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«Political Dynamics and Bureaucratic Career Patterns in the People's Republic of China, 1949-1994 XUEGUANG ZHOU Comparative Political Studies 2001 34: ...»

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Comparative Political Studies


Political Dynamics and Bureaucratic Career Patterns in the People's Republic of

China, 1949-1994


Comparative Political Studies 2001 34: 1036

DOI: 10.1177/0010414001034009004

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Bureaucrats and bureaucratic organizations are at the center of political and economic institutions of state socialism. This study examines the link between political dynamics and bureaucratic career patterns in the People’s Republic of China to shed light on the evolution of state socialist bureaucracy. The author argues that political dynamics induced by shifting state policies and tensions between state and bureaucratic interests led to the recruitment and promotion of separate cohorts of bureaucrats with distinctive characteristics and divided loyalties. Using the life histories of a representative sample drawn in 20 cities in China, the author examines patterns of access to the Chinese bureaucracy and promotion patterns during the period from 1949 through 1994. The evidence shows varying selection criteria over time and two distinct patterns of promotion between national bureaucratic systems and within workplaces. These findings portray an image of bureaucrats as highly differentiated groups rather than a homogeneous ruling class.




OF CHINA, 1949-1994


–  –  –

B ureaucrats and bureaucratic organizations are at the center of the political institutions in state socialist societies, as the “organizational weapons” of the communist state (Selznick, 1952) and as a “new class” with the monopoly of power and privileges (Djilas, 1957). They are the institutional basis for accomplishing economic goals in the command economy and AUTHOR’S NOTE: This research has been partially supported by a National Science Foundation grant (SBR-9413540), an American Sociological Association/National Science Foundation grant for the advancement of the discipline, and a Spencer Fellowship from the National Academy of Education. I am grateful to Liren Hou, Phyllis Moen, and Nancy Brandon Tuma for their collaboration on this project. I thank the Departments of Sociology at Fudan University and the People’s University, the Institute of Sociology at Tianjin Academy of the Social Sciences and, in particular, Weida Fan, Qiang Li, Yunkang Pan, and Xizhe Peng for their assistance in data collection.

COMPARATIVE POLITICAL STUDIES, Vol. 34 No. 9, November 2001 1036-1062 © 2001 Sage Publications Downloaded from cps.sagepub.com at STANFORD UNIV on September 21, 2010 Zhou / BUREAUCRATIC CAREER PATTERNS IN CHINA 1037 major channels through which the state redistributes manifest and latent economic benefits. Ultimately, it is through bureaucrats and bureaucratic organizations that the socialist states govern in these societies. Since the 1980s, the political and economic transformation of former state socialist societies has led to significant changes in the institutional arrangements of bureaucratic organizations, but their importance has not diminished. Shirk (1993) showed that in the People’s Republic of China, the path of change during the reform era has been largely structured by bureaucratic politics and bureaucratic bargaining in the Chinese political institutions. As the role of the central authority declines, local governments and bureaucratic initiatives are gaining importance, and industrial organizations and government agencies are increasingly more assertive in governance (Lieberthal & Lampton, 1992).

Given the central role of the bureaucracy in state socialist societies, it is an important theoretical and empirical task to examine and explain bureaucratic career patterns—how individuals are selected into the bureaucracy and how they are promoted within the organizational hierarchy. In China, the economic reform since the 1980s has been accompanied by a series of bureaucratic reforms, especially in the areas of cadre selection and promotion. Old cadres were forced to retire from their positions; a large number of young cadres were recruited and promoted based on new cadre policies (Manion, 1985). These changes raise a series of issues about the role of bureaucrats in China’s ongoing transformation: To what extent has the Chinese bureaucracy changed? How has the evolution of the Chinese bureaucracy been reflected in changes in bureaucratic career patterns?

Scholars who study Chinese politics have long been interested in issues related to bureaucratic career patterns (Barnett, 1967, 1969; Lee, 1991; Li & Bachman, 1989; Oksenberg, 1968; Scalapino, 1972; Vogel, 1967). Most studies have focused on national or provincial-level political elites. Until recently, there has been no comprehensive study of bureaucratic career patterns at the grassroots levels due to the lack of individual-level data. With the availability of survey data in recent years, scholars began to conduct systematic examinations of bureaucratic career patterns in the Chinese context (Walder, 1995a; Walder, Li, & Treiman, 2000; Zhou, 1995). These studies have developed theoretical arguments about the institutional basis of bureaucratic career patterns and empirically examined different career lines and their associated redistributive benefits in the Chinese bureaucracy.

In this study, I report a systematic examination of the historical evolution of bureaucratic career patterns in China from 1949 to 1994. This research builds on early studies and makes two contributions to this literature. Theoretically, I go beyond the focus on the institutional structure of the communist bureaucracy in the earlier studies and emphasize the link between political dynamDownloaded from cps.sagepub.com at STANFORD UNIV on September 21, 2010 1038 COMPARATIVE POLITICAL STUDIES / November 2001 ics and bureaucratic career patterns, especially changes in bureaucratic career patterns over time. Empirically, I use detailed life history information of respondents drawn from 20 cities in China to examine (a) acquisition of political status—Communist Party membership, (b) patterns of entry into the Chinese bureaucracy, and (c) promotion patterns within the bureaucracy.

I define the concept of bureaucracy broadly to include both government agencies and work organizations such as nonprofit organizations and firms. I define bureaucrats to include both administrators and political cadres (e.g., heads of Communist Party branches in work organizations). In China, work organizations were under the dual authorities of both the heads of the local Communist Party branches and administrators in the workplace. Most work organizations were under the administrative apparatus of the state. Access to and promotion within these organizations as well as redistributive benefits have been regulated by central government agencies or appointed authorities.



To develop a theoretical explanation of bureaucratic career patterns in China, I take as my starting point Walder’s (1995a) observation that under state socialism, bureaucratic career patterns are governed by processes of allocating political opportunities. As Walder pointed out, The power to offer career opportunities has long been recognized as a central pillar of Communist rule, either as a system of social control (rewards for loyalty) or as a means of fostering anticipatory socialization and (at least outward) ideological conformity. (p. 309) The bureaucracy as an organizational weapon of the communist state

gives rise to the most salient characteristic of bureaucratic career patterns:

Entries into and promotions within the bureaucracy are tightly controlled by political processes and by political criteria of selection (Burns, 1987). The communist state uses privileges and status attached to bureaucratic positions as incentives to ensure political loyalty and compliance to state policies.

Political loyalty and the adherence to the party line were the single most important criteria in recruitment and promotion in the Chinese bureaucracy, often at the expense of competence and efficiency (Harding, 1981; Lee, 1991; Walder, 1986).

It is remarkable that despite a series of political and bureaucratic reforms in the 50 years of state socialist China, the basic governance structure of the Downloaded from cps.sagepub.com at STANFORD UNIV on September 21, 2010 Zhou / BUREAUCRATIC CAREER PATTERNS IN CHINA 1039 Chinese bureaucracy has remained largely intact, especially with respect to the tight control of personnel management and the process of political selection. Even during the Cultural Revolution when the bureaucratic apparatus was paralyzed, the “rebellious leaders” could not hold onto their power unless they were formally recognized by the Maoist leaders at the top. In the recent reform era, despite substantive decentralizations in the bureaucratic decision-making processes, personnel appointment (e.g., the head of a work organization in the state sector) is still tightly controlled by the bureaucratic authority of the state.

Given the apparent stability in personnel management and political control, has the Chinese bureaucracy changed? I submit that the Chinese bureaucracy has evolved considerably over time and that these changes are closely associated with and reflected in bureaucratic career patterns. My theoretical arguments focus on two underlying political processes, both of which are rooted in the inherent tensions within the institutional arrangements of state socialism. The first is the political dynamics reflected in state policy shifts.

These dynamics affect bureaucratic career patterns through shifting selection criteria in bureaucratic recruitment and promotion. The second is embedded in the inherent contention between the centralized state and bureaucratic interests, which often resulted in frequent bureaucratic reforms and political campaigns that disrupted career patterns and reshaped the life chances of the bureaucrats.


A major source of changes in bureaucratic career patterns is the marked political dynamics, in the form of shifting state policies, that coexist with stable bureaucratic organizations. Because of the concentration of power in the hands of the top leaders, significant fluctuations in state policies are often induced by changes in the top leadership’s priorities (e.g., economic development versus political control, decentralization versus centralization), by leadership succession, or by changes in state-society relationships (Perry, 1989;

Zhou, 1993). Scholars have long recognized that fluctuations and shifts in state policies have characterized the political dynamics in state socialist China (Parish, 1984; Tsou, 1986; Whyte, 1985; Zhou, Tuma, & Moen, 1996).

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