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Civil Service Reform in China: Impacts on Civil Servants' Behaviour*

  • John P. Burns and Wang Xiaoqi

China's civil service reforms sought to improve the performance of civil servants by introducing more competitive selection processes, incentives to reward performance, and tightened monitoring and supervision. The impact of the reforms was undermined by clashes with other policies being implemented at the time and by a failure to address elements of organization culture that have rewarded various forms of illegal behaviour, such as corruption. Empirical material for our study is drawn from government data and the experience of civil service reform in three Chinese urban areas (Beijing's Haidian district, Changchun and Ningbo) since the 1990s.

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1 See Ministry of Personnel, Guojia gongwuyuan zhidu zanxing tiaoli (Provisional Regulations on State Civil Servants) (Beijing: Ministry of Personnel, 1993). For the Civil Service Law in English, see the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security website, accessed 14 April 2009.

2 On China's civil service regulations and the Civil Service Law, see Chan, Hon S. and Suizhou, Edward Li, “Civil service law in the People's Republic of China: a return to cadre personnel management,” Public Administration Review, May/June 2007, pp. 383–98; Manion, Melanie, Retirement of Revolutionaries in China: Public Policies, Social Norms, Private Interests (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993); Manion, Melanie, “The cadre management system, post-Mao: the appointment, promotion, transfer and removal of Party and state leaders,” The China Quarterly, No. 102 (1985), pp. 203–33; Burns, John P., “Strengthening central CCP control of leadership selection: the 1990 nomenklatura,” The China Quarterly, No. 138 (1994), pp. 458–91.

3 Walder, Andrew G., “Career mobility and the communist political order,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 60, No. 3 (1995), pp. 309–28; Xueguang, Zhou, “Partial reform and the Chinese bureaucracy in the post-Mao era,” Comparative Political Studies, No. 28 (1995), pp. 440–68; Xueguang, Zhou, “Political dynamics and bureaucratic career patterns in the People's Republic of China, 1949–1994,” Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 34, No. 9 (2001), pp. 1036–62.

4 Tsao, King K. and Worthley, John Abbott, “Chinese public administration: change with continuity during political and economic development,” Public Administration Review, Vol. 55, No. 2 (1995), pp. 169–74.

5 Tong, Caroline Haiyan, Straussman, Jeffrey D. and Broadnax, Walter D., “Civil service reform in the People's Republic of China: case studies of early implementation,” Public Administration and Development, No. 19 (1999), pp. 193206.

6 Chan, Hon S.The civil service under one country, two systems: the case of Hong Kong and the People's Republic of China,” Public Administration Review, Vol. 63, No. 4 (2003), pp. 405–17.

7 Chou Kwok Ping, “Conflict and ambiguity in the implementation of the civil service reform in China, 1993–2000,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, the University of Hong Kong, 2003; Ping, Chou Kwok, “Civil service reform in China, 1993–2001: a case of implementation failure,” China: an International Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2 (2004), pp. 210–34.

8 See Brehm, John and Gates, Scott, Working, Shirking, and Sabotage: Bureaucratic Response to a Democratic Public (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1999).

9 For a recent re-statement of this policy see “Premier outlines anti-corruption work; vows to build clean government,” People's Daily online, 30 April 2008, at, accessed 23 April 2009.

10 These figures are for the urban area only. State Statistical Bureau of China, Zhongguo chengshi tongji nianjian 2007 (China City Statistical Yearbook 2007) (Beijing: Zhongguo tongji chubanshe 2008), p. 125.

11 Haidian dang'an guan (Haidian Archives), 2008 nian Haidianqu dashiji (Haidian memorabilia 2008),, retrieved 16 April 2009. Haidianqu zhengfu (Haidian District Government), Zonghe shili xianzhu zengqiang (Capacity has been Improved),, retrieved 16 April 2009.

12 China City Statistical Yearbook 2007, p. 133.

13 For details see the Appendix and Wang Xiaoqi, “China's civil service reform and local government performance: a principal–agent perspective,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, the University of Hong Kong, 2006. The 2004 interviews focused on the implementation of civil service reform.

14 Civil Service Law, article 4.

15 See the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security website

16 By 2009 none of Changchun, Ningbo or Haidian had merged their personnel and labour and social security bureaus.

17 See Burns, John P., “The Chinese Communist Party's nomenklatura system as a leadership selection mechanism: an evaluation,” in Brødsgaard, Kjeld Erik and Yongnian, Zheng (eds.), The Chinese Communist Party in Reform (London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 3358 for a discussion of conflict within the Party during the early 1950s and the Cultural Revolution.

18 See, for example, Manion, , “The cadre management system, post-Mao”; Burns, John P. (ed.), The Chinese Communist Party's Nomenklatura System (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1989); Burns, “Strengthening central CCP control of leadership selection”; Chan, Hon S., “Cadre personnel management in China: the nomenklatura system, 1990–1998,” The China Quarterly, No. 179 (2004), pp. 703–34.

19 The system was extended to the CCP in 1993, the Youth League, the Women's Federation, the Song Qingling Foundation, the NPC Standing Committee bureaucracy, the CPPCC National Committee bureaucracy, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the Science and Technology Association, and the Returned-Overseas Chinese Federation in 1994, the Association of Taiwan Compatriots, the Huangpu Military Academy Alumni Association, the eight democratic parties and the All China Federation of Industry and Commerce in 1995, the All-China Federation of Literature and Art Circles, the All-China Writers' Association, the All-China Journalists' Association, the All-China Staff and Workers Political Thought Work Research Association, the service units (shiye danwei) of all local Party committees, the All-China Legal Studies Association, the All-China Association for Friendship with Peoples Overseas, the All-China Foreign Affairs Studies Association, the All-China International Trade Promotion Association, and the All-China Red Cross in 1996, and the All-China Disabled People's Federation, in 1997. See Ministry of Personnel (ed.), Renshi gongzuo wenjian xuanbian (Selection of Personnel Work Documents) (various volumes) (Beijing: Renshi chubanshe, various years).

20 Interviews with Supreme People's Court judges, Hong Kong, May 2001.

21 See the Civil Service Law, article 11. In 1998, officials reported that 80% of civil servants were Party members. See Zhongguo jigou, No. 7 (1998), p. 4.

22 The policy in effect restricts entry to economically active Party members under the age of 28 who have a university degree.

23 In 2004 the CCP International Liaison Department sought 29 new people, and reserved only one of these positions for a CCP member. The other posts were for language translators. The Intellectual Property bureau was the largest hirer on the list (132 positions) and reserved only one (a personnel functionary) for a CCP member.

24 See “Zhongyang, guojia jiguan 2004 nian kaoshi luyong jiguan gongzuo renyuan he guojia gongwuyuan zhaokao jianjie” (“Recruitment brief for central and state organs recruiting organ work personnel and state civil servants”), 2004, Ministry of Personnel website, accessed 12 April 2004.

25 Ibid.

26 For a 2009 list see the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security website, for a zip file of available posts dispatched by central state administrative organs, service units of State Council system subordinate units that implement the state civil service system, and “other posts.” Accessed 14 April 2009.

27 See Barnett, Doak A., Cadres, Bureaucracy, and Political Power in Communist China (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967); Harding, Harry, Organizing China: The Problem of Bureaucracy 1949–1976 (California: Stanford University Press, 1981); Yung, Lee Hong, From Revolutionary Cadres to Party Technocrats in Socialist China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

28 For civil service reform policies see Chan and Li, “Civil service law in the People's Republic of China,” pp. 383–98.

29 See Milgrom, Paul and Roberts, John, Economics, Organization and Management (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1992).

30 Chou Kwok Ping, “Civil service reform in China, 1993–2001,” p. 218.

31 Personnel Bureau of Ningbo City (ed.), Ningbo shi guanyu shixing guojia gongwuyuan zhidu de zicha baogao, (Internal Investigation on the Implementation of China's Civil Service System in Ningbo City) (Ningbo, 1999).

32 See Ministry of Personnel, Guojia gongwuyuan zhidu shishi fang'an (Implementation Plan of China's Civil Service Reform) (Beijing: Ministry of Personnel, 1994); Ruhai, Li and Yuming, Zeng, Ganbu xiang gongwuyuan guodu shiwu (A Practical Handbook of Civil Service Transition) (Beijing: China Personnel Press, 1994), p. 163.

33 Personnel Bureau of Haidian District, Haidian qu guanyu guojia gongwuyuan zhidu zhifa jiancha de zicha baogao (Internal Investigation on the Implementation of the Civil Service System in Haidian District) (Haidian: 1998). Note that by 1997, 92 officials were permitted to delay transfer to the new system, presumably to permit them to become better prepared for the exam, or they were about to retire, or about to be transferred out.

34 Personnel Bureau of Ningbo City, Internal Investigation; Bureau, Changchun Personnel (ed.), Changchun shi jigou gaige yu gongwuyuan zhidu gaige wenjian ziliao huibian (Collection of Documents on Changchun's Implementing Institutional Reform and Civil Service Reform) (Changchun, 1997).

35 South China Morning Post, 20 January 2009.

36 On promotion to leadership positions see Zhonggong zhongyang guanyu yinfa “Dangzheng lingdao ganbu xuanba renyong gongzuo tiaoli” (“Regulations on the work of selecting and appointing leading Party and government cadres”), in Ministry of Personnel (ed.), Renshi gongzuo wenjian xuanbian (Selection of Personnel Work Documents), Vol. 25 (Beijing: Renshibu zhengce faguisi, 2003), pp. 827; and the Civil Service Law, articles 43–47.

37 Personal communication from a participant, Beijing, 19 March 2004.

39 At local level, see Edin, Maria, “State capacity and local agent control in China: CCP cadre management from a township perspective,” The China Quarterly, No. 173 (2003), pp. 3552.

40 Zhang Bolin, Tuijin ganbu renshi gongzuo kexuehua, minzhuhua, zhiduhua de zhongda jucuo (Great Measures to Make Cadre Personnel System more Scientific, Democratic and Institutionalized) from, accessed 7 April 2006.

41 See Wang Xiaoqi, “China's civil service reform and local government performance.”

42 Personnel Bureau of Ningbo City, Internal Investigation.

43 For scholarly studies of corruption in China see Kin-man, Chan, “Corruption in China: a principal–agent perspective,” in Wong, H.K. and Chan, Hon S. (eds.), Handbook of Comparative Public Administration in the Asia-Pacific Basin (New York: M. Dekker, 1999), pp. 299324; Gong, Ting, The Politics of Corruption in Contemporary China: An Analysis of Policy Outcomes (Westport, CN: Praeger, 1994); Gong, Ting, “Jumping into the sea: cadre entrepreneurs in China,” Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 43, No. 4 (1996), pp. 2634; Gong, Ting, “Forms and characteristics of China's corruption in the 1990s: change with continuity,” Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 30, No. 3 (1997), pp. 277–88; Gong, Ting, “Corruption and local governance: the double identity of Chinese local governments in market reform,” The Pacific Review, Vol. 19, No. 1 (2006), pp. 85102; Xiaobo, Lu, Cadre and Corruption: the Organizational Involution of the Chinese Communist Party (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000); Manion, Melanie, Corruption by Design: Building Clean Government in Mainland China and Hong Kong (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004); Yan, Sun, Corruption and Market in Contemporary China (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004); Guo, Yong, “Corruption in transitional China: an empirical analysis,” The China Quarterly, No. 194 (2008), pp. 349–64.

44 Renmin ribao (People's Daily), 24 March 1998, in FBIS-CHI-98-097, 7 April 1998; China Daily in South China Morning Post, 22 September 1998; Xinhua, 29 October 1998, in FBIS-CHI-98-310, 6 November 1998; Sing tao jih pao (Sing Tao Daily) (Hong Kong), 13 May 1998, in FBIS-CHI-98-133, 13 May 1998; Ming Pao (Hong Kong), 28 October 1998, in FBIS-CHI-98-301, 28 October 1998; and Liaowang (Outlook), 10 March 1997, in FBIS-CHI-97-071, 10 March 1997.

45 See Wenhui bao [Hong Kong], 1 August 2000.

48 Sun Yan Corruption and Market in Contemporary China, p. 146.

49 See Yong Guo, “Corruption in transitional China,” p. 358, who argues that corruption reflects institutional loopholes and institutional failure.

50 We are grateful to a reviewer for suggesting this interpretation.

51 South China Morning Post, 25 March 2005. See also SCMP, 29 April 2005.

52 A Ministry of Personnel staffer estimated that in 2002 some 38% of new appointments came in through non-competitive means. Interview, 19 March 2004.

53 See Civil Service Law chapter 5 (Appraisal), chapter 9 (Disciplinary Action), articles 83 to 85 (Dismissal) and chapter 12 (Salary, Benefits and Insurance). Civil service management authorities share responsibility for monitoring and supervising civil servants with the CCP's disciplinary inspection commission system, audit, public security, the judiciary and the procuratorate.

54 Whiting, Susan H., Power and Wealth in Rural China: the Political Economy of Institutional Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Edin, “State capacity and local agent control.”

55 See Manion, Corruption by Design; Yong Guo, “Corruption in transitional China.”

56 See Shieh, Shawn, “The rise of collective corruption in China: the Xiamen smuggling case,” Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 14, No. 42 (2005), pp. 6791.

57 Xianhua, Zhang et al. , Feng bao: chachu xiamen teda zousi an jishi (Violent Storm: A Record of the Investigation and Prosecution of the Extraordinary Xiamen Smuggling Case) (Beijing: Zuojia chubanshe, 2001), p. 239.

58 Qin Jie, Zhai Wei and Wu Jing, “Justice forever prevails over evil – on investigations into Xiamen's sensational smuggling case (Parts 1, 2 and 3),” in FBIS-CHI-2001-0223, 25 July 2001.

59 See BBC News:, accessed 30 April 2007.

62 See Angang, Hu, Zhongguo: tiaozhan fubai (China: Fighting Against Corruption) (Hangzhou: Zhejiang renmin chubanshe, 2001); Hu Angang in SCMP, 24 March 2001.

63 See Milgrom and Roberts, Economics, Organization and Management.

64 Ibid. Horn, Murray J., The Political Economy of Public Administration: Institutional Choice in the Public Sector (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

65 Interview, Changchun education bureau, 26 March 2004.

66 Burns, “Changing environmental impacts on civil service systems”; Edin, “State capacity and local agent control.”

67 In Changchun, for example, in 2000 and 2001 “outstanding” ratings went to 14.67% and 14.99% respectively.

68 Civil Service Law, article 83.

69 Interview, Ministry of Personnel, June 2002.

70 Personnel Bureau of Haidian District, Internal Investigation.

71 Personnel Bureau of Ningbo City, Internal Investigation.

72 Committee, Changchun Local History Editorial (ed.), Changchun nianjian 1999 (Changchun Yearbook 1999) (Changchun: Changchun Yearbook Press, 2000). The regulations required that every organization should report the civil servant who ranked lowest in the annual performance appraisal to its superior organization. In 1998, 44 civil servants were dismissed due to failing the appraisal. In 1999, 272 civil servants who ranked last in their organizations were reported to the Organization Department of Changchun Party Committee by various Party and government organs. Follow-up investigations were carried out on these cases. 91 of them received an administrative warning.

73 Committee, Changchun Local History Editorial (ed.), Changchun nianjian 2000 (Changchun Yearbook 2000) (Changchun: Changchun Yearbook Press, 2001).

74 Liu, Xi, Zhongguo gongyuyuan zhidu (Chinese Civil Service System) (Beijing: Qinghua daxue chubanshe, 2002), p. 29. Xi reports that in 1998 there were 5.3 million civil servants in China. Chan and Li, “Civil service law in the People's Republic of China,” p. 389 report that as a result of the expanded coverage of the civil service there are now about 6.3 million.

75 Burns, John P., “Civil service reform in China,” in Governance in China (OECD, 2005), pp. 5174.

76 Burns, John P., “Rewarding comrades at the top in China,” in Hood, C. and Peters, B.G. (eds.), Reward for High Public Office: Asian and Pacific Rim States (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 4969.

77 CCP Organization Department, Dangzheng lingdao ganbu tongji ziliao huibian 1954–1998 (Collection of Statistical Information on Party and Government Leading Cadres 1954–1998) (Beijing: Dangjian duwu chubanshe, 1999). Many factors, including the expansion of higher education opportunities, contributed to this result.

78 See Milgrom and Roberts, Economics, Organization and Management.

79 See Wang Xiaoqi, “China's civil service reform and local government performance.”

* We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Hong Kong Research Grants Council for this article.

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