutional foundations.

This article has two main parts. First, we propose an alternative version of Lindblom’s model of muddling through—a version that fits the Chinese context—and consider the empirical implications of the proposed model. Second, we illustrate our key theoretical concepts and arguments in a case study of government behavior in the environment protection domain.

According to Lindblom, public officials have limited capacities to gather and process information, and they recognize that there are uncertain consequences associated with their choices.9 As a result, public officials adopt strategies characterized by incrementalism—what Lindblom referred to as “successive limited comparisons”. In this process, which is characterized by serial search (sequential rather than comprehensive search for solutions to problems) and repeated attacks on the same problems, attention is directed to simple incremental evaluations and feasible responses to short-term pressures. Important alternatives may be neglected because of limited attention and search capabilities, and goals are constantly readjusted in response to changing conditions and new information.

These behavioral characteristics are in sharp contrast to the image of a rational decision-maker taking consistent, anticipatory and goal-directed actions to meet well-articulated objectives based on complete information.

Lindblom’s portrayal of processes of muddling-through in government provides the basis for our proposed model. Like the public administrators in Lindblom’s model, Chinese bureaucrats also face multiple pressures, high uncertainty about policy consequences, and limited attention and information-processing

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