Published online by Cambridge University Press: 18 October 2013
Many studies raise doubts about the effectiveness of the institutions, programmes and instruments that shape the Chinese national innovation system. This article scrutinizes central–local interactions in the national Torch Programme that has governed a large group of high-technology zones since 1988. The Torch Programme's procedural practices challenge widely shared assumptions about the dirigiste character of Chinese innovation policy. It combines centralized definition of programme objectives with extensive local implementation experiments. As three case studies demonstrate, bottom-up policy innovations are effectively fed back into national programme adjustments and into horizontal policy diffusion. The array of organizational patterns and promotional instruments that emerges from competitive “experimentation under the shadow of hierarchy” (ESH) goes way beyond what could have been initiated from top down. We hypothesize that the procedural strengths displayed in the Torch Programme may provide better indicators of future innovative potential in China's high-technology zones than retrospective statistical indices and benchmarks that are derived from OECD experience.
The research presented in this article was facilitated through a research grant by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The authors are grateful to Jenni Werner for her contributions in the initial research phase. They wish to thank Barry Naughton and participants in the conference on “The Political Economy of China's Technology and Innovation Policies,” held at the University of California in San Diego in June 2011, for very helpful comments.