Written by Jiying Jiang, University of California San Diego
Making policy in the U.S. is a messy process, so much so that it’s often compared to sausage making. To help coordinate policy in the U.S., for instance, task forces convened by the President might be used to cut the Gordian Knot of politics. How does, then, the policy sausage get made in China, where electoral institutions don’t play a significant role? My research explores the distinct mechanisms and pathways that facilitate policy coordination in China.
I find that two factors play a crucial role in predicting the effectiveness of policy groups in promoting new policies: 1) the leader’s position in the Party hierarchy and 2) the level of competition among bureaucracies in the policy arena. A higher Party hierarchy position increases efficacy, while high levels of bureaucratic competition decrease efficacy.
In the Chinese political system, leading small groups (LSGs) serve as a critical mechanism for policy coordination within the horizontally fragmented bureaucracies. The group mechanism is designed to enhance information exchange and promote policy coordination among constituent departments on a particular issue. However, the effectiveness of LSGs can vary significantly. This study focuses on groups created within the State Council to shed light on the policymaking process.
I use a broad definition of the State Council LSGs, which includes any organization under the State Council that has a functionally similar coordinating function and structure. This definition encompasses inter-ministry coordination groups, some commissions, and command centers. Drawing on data I collected from 26 State Council groups formed between 2004 and 2015, I present a quantitative analysis of their impact on joint policymaking, i.e. coordinated policymaking involving one or more agencies under an LSG.
Figure 1 shows the number of joint policies released in a given policy arena after the formation of a LSG, relative to the year of its establishment. In general, the creation of LSGs resulted in an overall increase in joint policymaking activities within respective policy areas. However, the extent of this increase varies across different groups, with some showing a more significant rise in joint policymaking activities, highlighting the varying effectiveness of LSGs in facilitating agency coordination during the policy process.
I examine the heterogeneity in effectiveness among the 26 State Council groups by relating this variation to two factors: group leader authority and bureaucratic policy conflict. Specifically, I argue that leader authority spurs agency coordination and moves policy forward, while bureaucratic conflict hinders coordination and creates policy delays. Interaction between the two forces shapes the effectiveness of an LSG.
To analyze this heterogeneity, I developed two measures. First, I created a variable “authority” to capture the level of group leader seniority, and labeled each group according to its leader’s political rank. If a group was led by a CCP Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) member at the time of appointment, its authority is considered “high,” otherwise, it is considered “low.”.
Given the difficulty in collecting data on bureaucratic conflict at scale, I focused on the structural source of such conflict and used a proxy variable “competition” to reflect the amount of competition for “market share” among bureaucracies. I used single-issued policies released by central ministries and commissions between 1999 and 2014, and calculated the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI) — a commonly accepted measure of levels of concentration by firms in a market or organizations in a policy space — for each group’s policy issue across bureaucracies over the five years prior to formation. HHI ranges in value from 0 to 10,000, and the lower the HHI value, the more competition among bureaucracies in an LSG’s policy space, and vice versa. I then compared HHI values for each LSG with the mean value. If an LSG has a below-average value, its competition is considered “high,” otherwise, it is considered “low.”
Figure 2 visualizes heterogeneity among the 26 groups, based on these two measures. I divided the 26 groups into four subsets based on the two variables: high authority and high competition (4), low authority and high competition (11), low authority and low competition (11), with no policy issues falling into the fourth subset, high authority and low competition (0). Figure 3 shows joint policy situations before and after group formation by different combinations of authority and competition. Among groups that address high competition issues, those led by PSC members were associated with a greater increase in joint policies on average than those not led by PSC members. Among groups led by non-PSC members, those that address policy issues with low bureaucratic competition were associated with more of an increase in joint policies than those addressing high competition issues.
This study contributes to our understanding of State Council LSGs in several ways.
First, the group mechanism is not a “silver bullet” for the structural challenges in the Chinese political system, nor does it automatically produce coordination. Instead, there is variation in coordination processes and outcomes across groups.
Second, bureaucracies play a key role in drafting policies in China. Bureaucratic agencies are not just sources of information for the top leadership, but also political actors competing to influence policy. When these actors hold divergent preferences on a given issue, the policy process can become complicated, increasing the coordination costs and making LSGs’ work more challenging.
Third, groups chaired by high-ranking party leaders can propel faster and more coordinated policymaking. PSC members have more control over appointments, agendas, and directives, and are better equipped to manage coordination problems.
In general, two takeaway points are clear about the policymaking process in China: leaders matter and bureaucratic infighting leads to inefficient policymaking. It takes a high ranking leader to break through the logjam of a competitive policy arena.
Jiying Jiang received her PhD in political science in 2023 at University of California, San Diego. Her research interests include Chinese politics and policy-making, legislative process, and bureaucratic politics. Her dissertation examines the political logic of ambiguity in Chinese national statutes.
Cover Image: Xinhua Gate of Zhongnanhai in Beijing, China. The main entrance of the Chinese Central Government. Credit: V2images/iStock photo