CCP Internal Resilience – post 7 of 10

Chinese bureaucratic stability is not western bureaucratic stability

The bureaucracy can be, should be, must be, stable even if leadership is in crisis.  What keeps midlevel bureaucrats and above from collaborating for substantial change?  After all, there are leadership crises from time to time –Bo Xilai is the best known to us, but he was no midlevel, and there have been many more, back to the time of Mao.  And Bo Xilai had loyalists in Chongqing and Dalian, but no one was volunteering to go to jail with him.

Midlevel bureaucrats, in China or out, simply want to keep their jobs and are not going to be leading revolutions.  They lack the resources and connections to press for significant change.  But midlevels still want to feel safe in their jobs.

What keeps bureaucrats safe, so they don’t feel the need to support great change?  Max Weber’s six points of bureaucratic effectiveness is one such model for stability of the bureaucracy.  If this model obtains in the real world, a bureaucracy should be stable over time and be able to perform well under changes in political leadership. 

The six –

  1. A formal hierarchical structure - Each level controls the level below and is controlled by the level above. A formal hierarchy is the basis of central planning and centralized decision making.
  2. Management by rules - Controlling by rules allows decisions made at high levels to be executed consistently by all lower levels.
  3. Organization by functional specialty - Work is to be done by specialists, and people are organized into units based on the type of work they do or skills they have.
  4. Responsibility and accountability – clarity of mission and authority
  5. Purposely impersonal - The idea is to treat all employees equally and customers equally, and not be influenced by individual differences.
  6. Employment based on technical qualifications – there is a systematic salary structure, a path to advancement, protection from arbitrary dismissal

But the Weberian model does not fit Chinese bureaucracy at all.  In public administration terms, the Chinese bureaucratic model is not rational.  Rules are unclear; responsibilities are unclear.  Written rules are vague or contradictory.  Loyalty is to a leader, not to a system of rational organization. 

So how can Chinese bureaucrats feel safe in their jobs?  One immediate answer, now under Mr. Xi, is they cannot feel safe.  But in more normal times, it is CCP that both creates the irrational system and then protects individuals within it.  If CCP so chooses. 

The Weberian model of bureaucracy does not fit China because of the intimate intertwining of CCP with government at every level and in every discipline.  The ruling party is going to control personnel assignments, without question.  There is a personnel department at every level of government, but its head is always CCP.  Nevertheless, CCP’s role in all decision-making is informal.  CCP is an exogenous force outside of administration theory that lurks within every department, every bureau, at every level. 

The “bureaucracy with Chinese characteristics” makes it possible for CCP to constantly revise the bureaucracy and still maintain political integration.  Franz Schurmann in Ideology and Organization in Communist China sees a hidden value in Mao’s concept of contradictions, which allow CCP to continually revise theory and practice as circumstances demand.  As an added benefit, CCP can admit to the contradictions while it conducts research to achieve resolution.  For midlevel cadres, there is no government promotion that is not approved by the external force of CCP.

The Chinese bureaucracy remains inexplicable by the Weberian model.  The repetition of its dynastic model over millennia, even after many rebellions, the preservation of the literati, the isolation of the emperor from local developments, the continued presumption of the emperor as the ultimate ruler of all nations, the disinterest in outside affairs, the decentralization of the bureaucracy … Max Weber called for clarity in orders, good functional separation of powers, impartiality in promotion.  All are violated in the Chinese bureaucracy.  The manifest failures of  the Weberian model in China should make for paralysis, poor decision-making, disastrous failures in coordination, and bad morale.  But it doesn’t.   Max Weber has almost no street cred in Chinese bureaucracy, and yet there is stability.

A student of mine from Anshan in Liaoning, smart woman with experience, was denied an expected promotion because the local party leader wanted that position for his son.  This, after her colleagues had voted to approve her in the new job.  She had been approved by her superiors for the new job, and was within days of starting.  She was shoved aside by the party leader, at the last moment, with literally no place to go.  She could remain in her danwei, her government unit, but there was no ability to transfer to another government department in Anshan or to another city.  She was trapped.  What does loss of face do to her in that situation?  Any impact on her colleagues?  Still, Chinese bureaucracy persists. How is that?

Franz Schurmann noted that Chinese administration fails the Weberian test.  It has built-in deterrents to bureaucratization and routinization, he said, that might cause bureaucratic failure or stimulate rivals. A life career path, rotation of officials through the bureaucratic system, short terms of office in one location, and constant adjustment of policies for local situations reward loyalty and discourage factionalism.  My friend in Anshan was within six or eight years of retirement, when she would get a good pension and benefits.  She was a lifer, and she had no choice but to be supportive and cooperative.  Sometimes, the CCP resilience is coerced. 

Andrew Nathan, writing in The Struggle at the Top in the New York Review of Books, comments on how rules make for stability -

China’s fairly recent ability to renew and upgrade its political leadership over the course of several decades is unique among authoritarian systems. Under Mao, in the Soviet Union under Brezhnev, in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and in similar systems elsewhere, leaders clung to power for decades while their regimes stagnated or fell into disorder. Li shows how formal rules and informal norms put in place by Deng Xiaoping and his successor, Jiang Zemin, have promoted the turnover of elites in post-Mao China.

The presence of a single ideology and its constant reinforcement are a strong incentive to unity of thought and investment in the system.  Elsewhere, I have referred to a commitment to CCP as akin to a commitment to the Church, as a priest.  The commitment is lifelong, confers benefits along the way and in retirement.  There is support all along the path, readings and learnings and training, and never an institutional doubt as to the truth of what is proclaimed.

Kerry Brown agrees.  In the Journal of Chinese Governance he  writes

In this framework, the Communist Party functions more like a cultural movement rather than a purely political entity, something that differentiates it from organized political parties in democracies. It has rituals, a language, a history, a kind of teleology, a cadre priesthood, and, in the end, an elite ideology with its practices that define it. It is more like a kind of community within itself. The closest entity we can cite from European or American contexts is perhaps the Catholic Church.


Over the years, I have had private discussions with several CCP members who quietly express their desire to get out of the system.  Despite will and ability, none do.  If any chose to leave and write about their experiences in CCP, they would find a huge audience.  Still, none do.  The vow, once made, does not break easily.