Skip to main content Accessibility help

How China Promotes Its Military Officers: Interactions between Formal and Informal Institutions

  • Peng Wang (a1) and Jingyi Wang (a2)


How does China promote its military officers? We present a qualitative study on the determinants (connections versus performance) of the selection of military officers. Drawing on 48 in-depth interviews with serving and retired military officers, we argue that the inability of the rule-based personnel system to assess candidate performance (professional competence and political integrity) leads to the rise of the informal institution of guanxi – a Chinese version of personal connections – in promoting military officers. Guanxi both substitutes for and competes with the formal personnel system. Information received through guanxi networks is used by superiors to evaluate subordinates’ professional competence and political integrity. Guanxi is also used by corrupt officers to distort democratic procedures and facilitate the buying and selling of military positions. We conclude that the co-existence of a rule-based personnel system and guanxi leads superiors to promote competent candidates within their guanxi networks.

中国是如何提拔军官的? 本文是对影响军官选拔因素(关系 vs 能力)的质性研究。我们认为正式的人事提拔制度不足以全面衡量候选人的绩效(专业能力和政治廉洁),这导致了“关系”在提拔军事人才过程中发挥作用。“关系”与正式的人事制度是替代和竞争的关系。上级领导可以利用“关系”网络来获取可靠信息从而衡量下级军官的专业能力和政治廉洁。 “关系”也可能成为腐败官员扭曲民主集中制和达成腐败交易的工具。我们的结论是: “关系”与正式制度的并存导致上级领导提拔关系网里有能力的人。


Corresponding author

Email: (corresponding author).


Hide All
Allen, Kenneth. 2015. “The top trends in China's military diplomacy.” China Brief 15(9), 1014.
Allen, Kenneth, Chao, Brian and Kinsella, Ryan. 2013. “China's military political commissar system in comparative perspective.” China Brief 13(5), 1519.
Barbalet, Jack. 2014. “The structure of guanxi: resolving problems of network assurance.” Theory and Society 43(1), 5169.
Bian, Yanjie, and Ang, Soon. 1997. “Guanxi networks and job mobility in China and Singapore.” Social Forces 75(3), 9811005.
Chase, Michael S., Engstrom, Jeffrey, Cheung, Tai Ming, Gunness, Kristen A., Harold, Scott Warren, Puska, Susan and Berkowitz, Samuel K.. 2015. China's Incomplete Military Transformation: Assessing the Weaknesses of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.
Chen, Xiao Ping, and Chen, Chao C.. 2004. “On the intricacies of the Chinese guanxi: a process model of guanxi development.” Asia Pacific Journal of Management 21(3), 305324.
Choi, Eun Kyong. 2012. “Patronage and performance: factors in the political mobility of provincial leaders in post-Deng China.” The China Quarterly 212, 965981.
Erickson, Andrew S., and Allen, Kenneth. 2017. “China's navy gets a new helmsman (part 2): remaining uncertainties.” China Brief 17(4), 612.
Godwin, Paul H.B. 1999. “Party–military relations.” In Goldman, Merle and MacFarquhar, Roderick (eds.), The Paradox of China's Post-Mao Reforms. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 7699.
Gong, Ting, and Xiao, Hanyu. 2017. “The formation and impact of isomorphic pressures: extravagant position-related consumption in China.” Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration, and Institutions 30(3), 387405.
Grzymala-Busse, Anna M. 2010. “The best laid plans: the impact of informal rules on formal institutions in transitional regimes.” Studies in Comparative International Development 45(3), 311333.
Guthrie, Douglas. 1998. “The declining significance of guanxi in China's economic transition.” The China Quarterly 154(1), 254282.
Helmke, Gretchen, and Levitsky, Steven. 2004. “Informal institutions and comparative politics: a research agenda.” Perspectives on Politics 2(4), 725740.
Hillman, Ben. 2010. “Factions and spoils: examining political behavior within the local state in China.” The China Journal 64, 118.
Hillman, Ben. 2014. Patronage and Power: Local State Networks and Party-State Resilience in Rural China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Horak, Sven, and Restel, Katja. 2016. “A dynamic typology of informal institutions: learning from the case of guanxi.” Management and Organization Review 12(3), 122.
Hwang, K.K. 1987. “Face and favor: the Chinese power game.” American Journal of Sociology 92(4), 944974.
Ji, You. 2014. “The roadmap of upward advancement for PLA leaders.” In Kou, Chien-wen and Zang, Xiaowei (eds.), Choosing China's Leaders. New York: Routledge, 4264.
Ji, You. 2015a. China's Military Transformation. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Ji, You. 2015b. “Post-Deng transformation of the People's Liberation Army: changes, continuities and consequences.” In Goodman, David S.G. (ed.), Handbook of the Politics of China. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 117136.
Jia, Ruixue, Kudamatsu, Masayuki and Seim, David. 2015. “Political selection in China: the complementary roles of connections and performance.” Journal of the European Economic Association 13(4), 631668.
Kaufman, Alison A., and Mackenzie, Peter W.. 2009. The Culture of the Chinese People's Liberation Army. Arlington, VA: CNA China Studies.
Landry, Pierre F. 2008. Decentralized Authoritarianism in China. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Leventhal, Gerald S. 1976. “The distribution of rewards and resources in groups and organizations.” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 9, 91131.
Li, Hongbin, and Zhou, Li-An. 2005. “Political turnover and economic performance: the incentive role of personnel control in China.” Journal of Public Economics 89(9), 1743–62.
Li, Ling. 2011. “Performing bribery in China: guanxi-practice, corruption with a human face.” Journal of Contemporary China 20(68), 120.
, Xiaobo, and Landry, Pierre F.. 2014. “Show me the money: interjurisdiction, political competition and fiscal extraction in China.” American Political Science Review 108(03), 706722.
Luo, Yadong. 1997. “Guanxi: principles, philosophies, and implications.” Human Systems Management 16(1), 4352.
Luo, Yadong. 2008. “The changing Chinese culture and business behavior: the perspective of intertwinement between guanxi and corruption.” International Business Review 17(2), 188193.
Manion, Melanie. 2004. Corruption by Design: Building Clean Government in Mainland China and Hong Kong. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Martinson, Ryan D. 2016. “The courage to fight and win: the PLA cultivates xuexing for the wars of the future.” China Brief 16(9), 1114.
Nathan, Andrew J. 1973. “A factionalism model for CCP politics.” The China Quarterly 53, 3466.
Peng, Mike W. 2003. “Institutional transitions and strategic choices.” Academy of Management Review 28(2), 275296.
Poppo, Laura, and Zenger, Todd. 2002. “Do formal contracts and relational governance function as substitutes or complements?Strategic Management Journal 23(8), 707725.
Potter, Pitman B. 2002. “Guanxi and the PRC legal system: from contradiction to complementarity.” In Gold, Thomas, Guthrie, Doug and Wank, David (eds.), Social Connections in China: Institutions, Culture, and the Changing Nature of Guanxi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 179195.
Qi, Xiaoying. 2013. “Guanxi, social capital theory and beyond: toward a globalized social science.” The British Journal of Sociology 64(2), 308324.
Schramm, Matthias, and Taube, Markus. 2003. “The institutional economics of legal institutions, guanxi, and corruption in the PR China.” In Kidd, John B. and Richter, Frank-Jurgen (eds.), Fighting Corruption in Asia: Causes, Effects, and Remedies. Singapore: World Scientific, 271296.
Shih, Victor, Adolph, Christopher and Liu, Mingxing. 2012. “Getting ahead in the communist party: explaining the advancement of central committee members in China.” American Political Science Review 106(1), 166187.
Standifird, Stephen S., and Marshall, R. Scott. 2000. “The transaction cost advantage of guanxi-based business practices.” Journal of World Business 35(1), 2142.
Wang, Peng. 2014. “Extra-legal protection in China: how guanxi distorts China's legal system and facilitates the rise of unlawful protectors.” British Journal of Criminology 54(5), 809830.
Wang, Peng. 2016. “Military corruption in China: the role of guanxi in the buying and selling of military positions.” The China Quarterly 228, 970991.
Wang, Peng. 2017. The Chinese Mafia: Organized Crime, Corruption, and Extra-Legal Protection. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wank, David L. 1999. “Producing property rights: strategies, networks, and efficiency in urban China's nonstate firms.” In Oi, Jean C. and Walder, Andrew G. (eds.), Property Rights and Economic Reform in China. Standford, CA: Stanford University Press, 248272.
Weber, Max. 1946. Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Wedeman, Andrew. 2012. Double Paradox: Rapid Growth and Rising Corruption in China. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Xin, Katherine K., and Pearce, Jone L.. 1996. “Guanxi: connections as substitutes for formal institutional support.” Academy of Management Journal 39(6), 1641–58.
Yang, Mayfair Mei-hui 1994. Gifts, Favors, and Banquets: The Art of Social Relationships in China. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Yang, Mayfair Mei-hui. 2002. “The resilience of guanxi and its new deployments: a critique of some new guanxi scholarship.” The China Quarterly 170, 459476.
Zang, Xiaowei. 2004. Elite Dualism and Leadership Selection in China. London: Routledge.
Zeng, Qingjie. 2016. “Democratic procedures in the CCP's cadre selection process: implementation and consequences.” The China Quarterly 225, 7399.
Zhai, Xuewei. 2013. Renqing, mianzi yu quanli de zaishengchan (Face, Favour and Reproduction of Power). Beijing: Peking University Press.
Zhan, Jing Vivian. 2012. “Filling the gap of formal institutions: the effects of guanxi network on corruption in reform-era China.” Crime, Law and Social Change 58(2), 93109.
Zhu, Jiangnan. 2008a. “Officials’ Promotion Likelihood and Regional Variation of Corruption in China.” PhD diss., Northwestern University.
Zhu, Jiangnan. 2008b. “Why are offices for sale in China? A case study of the office-selling chain in Heilongjiang province.” Asian Survey 48(4), 558579.
Zuo, Cai Vera. 2015. “Promoting city leaders: the structure of political incentives in China.” The China Quarterly 224, 955984.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The China Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0305-7410
  • EISSN: 1468-2648
  • URL: /core/journals/china-quarterly
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed