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China's “Soft” Centralization: Shifting Tiao/Kuai Authority Relations

  • Andrew C. Mertha

This article analyses China's recent attempts to counter “local protectionism” and establish standardization in policy implementation and enforcement by centralizing a growing number of its regulatory bureaucracies up to the provincial level (what I refer to as “soft” centralization). In this article, I argue that Beijing's experiment with soft centralization, while successful to some extent, has nevertheless fallen short of its goals and that thus far this transformation remains imperfect and incomplete. The institutional cleavages and fragmentation that so often give rise to corruption and other pathologies of the state appear to have shifted from horizontal, geographic lines to vertical, functional ones. Moreover, the principal beneficiaries of this shift to centralized management are the provinces, not Beijing, as the institutional mechanisms of personnel and budgetary resource allocations are concentrated at the provincial level. Although this has curbed localism to a degree by transferring power from local governments to the newly centralized bureaucracies, it has also contributed to a situation in which newly strengthened provinces may play a key role in the emergence of a sort of perverse federalism.

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This research was made possible by a Roland Grimm Fellowship and a Weidenbaum Small Grant from the Murray Weidenbaum Centre, both at Washington University in St Louis. The article is based on interviews and archival research in China in 1999 and during the summers of 2002 and 2003. Because sources agreed to be interviewed anonymously, I indicate interviews by number. The first two digits indicate the year and the two letters indicate the location (BJ for Beijing, CD for Chengdu, CQ for Chongqing, GY for Guiyang, GZ for Guangzhou and SH for Shanghai). I thank Kjeld Erik Brødsgaard, Bruce Dickson, Pierre Landry, Gary Miller, Daniel O'Neill, Susan Whiting and Dali Yang for comments on earlier drafts, and Kenneth Lieberthal and Nicholas Lardy for feedback on an early presentation which marked the beginning of this research. I am solely responsible for any errors that remain.
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The China Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0305-7410
  • EISSN: 1468-2648
  • URL: /core/journals/china-quarterly
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