Is China's public bureaucracy overstaffed? To answer this basic question objectively, one needs to define public employment in the contemporary Chinese context; survey data sources available to measure public employment; and finally, compare China's public employment size with that of other countries. Using a variety of new sources, this article performs all three tasks. It also goes further to clarify the variance between bianzhi (formally established posts) and actual staffing size, as well as other permutations of the bianzhi system, especially chaobian (exceeding the bianzhi). A key finding is that China's net public employment per capita is not as large as often perceived; quite the contrary, it is one-third below the international mean. However, it is clear that the actual number of employees in the party-state bureaucracy has grown – and is still growing – steadily since reforms, despite repeated downsizing campaigns. Such expansion has been heavily concentrated at the sub-provincial levels and among shiye danwei (extra-bureaucracies).
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