Disorganizing China: Counter-Bureaucracy and the Decline of Socialism

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Disorganizing China: Counter-Bureaucracy and the Decline of Socialism, by Eddy U. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007. xviii + 276 pp. US$55.00 (hardcover).

Eddy U sets out to demonstrate that China during the Mao Zedong era was not too bureaucratic, as is often asserted, but rather was not bureaucratic enough. The term "bureaucracy", unfortunately, suffers from a variety of definitions that are often conflated. Among the variations are: 1) the object of scorn in everyday discourse (cumbersome regulations and procedures); 2) the perennial target of Mao's political campaigns (concentration of power in the hands of officials who are divorced from the masses); 3) the nemesis of marketizing reformers (state planning); and 4) Weber's analytical concept (authority relations based on rational legal principles). U adopts Weber's concept and employs it to dissect workplace organization, using Shanghai's middle school system as a research case. U's monograph is a valuable addition to books recently published by David Bray, Mark Frazier and Elizabeth Perry and Xiaobo Lu about the origins and nature of the Chinese work unit system. He has contributed a detailed investigation of workplace organization in another sector, education, and has shown that Weber's concept of bureaucracy is a productive lens for this kind of analysis.

In his first four empirical chapters, U evaluates several aspects of middle school organization between 1949 and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, showing how prevailing practices flagrantly violated Weber's bureaucratic principles. U found that, in order to expand secondary education rapidly (the number of middle school students in Shanghai grew by nearly seven times between 1949 and 1965) and reduce unemployment, the new Communist government inordinately sacrificed hiring standards. The educational qualifications of middle school teachers plummeted as the government foisted a motley assortment of unemployed intellectuals, excess or unwanted government employees and politically sympathetic but poorly trained workers and peasants on the school system. The CCP further demonstrated its disregard for professional competence by dispatching its own cadres, who often had inadequate education and little or no experience in educational institutions, to serve as school leaders, allowing them to supervise better educated and more experienced education professionals. Moreover, in deciding whom to promote to positions of authority, family origin and political history were given greater weight than technical qualifications. Income distribution remained highly irrational, despite the standard wage schedule adopted in 1956, because substantial salary supplements awarded to incumbent teachers were retained and the low salaries of younger teachers were seldom raised.

In the final and most fascinating chapter of this section, U examines the way the school system disciplined its employees, which was far from the impersonal rule-based justice of Weber's bureaucratic type. The jurisdiction of the workplace extended beyond job-related issues to political matters and criminal infractions. Committees were established to investigate suspected wrongdoing by fellow employees and recommend appropriate resolutions to school authorities, and workplace justice considered family and political history, previous service and the school system's teaching needs, and it could not escape from personal relations. Punishment often involved demotion and almost always involved public humiliation, but U was surprised to find how seldom those found guilty of wrongdoing were fired; school authorities seemed reluctant to involve the courts even when they determined that employees were counter-revolutionaries, embezzlers or child abusers, and many of those sent to prison later returned to work. As a result, schools were filled with stigmatized individuals, and the deviant population grew with every new political campaign.

In a chapter on the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, U argues that the roots of conflict among school employees can be traced to longstanding divisions fostered by the anti-bureaucratic characteristics of workplace organization (especially subjecting education professionals to supervision by political cadres). …