Studies in Comparative International Development

, Volume 51, Issue 3, pp 235–256 | Cite as

Co-optation & Clientelism: Nested Distributive Politics in China’s Single-Party Dictatorship

  • Yuen Yuen AngEmail author


What explains the persistent growth of public employment in reform-era China despite repeated and forceful downsizing campaigns? Why do some provinces retain more public employees and experience higher rates of bureaucratic expansion than others? Among electoral regimes, the creation and distribution of public jobs is typically attributed to the politics of vote buying and multi-party competition. Electoral factors, however, cannot explain the patterns observed in China’s single-party dictatorship. This study highlights two nested factors that influence public employment in China: party co-optation and personal clientelism. As a collective body, the ruling party seeks to co-opt restive ethnic minorities by expanding cadre recruitment in hinterland provinces. Within the party, individual elites seek to expand their own networks of power by appointing clients to office. The central government’s professed objective of streamlining bureaucracy is in conflict with the party’s co-optation goal and individual elites’ clientelist interest. As a result, the size of public employment has inflated during the reform period despite top-down mandates to downsize bureaucracy.


Co-optation Clientelism Dictatorships Redistribution China 



The author wishes to thank Pierre Landry for sharing his dataset on provincial leaders, as well as Jean Oi, Andrew Walder, Alberto Diaz-Cayeros, Mary Gallagher, Anna Grzymala-Busse, Allen Hicken, Yuhua Wang, and participants at the American and Midwest Political Science Association Meetings for helpful comments. 


  1. Ang YY. Counting cadres: a comparative view of the size of china’s public employment. China Q. 2012;211:676–696.Google Scholar
  2. Ang YY. Beyond the weberian model: China’s alternative ideal-type of bureaucracy. University of Michigan, Working Paper; 2015.Google Scholar
  3. Beck N, Katz JN. What to do (and not to do) with time-series cross-section data. Am Polit Sci Rev. 2006;100(4):676.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bernstein TP, Lü X. Taxation without representation in rural China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2003.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Blaydes L. Elections and distributive politics in Mubarak’s Egypt. New York: Cambridge University Press; 2010.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bovingdon G. The Uyghurs: strangers in their own land. New York: Columbia University Press; 2010.Google Scholar
  7. Bulag UE. The Mongols at China’s edge: history and the politics of national unity. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers; 2002.Google Scholar
  8. Burns JP. “Downsizing” the Chinese state: government retrenchment in the 1990s. China Q. 2003;175(175):775.Google Scholar
  9. Calvo E, Murillo V. Who delivers? Partisan clients in the argentine electoral market. Am J Polit Sci. 2004;48(4):742.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dickson BJ. Wealth into power: the Communist Party’s embrace of China’s private sector. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2008.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Gandhi J. Political institutions under dictatorship. New York: Cambridge University Press; 2008.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Geddes B. Politician’s dilemma: building state capacity in Latin America. Berkeley: University of California Press; 1994.Google Scholar
  13. Gimpelson V, Treisman D. Fiscal games and public employment—a theory with evidence from Russia. World Polit. 2002;54(2):145.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Grzymala-Busse A. Rebuilding Leviathan: party competition and state exploitation in post-communist democracies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2007.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Guo G. China’s local political budget cycles. Am J Polit Sci. 2009;53(3):621.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Heller PS, Tait AA. Government employment and pay: some international comparisons. Rev. and reprth ed. Washington D.C.: International Monetary Fund; 1984.Google Scholar
  17. Hicken A. Clientelism. Ann Rev Polit Sci. 2011;14(1):289–310. doi: 10.1146/annurev.polisci.031908.220508.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Hillman B. Factions and spoils: examining political behavior within the local state in China. China J. 2010;64:1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Kerr D, Swinton LC. China, Xinjiang, and the transnational security of Central Asia. Crit Asian Stud. 2008;40(1):89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Kitschelt H. Linkages between citizens and politicians in democratic polities. Comp Polit Stud. 2000;33(6–7):845–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Lande CH. Introduction: the dyadic basis of clientelism. In: Schmidt JCSSW, Landé C, Guasti L, editors. Friends, followers, and factions: a reader in political clientelism. Berkeley: University of California Press; 1977.Google Scholar
  22. Landry P. Decentralized authoritarianism in China: the Communist Party’s control of local elites in the post-Mao era. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2008.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Lazarev V, Gregory PR. The wheels of a command economy: allocating Soviet vehicles. Econ Hist Rev. 2002;55(2):324.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Lazarev V, Gregory PR. Commissars and cars: a case study in the political economy of dictatorship. J Comp Econ. 2003;31(1):1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Lee HY. From revolutionary cadres to party technocrats in socialist China. Berkeley: University of California Press; 1991.Google Scholar
  26. Li B, Walder AG. Career advancement as party patronage: sponsored mobility into the Chinese administrative elite, 1949–1996. Am J Sociol. 2001;106(5):1371.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Lü X. Cadres and corruption: the organizational involution of the Chinese Communist Party. Stanford: Stanford University Press; 2000.Google Scholar
  28. Lu X, Landry P. Show me the money: interjurisdiction political competition and fiscal extraction in China. Am Polit Sci Rev. 2014;108(3):706.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Lust-Okar E. Structuring conflict in the Arab world: incumbents, opponents, and institutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2005.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Magaloni B. Voting for autocracy: hegemonic party survival and its demise in Mexico. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2006.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Magaloni B, Kricheli R. Political order and one party rule. Ann Rev Polit Sci. 2010;13:123–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Magaloni B, Diaz-Cayeros A, Estevez F. Clientelism and portfolio diversification: a model of electoral investment with applications to Mexico. In: Kitschelt H, Wilkinson S, editors. Patrons, clients, and policies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2007.Google Scholar
  33. Malesky E, Schuler P. Nodding or needling: analyzing delegate responsiveness in an authoritarian parliament. Am Polit Sci Rev. 2010;104(3):482–502.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Mao Z. Telegraph on recruiting and cultivating large numbers of ethnic minority cadres (Guanyu daliang xishou peiyang shaoshu minzu ganbu de dianbao). In: Documents by Mao Zedong Following State Establishment, vol. 1. Beijing: Central Publishing Press; 1978.Google Scholar
  35. Nathan AJ (1973) A factionalism model for CCP politics. China Q. 53:34–66.Google Scholar
  36. O’Dwyer C. Runaway state-building: patronage politics and democratic development. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; 2006.Google Scholar
  37. Oi J. Communism and clientelism: rural politics in China. World Polit. 1985;37(2):238.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Oi J. State and peasant in contemporary China: the political economy of village government. Berkeley: University of California Press; 1989.Google Scholar
  39. Ong L. Between developmental and clientelist states: local state-business relationship in China. Comp Polit. 2012;44(2):1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Pei M. China’s trapped transition: the limits of developmental autocracy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; 2006.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Robinson JA, Verdier T (2013) The political economy of clientelism. Scand. J. Econ. 115(2):260–91.Google Scholar
  42. Roeder PG. Soviet federalism and ethnic mobilization. World Polit. 1991;43(2):196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Sautman B. Preferential policies for ethnic minorities in China: the case of Xinjiang. Nationalism Ethn Polit. 1998;4(1–2):86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Schwartz RD. Circle of protest: political ritual in the Tibetan uprising. New York: Columbia University Press; 1994.Google Scholar
  45. Sheng Y. Authoritarian co-optation, the territorial dimension. Stud Comp Int Dev. 2009;44(1):71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Shih V. Factions and finance in China: elite conflict and inflation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2008.Google Scholar
  47. Shih V, Zhang Q. Who receives subsidies? A look at the county-level in two time periods. In: Wong VSAC, editor. Paying for progress in China. London: Routledge; 2006.Google Scholar
  48. Shirk SL. Competitive comrades: career incentives and student strategies in China. Berkeley: University of California Press; 1982.Google Scholar
  49. Stokes S. Political clientelism. In: Stokes CBSC, editor. Handbook of comparative politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2007.Google Scholar
  50. Stokes S, Dunning T, Nazareno M, Brusco V. Brokers, voters, and clientelism: the puzzle of distributive politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2013.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Tsai K. Capitalism without democracy: the private sector in contemporary China. Ithaca: Cornell University Press; 2007.Google Scholar
  52. Tsou T. Chinese politics at the top: factionalism or informal politics? Balance-of-power politics or a game to win all? China J. 1995;34(34):95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Wagner A (1883) Finanzwissenscaft. 3rd ed. Winter LeipzigGoogle Scholar
  54. Walder AG. Communist neo-traditionalism: work and authority in Chinese industry. Berkeley: University of California Press; 1986.Google Scholar
  55. Walder AG. The party elite and China’s trajectory of change. China Int J. 2004;2(2):189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Wang Y, Connected autocracy (2013) APSA 2013 Annual Meeting Paper, American Political Science Association Annual Meeting.Google Scholar
  57. Wank DL. The institutional process of market clientelism: Guanxi and private business in a south China city. China Q. 1996;147(147):820–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Wintrobe R. The political economy of dictatorship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1998.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. World Bank. China: public services for building the new socialist countryside. Washington D.C.: World Bank; 2007.Google Scholar
  60. Yang D. Remaking the Chinese leviathan: market transition and the politics of governance in China. Stanford: Stanford University Press; 2004.Google Scholar
  61. Zang X. Affirmative action, economic reforms, and Han–Uyghur variation in job attainment in the state sector in Urumchi. China Q. 2010;202:344–61. doi: 10.1017/s0305741010000275.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Zhao S (2013) Rural China: poor governance in strong development. Stanford University CDDRL Working Paper No. 134.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA

Personalised recommendations