Inside the black box of Chinese policy

An efficient machine, a sprawling mess of bureaucracy, or sometimes both at the same time?

Ryan Manuel
Nicky Lovegrove

Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia

10 March 2017

On the new Policy Forum Pod, China expert Ryan Manuel helps lift the lid on policy-making inside the world’s largest political system.

China is a country of big numbers. Not only does it boast the world’s largest population, but it also has the world’s biggest political party overseeing what is probably the world’s largest bureaucracy. How does this system not only function, but manage on occasion to roll out deep policy reforms at speed? On this Policy Forum Pod, Ryan Manuel takes a look the accomplishments, confusions and contradictions of the Chinese political system, and whether or not other countries could learn a thing or two from China when it comes to policy. Listen here: http://bit.ly/PFPchina

Dr Ryan Manuel is a postdoctoral fellow at the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) at The Australian National University. He was formerly a political risk analyst, a management consultant with the Boston Consulting Group and a senior China analyst with the Australian government.

In explaining the workings of China’s bureaucracy, Dr Manuel points out that there are in fact two overlapping systems: the state apparatus, and the Chinese Communist Party.

“They put those two things together into one giant organism,” says Dr Manuel.

“That would be like if everyone in the [Australian] public service was a member of the Liberal Party, and then the Liberal Party made them pay their Liberal Party dues, and told them what they had to do as members of the Liberal Party. Then every day they also went to work in the Ministry of Transport or Environment.”

Because the Communist Party has such a monopoly on power, many people might assume that Chinese policy is the result of the Politburo, or even President Xi Jinping himself, telling everyone what to do. But when it comes to ruling the country’s 90 million Party members and 40 million civil servants, the reality is much more complex.

“How would Xi Jinping get 90 million people to do the same thing?” says Dr Manuel. “Also you’ve got the problem: if you’re the ruler of China, and you put your name to something and you sign on the dotted line, what happens if it goes wrong?”

There are in fact many ways policy can go wrong in China. Yet for all the bureaucratic bungles, the country has made some remarkable achievements when it comes to rolling out policy reforms in a short space of time.

“They enrolled… 500 million people in two years in health insurance,” Dr Manuel says. “You think of somebody who two years before couldn’t walk down to an office and get some money back, and now they can.”

So does China have any lessons for other countries when it comes to policy-making? Dr Manuel points to China’s willingness and ability to make use of expert advice offered by other countries.

“They can really deal well with external experts while at the same point keeping in the back of their mind, what do I want to get out of this, how do I change this?”

Yet for all of the strengths and achievements of China’s political system, it’s not one that Dr Manuel would like to see other countries adopt.

“You have to ask simple questions. Where would you rather live? What would you rather be in? What about the whole totality of someone’s experience? You can grow at 11 per cent per annum, great, and you can’t drink the water.

“To say that China does some things really well, and then extrapolate out that it’s a good system, is just a bridge way too far… It’s a system whereby, because there isn’t accountability, it’s hard to pin someone to the wall, and say why haven’t you fixed my hospital? Why haven’t you fixed my school? It’s a system whereby some things work really well, but lots of other things don’t.”

Dr Ryan Manuel’s book How to rule China will be out later this year. He was in conversation with Policy Forum’s Nicky Lovegrove.

You can catch up with our Policy Forum podcast series here, or via iTunes, Stitcher, and Soundcloud. If you like what you hear, please give us a review on iTunes and help us get the word out.

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