The Evolving Behaviour of Policy Actors and the Citizenry in China

Xi Jinping's "new China" is one characterized by decelerating economic growth, greater bureaucratic re-centralization, and the introduction of new state-led mechanisms of social control that affect civic participation. Using a series of novel social surveys, this project, supported in part by multi-year large grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, looks at how policymakers and everyday citizens have adapted their behaviour to this new reality.

Policy Actors and Experimentation

The first aspect of the project draws upon the Policy Innovation and China Survey (PICS), and looks at why local officials experiment with policy even when directed not to do so? As discussed in an article published in the Journal of Asian Public Policy [audio paper: video and podcast], this is a puzzle given that the authoritarian bureaucracy – with stringent top-down control mechanisms and incentive structures – demands central-level directive compliance and deference to hierarchical authority [interview: video]. One study, published in the Journal of Chinese Political Science [audio paper: video and podcast], points to strong support for an evolutionary process of policymaking at the local level, predicated on individual preferences interacting with institutional incentives, such as the evaluation system and the networked-structure of cadre knowledge. Although some officials are still conducting policy experimentation, the overall reduction in innovation strongly suggests that potential solutions to governance problems remain trapped at the local level, and that the central government might lose this “adaptable” governance mechanism that has contributed to its past economic and political successes.

In another study, published in Public Administration and Development [audio paper: video and podcast], three base-line personality types of policymakers are discerned: authoritarian , consultative, and entrepreneurial. This typology of personalities is used to inductively explore personality characteristics and preferences for policy experimentation in an article published in Governance. The results confirm that substantial policy variation in China is determined, in part, by individual personality characteristics of local policymakers. Moreover, local officials who desire social input into policymaking are more willing to conduct policy experimentation, and are less likely to stop innovating even as the risk associated with policy entrepreneurship increases under Xi Jinping’s centralized governance style. These findings help us understand agentic variations in local governments’ behaviour, and provide insight into the characteristics of leaders who are likely to innovate in the "new China".

Citizens' Expectations of the State in the Economy

The second aspect of this project analyzes citizen’s expectations of the state in the economy by leveraging the 2016 and 2019 Chinese Citizens Expectations of the State Survey (CCESS). In a journal article published in The China Quarterly [translation: Chinese] the notion of economic growth as a legitimation strategy for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is examined. Namely, the study argues that beyond improvements in material well-being, Chinese citizens form judgments about the state’s effectiveness in carrying out a variety of economic roles beyond growth, and they scrutinize the fairness of these market interventions. While citizens generally view state ownership and interventionist regulation in a positive light, there is a surprising degree of dissatisfaction with how the state actually performs some of these roles. The results show that the urban young are more inclined to skeptical appraisals, raising the question of how the CCP’s legitimation strategy will fare under conditions of inter-generational changes in values.

When it comes to Chinese citizens’ support for economic governance approaches, there are potentially distinct societal cleavages between regime insiders and outsiders. This argument is discussed in a working paper, where it is suggested that there is widespread support for a regulatory form of governance irrespective of the insider and outsider dualism. However, support for a statist governance approach is much stronger amongst regime insiders, whom exhibit a skepticism of domestic privately owned firms. Moreover, support for statist governance is stronger amongst older segments of the population, but weaker amongst the more highly educated.

Finally, in a working paper, it is argued that Chinese citizens do not hold consistent opinions on economic policy issues. This finding is further reinforced in a follow-up working paper which tests whether Chinese citizens have a consistent ideological orientation across multiple and related political, and policy issues. The study finds there is relatively weak evidence that Chinese citizens have a consistent ideological orientation towards general and specific issue questions. Both studies' findings suggest that authoritarian regimes such as China may have different operations in play when it comes to ideological orientations; and more broadly, partially disconfirms received academic wisdom that general issue orientation is a universal trait across jurisdictions.

Some of the background thinking for this project can be found in an article in the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, and featured media interviews in France 24 and the International Business Times (example one and example two).

The "Good Citizen": Volunteerism, Philanthropy and Civic Engagement

The third aspect of this project examines the relationship between volunteerism, philanthropy and civic engagement in China. It looks at new forms of citizen-led initiatives that are complementary to, or supplanting, state-led ones. More broadly, it seeks to comprehend how notions of citizenship, and what it means to be a “good citizen”, are influenced by the rapid increase of volunteerism and philanthropy; shepherd further by the introduction of the social credit system. These salient analytical queries are examined with the aid of 2018 and 2020 Civic Participation in China Survey (CPCS).

Early results, published in the Journal of Contemporary China, find that greater exposure to citizen education is positively correlated with a more active and participatory views of citizenship, despite the fact that this was not the goal of the education curriculum. The study further finds that citizenship education is effective at lower educational levels, however at higher levels it is not only ineffective, but fosters (or at minimum, does not deter) more active conceptions and performances of citizenship.

Follow-up research published in Democratization, suggests that while volunteering provides an opportunity for authoritarian citizens to learn and differentiate channels most appropriate for addressing specific social problems, they generally do not hold government accountable for their poor performance in this regard. Furthermore, there is limited support that volunteers are seeking to develop trust in other citizens, contra evidence from Western liberal democracies.

In another journal article, it is argued that Chinese citizens are increasingly concluding that the state alone cannot manage national disasters and emergencies such as COVID-19. In fact, citizens are increasingly receptive for civil society organizations to become more involved in national crises.

The overall project was recognized with the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA) Global Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership Award for innovative and path-breaking research.