The Incentive to Innovate? The Behavior of Local Policymakers in China

Abstract

Despite playing a key contributing role in China’s economic reforms and the Party’s regime durability, there has been a noted reduction in local policy experimentation. Using semi-structured interviews with policymakers in Beijing, Zhejiang and Shenzhen, we find that although recentralization efforts at the central-level are impacting local officials, a great deal of variation in policy experimentation outcomes still exists. Thus, the puzzle motivating this study is how do local officials react to these institutional changes to decide whether or not to engage in local policy innovation? Our study offers three potential explanations for why local officials vary in their willingness to continue policy experimentation: (1) the ineffectiveness of the vertical reward and punishment systems operated by the Party-state; (2) differing base preferences of local officials; and, (3) the presence of a cohort effect. These factors “filter” institutional changes to result in variation at the local level. As such, we find strong support for an evolutionary process 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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We use the terms “innovation” and “policy experimentation” interchangeably. Although we agree with scholars studying policy change that innovation could signify something completely new, never before attempted, we define both terms as a similar process of “creating or adopting a new policy to address perceived governance problems”. As Cels et al. clarifies, innovation differs from invention in that it does not have to be new to the world, but only new to the local situation [2].

  2. 2.

    Beijing Interview, 8 June 2015.

  3. 3.

    In order to gain access to high-level policymakers, we utilized personal networks in the first instance, and snowballed further interviewees thereafter. Please also note, we have anonymized our interview participants as a condition of our ethics approval; and methodologically, this practice provided a greater incentive for our interviewees to offer candid responses.

  4. 4.

    Note, our sample does not capture the relatively less-developed areas of China, which potentially may have a differing sub-national institutional environment, and local policy officials’ behavior.

  5. 5.

    Beijing Interview, 19 June 2016.

  6. 6.

    Zhejiang Interview, 30 June 2016.

  7. 7.

    Zhejiang Interview, 30 June 2016.

  8. 8.

    Zhejiang Interview, 4 July 2016.

  9. 9.

    Zhejiang Interview, 6 July 2016.

  10. 10.

    Zhejiang Interview, 6 July 2016.

  11. 11.

    Shenzhen Interview, 26 May 2016; Beijing Interview, 8 June 2016; Beijing Interview, 15 June 2016.

  12. 12.

    Zhejiang Interview, 6 July 2016; Beijing Interview, 19 June 2016.

  13. 13.

    Zhejiang Interview, 4 July 2016.

  14. 14.

    Zhejiang Interview, 4 July 2016.

  15. 15.

    Beijing Interview, 8 June 2015.

  16. 16.

    Beijing Interview, 19 June 2016.

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Acknowledgements

The authors are grateful for the valuable feedback received at the 2017 Association for Asian Studies Annual Meeting (Toronto, Canada). This research is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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Correspondence to Reza Hasmath.

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Teets, J.C., Hasmath, R. & Lewis, O.A. The Incentive to Innovate? The Behavior of Local Policymakers in China. J OF CHIN POLIT SCI 22, 505–517 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11366-017-9512-9

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Keywords

  • Policy
  • Innovation
  • Experimentation
  • Policymakers
  • Subnational
  • China