- Assessing the Balance of Power in Central-Local Relations in China ed. by John A. Donaldson
The newcomer to China is often surprised at the degree of local variation in what is said to be national policy. The People's Republic is after all a Communist Party-state and images of (often enforced) conformity predominate. The degree of localism can often be a puzzle. Beijing announces that international students who have studied a postgraduate degree in China can obtain work visas. Some (though by no means all) local authorities demur. Surely this kind of administrative behavior challenges the power of the state?
Those more acquainted with China will turn to a number of different explanations. There is the question of scale. China is just so big and diverse that a high degree of conformity could never be imaginable. Most of China's provinces are better understood as country equivalents in terms of socioeconomic development. After all while there has been a national Chinese language for some time it still remains inflected by local pronunciations, vocabulary, and grammar. Then there is the perspective of "doing the best according to local conditions"—a well-established principle of Chinese Communist Party practice born out of the Party's guerrilla heritage. Finally, there is the historical approach. This is how the administrative and political system always worked for a couple of thousand years.
Academic research on China has long moved beyond the expectation of an overly conforming Communist Party-state to an understanding of a balance in central-local relations. Though there were certainly times in the era of state socialism when "localism" was a severe crime, in the reform era scholars (as well as the Party-state) have come to appreciate this is no longer a zero-sum game. Central government plays its role in its ways, local governments play theirs in theirs. There may be a tension between the two from time to time, but such conflict is manageable and for some commentators even seen as being a creative tension, which makes the administrative system work, possibly even more effectively.
The next stage in research on the central-local balance, as this volume makes clear, is to consider how the balance can be best conceptualized [End Page 165] and to some extent measured. It is easy enough to talk about a balance of power but far harder to pin down precisely what is meant, not least because even political power changes with context. This book tackles that problem by coming at it through looking at a series of different policy areas. The conclusions are complex. Governance is not only decentralized but also disaggregated with processes and outcomes dependent on policy areas, players, and the importance attached to specific outcomes by the central Party-state. The complexity of issue areas is not surprising, but the role of new players as China's socioeconomic growth introduces additional agents into the mix is perhaps more so. Civil society in a number of different forms appears as a player in policy development, as do foreign interests. Often edited volumes are a mixed bag, lacking coherence. This volume is unwaveringly on song: an excellent addition to the literature, providing both an introduction to central-local relations in China to the student just starting out with an interest, as well as detailed studies of specific policy areas for the more specialized researcher.
Donaldson's introduction sets the tone for the volume by providing the necessary information that the intelligent but basically uninformed reader needs to know about the administrative hierarchy in the People's Republic of China. This can be a nightmare to explain given not only the constant changes over time, but also the tendency for the current regime to create hybrid levels of administration and sometimes even to use the same word to describe different levels in that administrative hierarchy. In Suzhou for example, there is a Suzhou Prefecture (called Suzhou City), a Suzhou City under the prefectural city (called Suzhou City), and...