The UC San Diego School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (soon to be School of Global Policy and Strategy) and the 21st Century China Program are host to some of the world’s leading China scholars. In this column, we sit down with these experts and ask them three questions related to their field of expertise.
Pierre Landry, author of Decentralized Authoritarianism in China: The Communist Party’s Control of Local Elites in the Post-Mao Era, is a Associate Professor of Global China StudiesÂ at NYU Shanghai. China Focus Senior Advisor Jack Zhang spoke with Professor Landry. CF Contributor Steve Kwan transcribed the results.
Jack Zhang: Thank you, Professor Landry, for giving us this opportunity to chat with you and welcome to San Diego. My first question is what are your thoughts on Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign and how has the campaign impacted central-local relations or party cohesion?
Pierre Landry: My thoughts are that this is probably not necessarily an anti-corruption campaign. I think the great difficulty of this type of movement is that we don’t really know whether he is sincere about fighting corruption, or whether he wants to go after competitors in the political system and in the name of corruption basically systematically goes after those targets. I have to say that I’m not entirely convinced so far that it is as big as people claim it is. In the sense that we don’t have a very good metric of, in the past, how serious worthy corruption cases, how many state or county officials have been taken down historically by all the general secretaries or other teams of leaders compared to the current era. So the jury’s still out on that, how deep and how long lasting is this corruption campaign going to be.
My thoughts are that this is probably not necessarily an anti-corruption campaign. I think the great difficulty of this type of movement is that we don’t really know whether he is sincere about fighting corruption, or whether he wants to go after competitors in the political system and in the name of corruption basically systematically goes after those targets.
How it’s affecting local officials – 60 provincial level people have been taken out – this is bringing a degree of fear. I’m hearing reports about the fact that bureaucrats are becoming very cautious and risk-averse, so this is going to be slowing down initiatives and making government really put their heads down and wait for probably better times. So it’s not a very good thing if you think about innovation, initiatives, the kind of growth that you would like from an endogenous perspective to spur new things. This is probably going to be bad news in the near term. But if he succeeds in reducing corruption, if this were to work, although we don’t have any evidence that it will, it might be a good thing for China in the long run.
Jack Zhang: Many on the liberal reformer wing see the anti-corruption campaign as part and parcel with efforts of economic reform. With the campaign now targeting SOEs, it seems like both initiatives are proceeding in parallel. So you’re saying that this is making officials more risk-averse and therefore it’s going to stymy initiative. How much is the other narrative true in that this will put them in line and economic reform will happen now because the entrenched interests have been beaten down?
The next leader being appointed by Xi will have the exact same incentives down the road and nothing will change.
Pierre Landry: I think the question is these institutional changes. We are seeing individuals being attacked using existing institutions to take them down, but not very much so far that I can see has been done to change the incentive system to make these officials less corrupt than the ones that are in power. We all know the tales about the maiguan problems. When a county official arrives in a county as a secretary and knows he only has three years to get to the next position and may have to contribute a significant amount of cash to get that promotion, that dynamic, which is inherent to the problem of the mechanism of appointments, this hasn’t changed. So it doesn’t really matter if you take them down. The next leader being appointed by Xi will have the exact same incentives down the road and nothing will change. We need to see institutional reforms and so far it’s been very cautious. Cadre appointment regulations have been changed on the edges, but fundamentally the institutions haven’t changed.
Jack Zhang: The second question is about the “new normal”. The Party has advocated the “new normal” as the way to see the economy de-emphasize GDP growth and promotion. Given your past research, how will this impact political competition among local officials going forward?
Pierre Landry: Well, it could actually be a good thing because you don’t want to exacerbate the expectations by pushing people to produce completely unrealistic numbers. Then you’re going to have very unhealthy competition, manipulation of data and all sorts of “public bads” that result from this. So it’s very wise in a way to try to convince everybody that this is a more manageable equilibrium down the road. I think that’s a good thing. Whether it is going to be believed by officials that this is a possible path forward, I don’t really know. I think we need time to see how officials react. But at face value I think that makes a lot of sense, to basically convince the elite within China and the Chinese population itself that China is a normal country, that no country can grow at 15 percent or 12 percent for decades without interruption. And down the road it will become a country that grows at two, three, four percent and it’s perfectly fine to do that.
Jack Zhang: What does that mean in terms of signaling of competence in the game of getting ahead?
Pierre Landry: I think it’s all relative. It’s a nested hierarchy, where access to power is in relative terms. If everyone has a reset about their expectations it should not really matter very much, as long as they all believe the same thing! The baseline has been changed. Its like when you grade a harsh exam or an easy exam in university. The grade that you get doesn’t really matter, it’s really about the ranking.
Jack Zhang: Headlines about Chinese politics typically focus on a few elites in Beijing, but much of your own work has been looking at local officials working at the provincial and county level. How much of Chinese politics is driven by elite decisions and how much should we be paying attention to these local cadres? Where is the politics of China?
Pierre Landry: I don’t think we can separate them. China is not a decentralized system like the United States in a federal way, so we can’t simply say that states or municipalities do things independent from the central government. It has to be thought about in a holistic way, as a sort of structured, non-federal system in which various agents at various levels have significant power but who are basically accountable to the higher-ups of their hierarchy. So we can’t isolate one level and simply work on it and ignore everything else. I think we have to be very mindful of these xitongs and these chains of accountability that make the Chinese system very interesting for that very reason. It’s the only country which has five levels of government and that makes for, I think, very interesting research.
Jack Zhang: So on the flipside of that, do you think there is a comparability in these various levels of government, given that it’s within this relative same set of rules that governs the entire system?
Pierre Landry: Its fairly comparable. The institutions are amazingly homogenous and it’s remarkable when you look at structures of government in one place and you look at the books and publications, productions and websites, you can see basically the same institution operates in difference localities with the same name, same structure, same number of leaders producing the same kind of data. It’s a remarkable achievement. It’s both the strength of China of having been able to construct this bureaucratic system, but also as researchers it’s great for us to be able to have this data across this huge spatial distribution that we can think about in terms of why similar institutions perform differently given various conditions at the local level.
Jack Zhang: In your own work, you focus on local level officials and data. What are some other inputs you look at?
Pierre Landry: There are also different types of conditioning factors. You can think about, for example, the presence of ethnic minorities versus none, the presence of historical legacies. We could think about where this Chinese state is coming from, and depending on where you are in China you have completely different versions of history in terms of the layers of the institutional cake. We can think about the resource and dominance, which are very different across space as well. So all of that kind of matters, but what’s beautiful about being in China is that you can look at that in the context of a fairly unified system where institutions are kind of controlled for in a way that very few countries have, or when they do they tend to be federal.
Jack Zhang: So China really is the best macro-case for comparative politics. You only need the one case!
We can research what [China] was like 600 years ago and get actually fairly meaningful metrics of performance back then and think about long term causality. That’s what makes China so interesting to me.
Pierre Landry: It’s a great case! You can leverage the characteristics of China to answer very interesting questions in social science. Also thinking about time, where you go to a county in China where there are hundreds of years of history. And its not just a concept, you have data to back it up. We can research what the place was like 600 years ago and get actually fairly meaningful metrics of performance back then and think about long term causality. That’s what makes China so interesting to me.
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