Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast with Yuen Yuen Ang.
Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China, produced in partnership with The China Project. Subscribe to Access from The China Project to get, well, access. Access to, not only our great daily newsletter, but all the original writing on our website at thechinaproject.com. We’ve got reported stories, essays, and editorials, great explainers and trackers, regular columns, and of course, a growing library of podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples in China’s Xinjiang region, to Beijing’s ambitious plans to shift the Chinese economy onto a post-carbon footing. It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor. I’m Kaiser Kuo, coming to you from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
This week on Sinica, I am delighted to welcome back to the show, Yuen Yuen Ang, associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan. Yuen Yuen is the inaugural recipient of the Theda Skocpol Prize for Emerging Scholars, which is awarded by the American Political Science Association for impactful, empirical, theoretical, and/or methodological contributions to the study of comparative politics.
She’s the author of How China Escaped the Poverty Trap, and China’s Gilded Age, a book that we talked about the last time she was on the show. And about which she was interviewed on the fantastic Freakonomics Podcast to boot. She has an essay out recently in the Journal of Democracy called How Resilient is the CCP? And it’s that essay, among other things, that we will be talking about today. Yuen Yuen, welcome back to Sinica. Great to see you.
Yuen Yuen Ang: It is great to be back. Thank you so much for having me, Kaiser.
Kaiser: My pleasure. Entirely my pleasure. Yuen Yuen, your essay for the Journal of Democracy fits, I think, into a growing literature that seeks to refine our understanding of authoritarian governance. Some months back I talked to a scholar named Manfred Elfstrom about his book on labor unrest in China, which is very much part of that literature. And we talked about how the whole discourse on authoritarian governance has moved from transitology to a discussion of authoritarian resilience. Like you, I suspect, he saw perhaps too much of a stark binary between, on the one hand, people who were sure that China’s authoritarian system was so brittle and it was bound to collapse or to transition to democracy.
And on the other hand, there were the sort of resilience people who were absolutely sure that it would endure. Am I right in thinking that you would also, like Manfred, place yourself somewhere between? I mean, you certainly don’t argue that Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 is all powerful, has it all completely under control.
Yuen Yuen: Yeah. None of us can predict for sure whether the CCP will persist or at some point reform, or possibly even disintegrate. But I think what’s useful in terms of understanding China is to know what are the sources of fragility and resilience. As for the outcome, that is ultimately going to be influenced by some, actually not some, but a strong element of accident and luck as well. But what we can do right now is to say, “Well, we know that in the current situation under Xi’s leadership, these are the areas in which he is fragile and these are the areas in which he’s in control.” And so, that’s how I think about it.
Kaiser: Yeah. No, that’s a very good way to think about it. I mean, because there are areas where I think it does exhibit quite a bit of strength and stability, and then other areas where I think that, yeah, there’s obvious sources of brittleness. What do you make of the state of our understanding in the field more generally? Here, I’m talking, not just about academic political scientists, but also about analysts, and think tanks, or in government agencies, and even in journalism. What do you make of the state of our understanding about China’s governance? I mean, are there some enduring beliefs that you commonly see that, in your estimation, just have it completely wrong? From where you sit, does it seem to you that we are moving closer to or further away from maybe a more accurate and a more nuanced read on the Chinese political system, its durability and its fragility?
Yuen Yuen: That’s a great question. I think it’s really hard to generalize across the entire community of China watchers.
Kaiser: Sure. Sure.
Yuen Yuen: I think that that would be almost impossible, but one of the things we do notice about the way commentators talk about China is this binary that you mention, which is either China is the world’s superpower and it’s bent on taking over the U.S., or China is on a sharp decline and it’s about the collapse soon. So, I think that for the average person in the American public, or even for someone who knows China quite well, this is extremely confusing and contradictory because one of them have to be correct, right? I think that what is missing in much of our discourse and analysis today is a balanced picture that tells us the parts of the Chinese political system and economy that is in deep trouble.
But the other parts of the system that allows it to weather these crises so that we have a balanced picture and we are able to make sense and reconcile these extreme opinions. But I think in the world that we live in today, with social media and with everyone having severe attention deficit because we have so much news and tweets out there is that you have to take a very extreme position and be very loud about it in order to get attention. Things that I do, that’s so boring, right? So boring. It’s like, let me give you a balanced perspective of China and tell you about its strengths and weakness. I know that’s almost futile to do that, but I do think that there are some thoughtful readers, and listeners, and observers out there who do not want to be part of the polarized discourse.
So, I continue to do what I do, which is that we need to have a balanced understanding of China, both its good and bad, negative, positive, its strengths as well as its weaknesses.
Kaiser: Amen. Amen. Yeah, I can’t stand the way that social media rewards stridency, extremism, and, and snarkiness, right? But all those scholars, hopefully, we’ll get them all on Sinica.
Yuen Yuen: Yeah. I don’t know. I just saw this tweet that someone made about… There’s this template that you can create to make your YouTube video get millions of hits, and you just need to have fire in the background and some title screaming that China is going to collapse. And then like a picture of Xi Jinping and then you can put glaring eyes in his face. That’s the template for getting a lot of attention.
Kaiser: Absolutely. Yeah. I know some YouTubers who use that template every goddamn day. Anyway, Yuen Yuen, on the big question, the question that’s quite central to your essay, whether China, in the post-Mao period did or did not really institutionalize. Again, you seem to come down, sort of, somewhere in between, in the sensible middle. If there is a conventional wisdom, though, at this point, it seems to be that Xi came to power in 2012, and within a few years became chairman of everything. I think that that phrase goes to Geremie Barmé. And especially after he changed the party constitution to not only upend the succession norm, but also managed to write Xi Jinping thought for the new era, whatever, into the constitution, and had himself named a core. The conventional wisdom is that institutional is gone. It’s no more. But you argue something different. Could you lay out for us, take your time and just lay out for us the key argument that you make about institutionalization.
Yuen Yuen: Sure. Why not I start with explaining the concept itself and the history of the idea.
Yuen Yuen: I know it’s a mouthful. The idea of institutionalization was introduced by Professor Andrew Nathan at Columbia. And in 2003, he wrote what is now a classic piece, and its titled Authoritarian Resilience. In 2003, if you recall, that was the changing of guard from the Jiang leadership to Hú Jǐntāo 胡锦涛 leadership. At the time, China was not a threat. The assumption in the West is that, as China grows richer, it will eventually democratize. So, the contribution of Nathan at that point was to say, “Well, that’s not true. That assumption may not be true. The reason for that,” he says, “it’s this thing called institutionalization.” It’s an academic word. Let me break it down.
Basically, what it means is, in his words, behavior that is constrained by formal and informal rules. And he names specific aspects of institutionalization. The first is non-bound succession. The second is meritocracy in promotion. The third is bureaucratic professionalization. And the fourth is selected spaces for political participation. The short way to understand institutionalization is political stability plus effective governance. If you look at the citations of Nathan’s essay, the interesting thing is that it actually didn’t get that much attention when it was first published, but it began to be cited everywhere around the time when Xi took office, around 2010.
I suspect that the reason is that China became recognized as a rising power in around the 2010s. And then people began to sit up in their chairs and realize, well, it doesn’t look like it’s going to become a democracy. So, maybe Nathan is correct. But ironically, when Xi took over, that was actually the beginning of the erosion of institutionalization. Let me answer the big question. Has Xi ended institutionalization? And to many China experts, the answer is obviously yes. Xi has centralized personal power. He has ended term limits. He has ended the norm of collective leadership. My answer to that is he has indeed deliberately destroyed certain aspects of institutionalization in order to centralize power in his own hands and put himself in power for life.
But the part that many people have missed is that he has kept other aspects of institutionalization, particularly in the bureaucracy because he wants to have a competent bureaucracy. He wants to have a large effective instrument that would allow him to rule effectively. It is this combination of centralizing personal power, but at the same time, maintaining selective aspects of bureaucratic capacity that I think many people have missed.
Kaiser: Now, I think that that’s a very good cogent summation of what you argued in this essay. But I guess some folks might see a contradiction between personalistic rule, on the one hand. Clearly, you describe Xi’s rule as highly personalistic with a full-blown personality cult around him. And on the other, having a competent and capable bureaucracy. Obviously, these two things can exist, you can square them, but you, and I thought it was pretty amusing, that you compare Xi’s assault on the autonomy of the bureaucracy to Trump’s, and maybe Indira Gandhi’s. But you also note a very important difference. The difference, let me quote you here, you said, “The difference in the PRC is that absent checks from civil society and formal contestation, Xi’s usurpation of the bureaucracy for his personal ends goes uninhibited.”
That strikes me as a really significant difference. I mean, so I can easily imagine somebody pushing back a little bit and saying, “Look, what’s really the difference between deinstitutionalization and total personal control over a very capable state bureaucracy?” I mean, a state bureaucracy, however capable it is, if it’s doing the bidding of a personalistic ruler, doesn’t that just mean that it isn’t a functional institution? I mean, you could even say that, were this leader truly malign, it would be even worse that he has a capable, bureaucratic apparatus at his disposal, right? How would you answer that?
Yuen Yuen: Those are great questions. Let me unpack a number of things because there’s a lot going on here. Let me introduce two concepts to help people think about the bureaucracy, why it matters to Xi and why he is treating the bureaucracy in the way he does. These two concepts are autonomy and competence. Okay? In an ideal technocracy, and you can think of that as, for instance, the Singaporean technocracy, the technocracy in Japan after World War II that rapidly industrialized the country. An ideal technocracy is both autonomous and competent. Competent in the sense that it is staffed by well qualified, highly educated people who are very good at their jobs and knowledgeable. And autonomy means that, as bureaucrats, as government officials who are not political appointees, they are independent from whoever the leader is and from political appointees.
They serve the people, the country and whatever mission is in their agencies, but they’re not beholden to people who are elected. To give one example that people might relate to, think of the Center for Disease Control, the CDC in the U.S., right? Part of its job is to issue these scientific weekly reports on COVID. For the CDC bureaucrats, that has always been something that’s sacrosanct, right? Nobody comes and tells them how to do these reports. One of the indicators or signs of the Trump administration actually attempting to erode that autonomy is that Trump officials try to influence how CDC issues these mortality numbers on COVID because it was making Trump look bad. If you wanted to read up on this, you can find it in the news. But that’s an example where the CDC is still a competent, scientifically qualified technocracy.
But at that particular moment, its autonomy was being threatened or undermined by the Trump administration, right? The administration was trying to politicize bureaucracy. Once we have an understanding that this type of politicization of the bureaucracy for personal ends can happen in the U.S. administration, then it makes it much easier to understand what Xi’s trying to do. What Xi’s trying to do is similar. He wants to still maintain a competent technocratic bureaucracy to carry out his signature policies like poverty alleviation. If you look at things like meritocratic recruitment at the rank-and-file levels, Xi has not removed that. He’s not like Mao. Mao closed down schools and universities for 10 years. Mao is an anti-intellectual. He hates the bureaucracy.
But Xi actually wants to have a competent bureaucracy. So, he keeps things like meritocratic recruitment, detail evaluation of officials and so forth, as long as it’s in the middle to low levels, where he needs that competence to carry out his mandates. However, similar to the example of Trump that I just gave, he then undermined the autonomy of this professional bureaucracy that was built up over the four decades by making them personally loyal to him. And he has done this in two ways that most people have not noticed. The first thing he has done is that he used the anti-corruption campaign to impose ideological control.
Yuen Yuen: If you look at the specific mandates in the campaign, it was not just about arresting people who took bribes or embezzled funds. It also said that the campaign is meant to ensure uniform political thought and loyalty to Xi’s leadership. Furthermore, if you look at the way he changed the evaluation criteria for leading cadres in China, because it’s not the democracy, every official is evaluated based on the report card that’s designed by Beijing and filters down to lower levels. In 2019, he has changed that so that the very first criteria is the commitment of these party and state officials to having Xi Jinping as the party’s core, and his philosophy is centralized leadership. That’s a very explicit politicization of the bureaucracy for his own ends. That’s what’s happening with Xi.
It has some parallels to what Trump did, also to what Indira Gandhi did, which was they had a preexisting technocracy. They wanted to politicize it so that the bureaucracy would do things that serve their political interests.
Kaiser: Yeah. No, that’s really great. And that’s a strong argument to suggest that yeah, I mean, he has sought to impose personalistic control over the bureaucracy, but let’s talk about where the autonomy of the bureaucracy has not been completely usurped. And you actually muster some data. You looked at some data that showed, or that led you to conclude that the state bureaucracy is still somewhat independent. It preserves some of its independence. What was the data that you looked at for that?
Yuen Yuen: Yeah. And I think you were referring to my analysis of the central directives.
Yuen Yuen: Is that right?
Kaiser: Yeah, that’s right.
Yuen Yuen: Yeah. I did an automated tax analysis of all of the central directives issued in China since 1978. Central directives are basically laws, rules, commands, instructions issued by the central government in Beijing to various ministries and local governments. It is the very raw material of the command system. And taking all of the texts of this central directives, about 5,000 of them since 1978…
Yuen Yuen: I studied the language and then I classified them into different categories of ambiguity and clarity. There’s a general impression in China studies that Beijing always gives these vague directives and vague mandates. What my research find is that actually there is variation. Some of these directives are vague and they deliberately provide flexibility and encourage experimentation. But actually, most of the directives are clear. They either clearly endorse a particular measure or they clearly forbid a certain course of action.
This whole dataset allows us to look at the way Beijing gives commands. One of the things, just using the dataset that is consistent with most people’s impression is that Xi Jinping has indeed encroached upon the authority of the state council. It has always been that the state council issues the vast majority. I think it’s over 80% of the central directives. And that’s because the party controls politics and appointments, but the state council is the one in charge of governance. What you see on the Xi Jinping is that the state council has issued slightly less directives, and more of them have been issued jointly, meaning by Xi Jinping and Lǐ Kèqiáng 李克强. That is a very clear indication and confirmation of the sense that he has usurped the state council’s authority. However, having said that, the vast majority, I can’t remember the exact percentage, but the vast majority of directors are still being issued by the state council under Li Keqiang. So, the changes are happening, but it’s not as if he overturned the entire bureaucratic system.
Kaiser: Yeah. I think, if I remember correctly, it was in the neighborhood of 80%. In what areas of political life or administrative life would you say that Xi has most weakened the bureaucracy? Are there specific areas that stood out when just looking at this pool of central directives, where Xi’s personal stamp was there more often? For example, might it have been in, just arbitrarily speaking, like technology policy or national security policy, or anything like that?
Yuen Yuen: I haven’t looked at the jointly issued directives one by one, but some of them I remember, and you immediately made the right guess, technology jumped out as one issue where Xi wants to assert his authority. And yes, so he would have the special committee that he chairs to issue these directives with regard to technology policy, instead of having the state council make all of the policies.
Kaiser: Would it be a fair guess to say that every area in which there is a leading small group chaired by Xi, that that’s where he’s inserted himself most?
Yuen Yuen: I think that that would be fair to the extent that he created a special working group around a particular theme. It means that that is the theme that he cares about. And technology is a very obvious one. Because technology is really the magic factor that could help Xi solve so many problems from U.S.-China competition, to the economy, to social control. That’s something that’s really at the core of his leadership.
Kaiser: So, Yuen Yuen, you’re a comparativist at heart. We’ve already gotten a great example of Trump, and of course, Indira Gandhi. Are there other examples, either in the world today or historically, where you think an analogous situation has existed, where there’s been a relatively robust state bureaucracy despite a highly personalistic leader who is trying to dominate that bureaucracy? Are there other examples that leap to mind?
Yuen Yuen: You said a robust bureaucracy with a personalistic leader, is that right?
Kaiser: Yeah, exactly. That survives despite a personalistic leader.
Yuen Yuen: Well, I think if we look historically, I’m sure we can find many. If you think about any of these great Chinese emperors, are they personalists? Yeah, I think absolutely, right?
Yuen Yuen: They might listen to honest advisors if, and when they like it, but oh yeah, they were totally personal. They could kill anyone. They could kill lots of people. But did some of the good emperors have highly competent technocratic bureaucracies? Yes. This is, by no means, unprecedented in Chinese history or even in many other parts of the world.
Kaiser: Yeah. I think it’s actually kind of a central dynamic in Imperial Chinese history. It’s something that has pretty deep roots, I think. I actually, when I was a graduate student way back in ancient history, I sort of hit on this idea that it is that dynamic itself that’s an engine in Chinese politics, even in Chinese history, that there are different modes of the relationship between the state bureaucracy and the Imperial person that are, in the most common mode, kind of a loyal opposition mode. It’s this very tension itself, which has kind of unwritten rules of how you remonstrated and what areas of control are seated to the bureaucracy and which ones are traditionally, the realm where the cultural norm is that the imperial person can meddle or call the shots. But anyway, that’s all, that’s for another show. That’s lots of fun.
Yuen Yuen: Yeah.
Kaiser: Do you believe that institutionalization, prior to Xi, was actually quite strong as Andrew Nathan had argued, but that Xi just proved to be even more forceful? Or was institutionalization in the pre-Xi Jinping decades actually not as strong as we had supposed it to be?
Yuen Yuen: My argument is that institutionalization definitely happened prior to Xi. All of the four dimensions that Nathan described, they definitely happened. But what Xi has proven is that institutionalization is fragile and reversible. And that a strongman like him can turn the situation around. This is an opposition to Nathan’s prediction in 2003, where he said that he believed institutionalization is self-reinforcing because all of the political elites had no interest to rock the boat. But what Xi has shown us is, well, he does. I think that that’s also quite unique to the particular circumstances in which he came to power. If we remember, he came to power in the midst of a political scandal involving Bó Xīlái 薄熙来. And some people have said that there were coups. He disappeared for, I think, two weeks. And people wonder what was going on. I think he came to power in circumstances of extreme and unusual insecurity, where I think that gave him enough impetus to actually rock the boat because he felt that his very existence is being threatened.
Kaiser: I can’t tell you how happy I am to hear you say this because this is a point that I have made again and again. I remember, not a couple of years ago, here, in North Carolina, it was before the pandemic, we had a speaker, a prominent journalist who was working on Xi Jinping, and she had come and given a talk, and talked about how Xi defied all the expectations of all these so-called China experts, who all thought that he was going to be a liberal reformer in the mode of his father. And that, hey, they were all wrong. See how wrong they were. I raised my hand and suggested, hey, well, let’s look at the circumstances under which he took office. There were sort of near coup conditions, as you say. There are those unexplained, I guess, like 10-day disappearance in September of 2012.
There’s lots… They had the knives out for him. That’s quite clear now. If his style is going to be more personalistic and paranoid, I think maybe we could look to those circumstances as an explanation. Anyway, I thought that…
Yuen Yuen: Yeah, I completely agree. I think that the impact of the circumstances in which he came to power, I think that’s been overlooked.
Kaiser: Yeah, totally. Oh, I completely agree. Okay. This paper is really fascinating. What I want to know is, what are the implications of what you found for overall resilience then? I mean, is your argument basically that the party state is likely to survive, say, a sudden leadership transition? That threats to Xi Jinping’s power simply don’t translate into threats to the party state’s power? Are we suggesting that the bureaucracy will outlive Xi pretty easily?
Yuen Yuen: My argument is that the sources of resilience and threats to the CCP have changed. If we think about the old recipe that Nathan described, the primary risk to the CCP, or in the form of fragmentation, gridlock, and elite corruption arising from a power-sharing system. But it had also other advantages at the same time. And if you think of the new recipe on the Xi, I argue that he has remade the formula for authoritarian resilience, which combines his personalist role. It combines selective aspects of bureaucratic competence that is loyal to him, a tightened political control. And he’s also been mobilizing animosity from the U.S. to China to strengthen his nationalist legitimacy.
Yuen Yuen: However, even though he has put together this new formula, he has also introduced new political risk to the CCP. And that is China’s fate is now extremely sensitive to whatever Xi does. His health, his ideas, his decisions, his whims, it is now entirely hijacked by Xi and whatever he likes, doesn’t like, thinks or says. So, Xi’s decisions have an outsized impact on, not only China, but the whole world, because today China is a global power. We can see that, for instance, in the Belt and Road Initiative. He has also reintroduced the risk of succession battles. For instance, he is definitely taking a third term in October. But if, for whatever reason, he no longer is able to serve, and also, he’s a mortal, at some point, he’s not going to live forever, there is no more plan B in the CCP about who’s going to succeed him if Xi’s no longer around.
Kaiser: And it’s spot on. It highlights the brittleness that he’s introduced through personalism. I’m just wondering whether enough of the institutional autonomy of the state bureaucracy is in place that it would survive without too much turmoil, a transition, but that’s something we can only guess about. I want to ask you about this. So, we often hear comparisons between Xi Jinping and Máo Zédōng 毛泽东. You could argue, sure, that both are strong leaders with personality culture around them. But in your paper, you point out a fundamental and really important difference between them. You pointed to this a little before that Mao was an anti-intellectual. Xi wants to build the state bureaucracy. But can you, can you elaborate on this a little bit more? I think this is still a mistake I see out there in public discourse. This idea of… I mean, I think it gets Mao wrong fundamentally, and it gets Xi wrong.
Yuen Yuen: Yeah, totally. I think that a broader point to be made is that we often search for analogies and similarities in trying to understand a particular situation like Xi. But what is really necessary is to see that similarities and differences can exist at the same time. So, we don’t want to make analogies that say, “Oh, Xi is just like Mao.” And then that becomes very misleading. There are certainly aspects of Xi that resemble Mao like his attempts to revive a personality cult, for instance. But there are other aspects of him that is totally unlike Mao. And so, we need to keep both the similarities and the differences in mind.
In my view, Xi’s not like Mao because Mao is an institution destroyer. I think a way to understand that is we can think about Trump on January 6, that kind of behavior, right? And there are disturbing parallels between January 6, where President Trump basically encouraged and incited his mob to attack the Capitol Hill.
Kaiser: Bombard the headquarters.
Yuen Yuen: Bombard the headquarters, that’s right. Versus Mao doing basically the same thing, except on the scale of tens of millions of red guards and for 10 years. And the basic attitude of being an institution destroyer is they don’t seem to care if they destroy the country, right? They don’t care. Their priority is to keep themselves in power. I think Xi is different. She has certain elements like Mao. He wants to revive a personality cult. He’s ideological. He’s anti-foreign. But in terms of the way he treats institution, he only wants to diminish or abandon certain rules like term limits, but he wants to maintain a competent bureaucracy, that’s for sure. And he also does not want to destroy China because he is so intent on competing with the U.S.
Kaiser: So, the state bureaucracy had been effectively destroyed during the decade of the cultural revolution. One of the things that’s really remarkable about it is how quickly it sprung back and how competent it did become. Let’s talk about how, in the decades after Mao’s death, the bureaucracy in China did become institutionalized to the extent that it did. Maybe we could start with a composition of the bureaucracy in the years before and after reform and opening began. Was this just the pendulum swinging back away from the red and toward the expert as it had done previously, like in the early ‘60s? Because I see similarities like technocracy comes back, right?
Yuen Yuen: Right. I mean, that is part of the, I would say almost like the political DNA of the CCP, where they constantly oscillate between, do we want the reds, the officials who are ideologically very loyal to whoever’s in power and to communist ideology? Or do we want the people who have the expertise? This oscillation has been constantly going on. And under Mao, obviously, what he wanted was loyalty to him. The experts, the intellectuals, the reformers, even people like Dèng Xiǎopíng 邓小平 were purged under his leadership. One other thing I think worth pointing out is that I often hear this trope that, oh, China had 5,000 years of Confucian rule. And I think people are always under the impression that, at any point in time, China had this like super qualified Mandarin system and technocracy.
Therefore, some people would tell me, “Oh, it’s no surprise that China’s economy grew because they always had this Confucian bureaucracy in place”. I think it’s worth reminding people. And here, I quote a number from Mike Oksenberg because numbers in those days obviously were very scarce. And in that particular study, he estimates that, in around mid-1960s, when the cultural revolution was happening, the average number of former years of schooling among local leaders was only 4.8 years.
Yuen Yuen: That’s like hardly educated, right? Hardly educated.
Kaiser: Yeah. Barely literate.
Yuen Yuen: Less than primary school education. It’s not surprising because China had already suffered more than a century of extreme poverty, civil war, like famines. And then you have Mao who comes along and he hates intellectuals. He closed down schools and universities for 10 years. So, at the most basic level, we have to keep in mind that actually when Deng Xiaoping took over, he took over…
Kaiser: A ruin.
Yuen Yuen: Ruin the bureaucracy, right?
Yuen Yuen: Yes. There were certainly the historical legacies that he could draw on, and the CCP very quickly build on that. But the starting point was pretty dire. So, in the decades since Deng, what the CCP has really committed itself to is to build a bureaucratic capacity from a very low starting point. One of the first things that Deng did, of course, was to change the criteria for recruitment. And he wanted to recruit more educated and young people. One number, for instance, is that from 2006 to 2017, the share of civil servants with a bachelor’s degree or above grew from 43% to 72%. So, it must be higher now. It means that before 2006, which is quite recent, you actually had more than 50% of civil servants without a bachelor’s degree.
Kaiser: Right. If you go higher up, though, I mean, I remember that Lynn White and Li Chang had done this study on the composition of the bureaucracy. And in the early 1990s, if I remembered correctly, if you looked at provincial level leaders, either party secretaries or governors, or if you looked at mayors or municipal party secretaries of cities of over a million, you had something like 75% that had, not just bachelor’s degrees, but post-secondary degrees in, four-year degrees in the natural sciences or in engineering. So, it was already sort of super heavy.
Yuen Yuen: Yes, absolutely. At the higher levels, the level of meritocracy in terms of education and overall quality was rapidly escalated. It took a longer time at the grassroots level. I remember some, I would say more than 10 years ago, if I were to go through some remote plays in China, the quality of the officialdom was still definitely lagging behind, but overall-
Kaiser: I’ve met those guys. Yeah.
Yuen Yuen: You’ve met those guys, so you know what I’m talking about. Yes, that’s right. But overall, over the four decades, there was a steady trend in which the bureaucracy in China went from a starting point of complete ruin to gradually becoming more and more professionalized.
Kaiser: I want to get back to this idea about the sort of Confucian patterns and whether they reemerged. But I want to ask a couple things first. It strikes me I was just asking about the oscillation between red and expert historically. It seems like Xi kind of wants both, right? He wants red and expert. Your piece suggests a couple of dyads, where it seems like Xi also wants to have it both ways. There’s, on one hand, bottom-up adaptation versus top-down mobilization. And also, and certainly related, there’s this pragmatism versus more ideologically driven approaches to governance. With both of these, your paper argues that, under Xi, he’s not just favoring one over the other, and there’s often a kind of opportunistic back and forth between these two priorities. Can you unpack this a bit? Because I thought that was a really compelling part of your argument.
Yuen Yuen: The two defining attributes of the Chinese bureaucracy being one that is under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, the first is this idea of mobilization, which is quite alien in, I think, democracies, except in selected contexts. You can think of, say, an election is coming up and you mobilize your voters. We might be able to think of a similar analogy in that context.
Kaiser: Like MAGA rallies.
Yuen Yuen: Maybe. You might think of that. Yeah. Yeah. You need to have a massive showing of great enthusiasm toward one goal, which is to win the election. Analogously, the Chinese bureaucracy is highly capable of this thing called mobilization, which means that, say, when Xi says, “My signature policy is poverty eradication, and these are the targets we’re going to achieve. I’m going to mobilize the entire bureaucracy of more than 40 million bureaucrats. And they’re going to work themselves to death to achieve my goals.”
Yuen Yuen: They do that literally. So, I cited this number from the Global Times where they said 1800 cadres died implementing poverty alleviation. And they just say like a fact without any surprise or emotion, because can you imagine in the U.S. if 1,800 public employees die from implementing a policy? There would be at least some uproar. But no, it was just a fact. That mobilization was so extreme that officials actually died in the process. There were reports that many of them lost their voice, couldn’t sleep at night. And so, that’s mobilization. And, of course, Xi loves that because that, to him, is what he calls the institutional advantage of the CCP that democracies do not have. Democracies are divided. They’re dysfunctional. They can’t get their act together. But in his view, the advantage of what he has is that he has this gigantic apparatus. And when he commands it to do something, every one of them would participate and give all the enthusiasm, and even die for it. So, that’s mobilization.
Then there’s this other aspect of the bureaucracy, which is bottom-up that he also selectively wants to keep. And that’s the adaptive quality of the bureaucracy. The Chinese bureaucracy throughout the reform era is famously known to be adaptive and experimental. It is decentralized. The local governments come up with various initiatives on their own. They would flexibly implement policy. And that flexibility and adaptability has been one of the key causes, one of the key reasons for China’s economic dynamism and its resilience. Xi knows that that’s a good thing as well, and so he wants to keep that. But he only invokes it under certain conditions. He only invokes that adaptive quality and encourages experimentation when he doesn’t know what to do. When he himself realizes, I don’t know what to do about this, he’ll say, “Why don’t you guys figure it out? You guys get to experiment.” A good example of this is his speech about common prosperity.
Kaiser: I was gonna ask you whether that’s a… Yeah, I was going to use that as a possible example. Yeah.
Yuen Yuen: I think that’s a great speech. That’s a great speech that I encourage people to read the original words. And it may seem like propaganda and bureaucratic, but it’s actually really fascinating, the way he talks about his role and his implicit acceptance of responsibility. And then the basic point of that speech was he gave that speech in, I believe it was August. Yeah. So, it was already after eight months where this common prosperity has pretty much destroyed the big tech companies and private companies. It had scared away investors, clearly was a backlash. And by August, he basically gives a reflection speech to central bureaucrats, where he said, “We wanted to have this thing called common prosperity, and we should, but here’s the problem. The problem is that I want it both ways. I want China to have capitalism and be prosperous and everyone to have entrepreneurial incentives. But at the same time, I wanted to control the dark sides of capitalism. I wanted to reduce inequality. And we haven’t figured out how to have it both ways.”
His final words for the bureaucrats is, “So, therefore, why don’t you guys figure it out?” And he appointed Zhèjiāng 浙江 as his imperial pilot to go figure it out.
Kaiser: Right. That’s typical. I mean, to have one region designated as sort of the test testing ground. Really fascinating. I want to get back to this whole sort of historical question. I mean, so some listeners might remember that way back when I was in graduate school, I had actually settled on a dissertation topic about the rise of technocrats in post-Mao China. I didn’t get all that far into my research, but…
Yuen Yuen: Is that right?
Yuen Yuen: I didn’t know that.
Kaiser: No, it’s true. Yeah. A couple of years later after I’d come back to China, I’d written a column for Time Magazine and I distilled my dissertation into like a 900-word essay that was jokingly titled The Revenge of the Nerds, how China had become sort of this technocratic wonderland. But yeah, so that was it. I never went back and I never finished it. But from everything that I had read by the point that I had set it aside, one thing that really struck me was that, as China was becoming increasingly technocratic, as scientists, and especially engineers began to make up a higher and higher percentage of officialdom, there was kind of acceptance of this as perfectly natural. It went almost unremarked upon. At least it didn’t meet with much by way of objection that I could find at all.
What do you think accounts for this? I mean, I had this idea that really what we were seeing was old wine filling new bottles. That there’s this historical reflex, whereby you got knowledge elites. Always, it’s always going to be knowledge elites, and they have to have a demonstrable mastery of what’s the accepted truth paradigm of the day, right? The reigning truth paradigm. That these people should be in positions of power naturally. Like, who should staff the bureaucracy in imperial China? You had to show that you could write an eight-legged essay, and you had the Confucian canon completely memorized. By the ‘80s, it started to mean you could solve differential equations and you understood fluid dynamics, right? At the considerable risk of essentialism here, I might offer, after I had a couple of drinks in me maybe, I would say something like, “Hey, this is the country that practically invented bureaucracy and certainly invented the Civil Service Examination.”
Again, like you said, we shouldn’t assume that it was always there, that there was always this highly competent Confucian Mandarin that ran everything well. But there is this kind of bureaucratic resilience that’s definitely built into… That is a Chinese characteristic. Yeah. I mean, do you think there’s anything to that or was I just barking up the wrong tree?
Yuen Yuen: I totally think so. I think what you’ve basically done is restate what I’ve tried to argue except you restated it better.
Kaiser: No, no, no.
Yuen Yuen: Which is one of the key sources of the CCP’s resilience is bureaucratic resilience. It’s about the bureaucracy. So, if you remember the talk I gave at Campton, and before I gave the talk, I told everyone, “Oh, my talk today is about bureaucracy.” And people were like, “Oh, that’s going to be so boring.”
Kaiser: Oh, it was great. Yeah. That’s actually on YouTube. You can watch on YouTube along with my not as good talk. But yeah, we both spoke together at that conference. That was a really good conference, by the way.
Yuen Yuen: Yeah. But the point is that, I think, usually when people talk about autocracies, they want to talk about the exciting things like the leadership, the factional struggle. But the bureaucracy is actually so central to the CCP and to China because it is the existence of an effective bureaucracy that determines if the CCP can rule effectively. If it rules effectively, then it has resilience. I think the great challenge facing the technocracy in China today is that they realize that, oh my God, well, now we are serving a personalist leader, and many of his policies are deeply flawed and contradictory. So, we have to do a job. And very often, we have to clean up the messes he has made.
But it doesn’t mean that they have any intention to depose him. They may actually genuinely be loyal to the party and possibly even to him. But the fact that Xi has this effective bureaucracy in place is the one thing that allows him to keep hobbling along no matter how terrible some of his policies have been.
Kaiser: Yuen Yuen, what do you make of the fact that technocrats, it looks like it anyway, are going to surge in the upcoming party congress? I don’t know whether you saw MacroPolo, they have this report from the other day. It says, and I’m going to quote from this, just a sentence here, “The proportion of technocrat provincial leaders, party secretaries, and governors has more than double since 2017.” 2017, interestingly, is the year that you cited as the end point, “from 35%, 11 back then, to 23 then 74%. “Technocrats have also been promoted over the last year to head ministries,” which is obviously the case that people talk now about a Beihang clique. There are a lot of people who are… What do you make of this? What do you think this trend bodes?
Yuen Yuen: I think that what we can expect to see going forward is the distribution of power between officials who are loyal to Xi. So, his faction, people he can trust, but who are not necessarily as competent, qualified, open-minded or knowledgeable, you might call it that. Versus the other, which are the technocrats, the people who really have the competence to get things done. If we try to imagine what it’s like in Xi’s head, he needs both of them. He will always need his own loyalists, people he can trust. I believe actually, Victor Shih has a new book coming out where he argues that Xi deliberately picks some incompetent people and puts them in power because those people basically have no one to turn to other than Xi. They’ll be doubly loyal because of their incompetence. If I summarize Victor incorrectly, I apologize. And Victor will be better placed to state his-
Kaiser: Well, we’ll invite him on the show to talk about it, but for sure.
Yuen Yuen: That’s right. That’s right. But for sure, Xi wants to have this group in place, but he can never, never do without the competent technocrats. I think you can put people like Li Keqiang in that group. What we have been seeing in China in the past 10 years is a pattern of policy oscillation. Xi would announce, “We have this common prosperity,” and then it scares away investors. Then you see what the state council does is try to control damage, right? So, you see this extreme implementation of a particular ideological agenda followed by damage control. It goes back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. I believe that after Xi takes his third term, this policy oscillation will be here to stay. It will be an enduring feature of his leadership because his policies, many of his policies, not all of them are bad, but a lot of them have clearly been flawed. And because of the negative consequences created, the technocrats then have to control damage or clean up the mass.
Kaiser: Fantastic. Yuen Yuen, this podcast is now more than 12-years-old. And across all this time, one of the things that I’ve explored, it’s kind of been a leitmotif for the whole thing is just the authoritarian turn that China clearly took. I’ve asked a lot of guests over the years, their thoughts on when it began and for a while. But I’m curious with you because you are somebody who taught in China before the turn was quite so noticeable.
Yuen Yuen: Yeah.
Kaiser: That’s why I’m curious. I want to hear what it was like. Tying this up, you talked about this a little bit, you just flicked at it in your essay in Journal of Democracy. I want to hear, what was the extent of, I mean, I hesitate to call it, but liberalization or freedom that you experienced? What sorts of topics were you able to explore with students that are no longer things that you could even think about doing? Yeah.
Yuen Yuen: Sure. I think it’s best to answer these questions with real life anecdotes.
Kaiser: Yeah, for sure.
Yuen Yuen: Because often we talk about it in such abstract terms that people can’t relate to them. That’s why I told the story. Okay. Let me first say that the CCP has always been a one-party autocracy without individual political freedoms. Let’s make that very clear. That’s just a fact. And even in its most reform-minded and partially liberal period, the government and the police can crack down on anyone anytime. That’s just another fact. However, within the parameters of what I have just described, there was actually a lot of changes over time. And even an increased amount of partial liberalization has real practical effects on people’s lives in China.
Kaiser: For sure.
Yuen Yuen: The example that I gave was that, prior to Xi, China was then you can travel freely around the country. There wasn’t anti-foreign sentiment. And it was, in that sense, fairly, maybe liberal might be the wrong word because we use liberal in the American sense. But basically, it was liberal to the extent that no one cared. It was liberal because of neglect and not liberal because of values, right?
Kaiser: My favorite kind. Yeah.
Yuen Yuen: I remember that I could just go to universities and, at the time, I was a graduate student and you get to teach guest lectures. I would submit my syllabus. It had the words democracy and rule law in it. Nobody cared. Just nobody cared. I would just go and teach these themes. Nobody ever told me what to say, what I can’t say. Initially, when I shared that anecdote, some people’s responses was, “Oh, who approved it?” And I had to explain multiple times that nobody cared, right. That was the context. That kind of context of neglect then provided a lot of space for people to actually be able to have partial freedom of speech. I stress again that, that’s partial, but oh, I could talk about democracy, I could talk about the rule of law, I could talk about various things.
Another example that I gave, which I think it’s brilliant, is that I got to know this Chinese intellectual. And he’s also a veteran party member during my time in China. That was before Xi. And I wrote about this in the Journal of Democracy article. He, being a public intellectual, would write many of these subversive essays about the party and the party’s interpretation of various things. So, the censorship authorities came along and they were not happy with what he’s writing. So, they ordered his institution who employed him to do something to punish him. The institution responded by doing the exact opposite, which was to broadcast a video praising this particular person. This was an example where there was actually a lot of subversion going on the ground.
Even though at the time, and until now, China is an autocracy, these varying degrees of political liberalization was enough for people to explore things like investigative journalistic reports, to debate one another, and to sometimes behave subversively. But all of that today is just ignored, brushed aside, because for politicians, as well as the people advocating for decoupling from China, they just want to make a simplistic argument which is we thought China is going to be a democracy, become a democracy, lie to United States, and that didn’t happen. From the perspective, they don’t care about what actually happened on the ground. They don’t care about the lived experiences and the practical limited spaces of political freedoms that people actually experience. They don’t care about all of that.
What they want to sell is this simplistic narrative that we were wrong to engage China, so now it’s time for us to close the doors on them.
Kaiser: Yeah. And in your essay, you make this argument that these attitudes and these policies by the U.S., this rhetorical style has actually buttressed Xi’s hold on power in China, has made it more illiberal. You talk about why you believe that engagement, first of all, engagement hadn’t failed, well, at the time that we decided to jettison the idea, and why, maybe, treating China like an enemy will actually work at cross purposes with advancing democracy in China. By the way, you make this argument in a journal that is published basically by the National Endowment for Democracy, which I thought was really great,
Yuen Yuen: Right. One of the problems with U.S.-China discourse today is that both China and the U.S. are completely self-centered. Meaning, they see the situation only from their own perspectives.
Kaiser: That’s right.
Yuen Yuen: From the U.S. point of view, we would always hear China is a threat, right? China is a threat in X and Y ways, and so forth. If you go to China, you hear exact same thing. China thinks the U.S. is a threat, right? It is absolutely convinced that the U.S. wants to contain China’s rise. But the both sides, I think, have never sat down to consider what are the effects of their perceptions and what they say on the other side. What I wanted to highlight in this essay is that all of this rhetoric, this threat rhetoric and hawkish anti-China rhetoric, it’s mostly produced to satisfy a domestic audience, but when it reaches China, it has the opposite effect of basically inflaming nationalist sentiments, right? So, the practical effect of that kind of rhetoric and attitude is to give plenty of fuel for autocrats and propagandists in China to say, “Look, the United States hates us. They see us as an enemy. So, now that we have a foreign enemy, we must stay united under one leader and nobody should have any disagreements, right? We should put all of our attention on countering this one country that threatens us.”
Kaiser: And everything you just said could be switched around with the names of the countries. And instead of talking about one leader, you could talk about bipartisan consensus and you could be talking about the exact effect that Chinese, sort of strident nationalist rhetoric, has on America, where it fans the flames of American nationalism and threat perception of China. So, yeah.
Yuen Yuen: Exactly. Yeah. In fact, Kaiser, I would say it’s not the U.S. or China who is winning in this geopolitical contest. The only people who are winning are the ardent radicals, the extremists, and the autocrats on both sides. They are winning because the discourse plane is uneven. It’s so easy to be nationalists. You don’t even have to make an effort. You just need to scream and say extreme things and get people roused. Whereas, the people on the other side, they have to work really hard to get anyone to listen to a balanced argument. The only people winning are really the nationalists on both sides.
Kaiser: Well, you are working hard and I’m really, really just glad to give you an opportunity to sense make and to try to right size things and to put these perspectives forward.
Yuen Yuen: And you too. It really takes a community. One person will be like drowned out in one nanosecond. It really takes a community to sustain, I think a, a balanced discourse at a time when it’s so easy and so rewarding to be nationalist.
Kaiser: Solidarity for the sensibility, sister. I mean, that’s absolutely, yeah, fantastic.
Yuen Yuen: Yeah. We need a hashtag for that.
Kaiser: Yeah. What a pleasure it is, as always, to talk to you. The paper, to remind everybody, is in the journal of democracy, and the title is, How Resilient is the CCP. We will have a link to a free downloadable version of it. The other one is behind a paywall, but Yuen Yuen has graciously provided me with a free link. So, thanks once again. Let’s move on now with recommendations, but first, a very quick reminder that the Sinica Podcast is powered by The China project. And if you like the work that we’re doing with Sinica and with all the other shows in the network, well, the way to support that work is by becoming an Access subscriber. That gets you all the good stuff behind our formidable paywall. And, of course, the daily Access newsletter, which is, by itself, absolutely worth the price of admission. Help us keep the lights on so I can continue to interview people like Yuen Yuen and try to do the hard work. On to recommendations. Yuen Yuen, what do you have for us?
Yuen Yuen: I would recommend a drama series and a book today.
Kaiser: Oh, great. Great, great, great.
Yuen Yuen: For the drama series, I would recommend the Chinese series, it’s called Zǒuxiàng gònghé 走向共和 (Towards the Republic).
Kaiser: Yeah. It’s great. I love that.
Yuen Yuen: Which means towards republicanism. Towards a republican state.
Kaiser:I love that. That’s quite old, but I love that.
Yuen Yuen: Have you watched that?
Kaiser: Yeah, I’ve watched it. It’s fantastic. It’s one of my favorites. Yeah.
Yuen Yuen: It is, right? It is a hidden gem. I tell you, I wish they had English subtitles because it is a hidden gem, and it was blocked in China by the Chinese authorities. I’m not sure exactly which part offended them, probably the part about, or was it Sun Yat-sen’s (孫中山 Sūn Zhōngshān) speech about China’s aspirations to be a democracy?
Kaiser: Yeah, that might have been it too. I mean, but that was actually, I think that that was quite literal. It was actually from an actual speech he gave, so that stuff can be found published in China. So, I don’t know. It’s really good, though.
Yuen Yuen: That’s right. That’s right.
Kaiser: It’s really good.
Yuen Yuen: It is very good. It is high-quality storytelling vivid characters. And the reason I’ve been watching it is because I’m trying to find a historical analogy of highly competent and patriotic technocrats trying to do their best under a personalist leader who keeps making mistakes. I thought Lǐ Hóngzhāng 李鸿章 fits that bill.
Kaiser: Sure. Sure.
Yuen Yuen: Li Hongzhang is this Chinese official during the late Qing dynasty who was greatly admired even by his ithe Qing dynasty. And so, in the end, he’s a very tragic character. Someone who is so intelligent and so patriotic, but all of China thought he was a traitor because he had to sign the treaty that basically gave away China’s territories to foreigners. So, that’s why I’m watching that history and trying to learn from it. So, that’s one.
Yuen Yuen: And then the second recommendation, it’s also an old book. I love old drama series and old books. It’s published in 1994. It’s called Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire.
Kaiser: Remnick. Yeah.
Yuen Yuen: It’s by Remnick. And, oh my God, he is such a magnificent writer. I wonder if he just sits down in front of the computer and types out these perfect sentences for 300 pages. The book is just so riveting. And then he gives this really vivid portrayal of what it’s like on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union. I thought it was very timely because recently Gorbachev passed away, and we are thinking about, will the CCP be resilient or will it collapse? I think this book offers so many lessons. One of the key lines from this book is that the reason the Soviet Union collapsed was that it allowed a small crack. It allowed a small crack in political discourse. It allowed a small crack in allowing people to think about history. And that crack then became much larger fractures, and eventually the Soviet Union collapsed.
Kaiser: Yeah. Remnick is obviously the editor-in-chief of The New Yorker for a good reason. He is a beautiful writer. That’s a fantastic book. I haven’t read it in a long time. I think I’m going to revisit it, though, you’re right. It’s extremely timely. I’ve been reading this Putin biography. It also covers a lot of that same period as well. That’s by Philip Short, but I’ve recommended that before. But mine is going to be a different kind of recommendation entirely. It’s just three novels of kind of trilogy from Guy Gavriel Kay that I recently read. The books are Children of Earth and Sky. And it’s prequel, Brightness Long Ago. And then there’s All the Seas of the World, which is the newest one, which is also a… Well, it’s in between the two in time.
These books kept me company, or the first two kept me company over a very long and lonely drive as I made my way back from Madison, Wisconsin after dropping my daughter off at college. And I’m missing her very badly. I just finished All the Seas of the World last night. These are set in a kind of Mediterranean world in the Renaissance, in the decades straddling the fall of Constantinople. It’s a world that is basically our world, but with the places names changed and the major religions tweaked a bit. There’s an additional moon up in the sky. But this is a world that Guy Gavriel Kay has written about a number of times. It works really well. And the guy, his prose is also gorgeous. And I also wonder whether he sits down and writes. It’s not just great sentences, but there’s profound ideas in it.
There’s all sorts of really interesting reflections just about the operations of history, about contingency, about the human condition that are really just quite moving and profound. His characters are super memorable. I mean, his prose is just getting better. His storytelling has always been really compelling, but he’s just going from strength to strength. So, it’s easy to just get completely immersed in this world that he’s created. I love him. All of his stuff that I’ve read is just fantastic. He’s even done a couple I’ve talked about on the show that are set in kind of a mythologized China, one called All Under Heaven, which is really set during the Ān Lùshān 安祿山 rebellion between the battle of Tallas in 751 through the An Lushan rebellion.
There’s characters that are obviously like the poet, Lǐ Bái 李白, and it’s great. It’s quite good. He gets it. He gets it pretty well. An Lushan, Yáng Guózhōng 杨国忠, and Yáng Guìfēi 杨贵妃, all show up in it. And then there’s another one that he did set in the Song dynasty, where he kind of conflates the Yuèfēi 岳飞 story with the Shuǐhǔ zhuàn 水浒传. It works somehow. And it’s really great. It’s set in kind of Northern Song during the Jurchen invasion of North China. So, it’s fantastic. If you like history, or historical fiction, or fantasy, you’re going to really love his novels. So, Yuen Yuen, thank you once again. What a delight to talk to you as always.
Yuen Yuen: Thank you. It’s always fascinating to talk to you. It’s a real pleasure to come on your program.
Kaiser: Well, you will come on again soon, I hope, because I’m really hoping that you’ll be able to join us for kind of postgame analysis of the 20th Party Congress, which is now set to begin on October 16. So, we look forward to that.
Yuen Yuen: Thank you.
Kaiser: The Sinica Podcast is powered by The China project and is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email at email@example.com, or just give us a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts as this really does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at @thechinaproj. Just take the E-C-T off, thechinaproj. And be sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica Network. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week. Take care.