Why Don’t We Know Anything (or Not Much) About China?

Good article in the March 2018 issue of Foreign Policy!

Also reminded of this by a most graphic graphic shared by the always intriguing and hilarious fake PRC tweeter @RelevantOrgans.

People do tend to notice opacity.  But it can take a while.

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China is a very decentralized place with lots of opacity between levels. When i worked there, I found reading out-of-province A papers helped when reading about the problems of province A.  The Party propaganda departments of each province cared most of all about censoring info about their own problems and not so much about censoring news about other provinces.

Interesting too, that guidance from the center is often called an Opinion 意见 with the idea of the guidance being applied differently in different places according to local conditions. I suspect that stats are better now that they were in the 1990s. Starting about 15 years ago, the central statistical authorities set up directly-subordinate branch offices in some of the provinces to get a better hand on stats.

Doing that was actually a violation of the dual leadership principle upon which China is run — that agencies in locality are under the dual leadership of the local level and of the level of gov’t directly above it. Of course, in practice, the local leaders control the budget and most of the personnel decisions so it is strongly biased towards local control and with that comes opacity I imagine.

Chinese Communist General Party Secretary Xi Jinping has been trying to assert more central control. One of the ways he has been doing that is beefing up the Communist Party disciplinary organ by increasing personnel and establishing permanent directly subordinate to the Center branches in the provinces.

One of the weaknesses of law enforcement and central policy implementation in China arises from the dual leadership system which makes monitoring of compliance and enforcing discipline more difficult.  The USA might have similar problems, say, if there were no federal court system and no regional offices of federal government agencies.  In such a hypothetical case, the enforcement of federal laws and administrative orders would depend very much on the actions of state courts and the whim of the local authorities.

Now the appointment of top local officials by the next higher level of government mitigates the decentralization tendency of the dual leadership system.  Still, local control of budget, the naming of most officials at the local level, and bribes flowing upwards to higher level officials make effective decentralization hard to fight.

[These are the layers of government in China  from the bottom up:  township (the village isn’t a level of government (informal village administration operates as a branch office of the township) so village elections are much less consequential for China’s political evolution than one might think) . Above township would be a city or county [2862 counties and county-level governments in China]. A big city might have subordinate counties.  Then the regional (zhou) level, then the provincial level and the central government. ]

Read the full March 2018 article on the Foreign Policy website.

Nobody Knows Anything About China

Including the Chinese government.

As a foreigner in China, you get used to hearing the retort “You don’t know China!” spat at you by locals. It’s usually a knee-jerk reaction to some uncomfortable modern issue or in defense of one of the many historical myths children in the mainland are taught as unshakeable facts about the world. But it’s also true. We don’t know China. Nor, however, do the Chinese — not even the government.

We don’t know China because, in ways that have generally not been acknowledged, virtually every piece of information issued from or about the country is unreliable, partial, or distorted. The sheer scale of the country, mixed with a regime of ever-growing censorship and a pervasive paranoia about sharing information, has crippled our ability to know China. Official data is repeatedly smoothed for both propaganda purposes and individual career ambitions. That goes as much for Chinese as it does for foreigners; access may sometimes be easier for Chinese citizens, but the costs of going after information can be even higher.


More at https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/03/21/nobody-knows-anything-about-china/amp/

About 高大伟 David Cowhig

Now retired, translated Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and studying some things. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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