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  • The Chinese Staff System: A Mechanism for Bureaucratic Control and Integration
  • Oded Shenkar (bio)
Wei Li. The Chinese Staff System: A Mechanism for Bureaucratic Control and Integration. China Research Monograph, no. 44.Berkeley: Center for Chinese Studies, Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1994. viii, 78 pp. Paperback $8.00, ISBN 1-55729-044-X.

This monograph examines a relatively little studied yet critically important element of China's administration: the General Office system. The organizational mishu, to be distinguished from the personal mishu, which is not the subject of this book, provides staff support to the leadership squad at all levels in all Chinese government and Party organizations. The mishu plays a key role in responding to a key challenge for the Chinese leadership, dating back to the Imperial system, namely how to coordinate, and especially control, a far-flung and at times independent minded bureaucracy.

That the General Office system has not been much studied is mostly a consequence of its secretive and sensitive nature. Mishu staff work directly with government and Party leaders, and often possess firsthand knowledge of the personal lives of these leaders. They have direct responsibility for security and confidentiality, and have key access to and impact on the flow of information. Not surprisingly, this puts them in a powerful yet sensitive position while reducing their exposure, especially to the Western media. In The Chinese Staff System, Wei Li sets out to fill in some of this informational gap, and does so successfully, providing an in-depth, detailed description of the functions of the General Office system in both government and Party agencies.

The first chapter describes the formal functions and structure of the General Office system, and the second, the division of labor with the bureaucracy it is expected to interact with. The third chapter examines control and coordination issues; the fourth presents a detailed account of the role of the General Office in information processing, correspondence, and the organization of conferences and meetings. The fifth chapter covers some new developments, for example the increasing professionalization of the system. Chapter 6 provides a brief comparison with the American staff system. The final chapter constitutes a conclusion, summarizing the functions of the General Office system in terms of integration, control, and conflict resolution. Two appendixes outline the functions of a Provincial Party Committee General Office and those of a Provincial Government General Office, respectively.

Wei Li does a remarkable job in introducing the General Office system to the Western reader in a concise and readable format. Were the study to be expanded from a monograph to a full-fledged book, I would offer at least four venues for development. [End Page 469]

First, it would be interesting to look into the origins of the system from the institutional, ideological, and political perspectives. Such origins can be traced, for instance, to the Imperial Court system as it tried to reign in the bureaucracy and its literati champions. The system can also be traced to Mao Zedong's ambivalence toward all bureaucratic forms, holding them in suspicion on the one hand while wishing to exploit their power on the other.

Second, It would be fascinating to consider at length the organization-theory implications of the system and its parallels, for example in modern matrix-form organizations. Such formats are not vertically integrated but rather operate on a checks-and-balances basis. They are typically considered for their expertise and speed-of-response advantages rather than for their control implications.

Third, while the present study includes a brief comparison with the U.S. system especially, it would be interesting to look for possible parallels in Taiwan and Singapore, where similar challenges of control exist in a much smaller territory.

Finally, given the reform in the Chinese administration now under way, it would be important to identify any corresponding changes in the General Office system as well as challenges stemming from the proliferation of collective and private forms of ownership, which are not components of the central government.

All in all, this is a book on an important topic that is well worth reading. Follow up studies will be appreciated. [End Page 470]



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