Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Reform with Chinese Characteristics: The Context of Chinese Civil Service Reform

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Reform with Chinese Characteristics: The Context of Chinese Civil Service Reform

Article excerpt

In an article in 1887, Woodrow Wilson called for a discipline of public administration separate from political science. He argued that Americans should look to European governments for administrative structures. He spent much of the article justifying the concept that a democracy should seek advice on how to govern from authoritarian European regimes. It is possible that Wilson emphasized the separation between politics and administration to support his argument that Americans could borrow administrative techniques from countries whose politics they abhorred. Wilson wrote, "If I see a murderous fellow sharpening a knife cleverly, I can borrow his way of sharpening the knife without borrowing his probable intention to commit murder with it..." (Wilson, 1887; 24). In a metaphor more appropriate to this article, Wilson also wrote, "We borrowed rice, but we do not eat it with chopsticks" (p. 23).

Today, Chinese Communists studying capitalist civil service systems have been making a similar point. Deng Xiaoping has said, in reference to economic reforms, "It doesn't matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice." The current Chinese civil service reform (CSR) is an adjunct to the economic reforms begun in 1978. By 1988, the personnel function of the Ministry of Labor and Personnel was transferred into its own Ministry of Personnel. Regional and city governments, as well as a few national ministries, began experimenting with Western civil service techniques (particularly the use of examinations for selection). With United Nations' help (United Nations Development Program, 1987, 1989), the Chinese have been bringing foreign personnel experts to China and sending Chinese administrators abroad to study Western personnel technology. Although they are studying foreign systems, in the end, they insist that they will adopt a system with distinct "Chinese characteristics."

What are Chinese characteristics? Just as a foreigner would have difficulty understanding the current American debate over health care without knowing American economic, social, and political traditions, foreigners unaware of Chinese traditions will miss much when approaching China's public administration and civil service. We will highlight characteristics that we found to be either particularly confusing in our initial interviews with Chinese officials or especially enlightening in our follow-up research. We believe that the factors we have chosen play important, often unspoken, roles affecting the design and implementation of civil service reform in China. Our goal is not to give a detailed description of Chinese civil service reform (CSR) (there already exist excellent sources for that),(2) but to identify and explain a few Chinese characteristics that are particularly important in understanding China's CSR.

Even this is a formidable task in a short article. To live in China is to live in a different reality. The rules, rewards, and sanctions are different. "In Asia ... you either lose your inner moorings, start to sink, go some kind of crazy, and just let it happen, or you will leave sooner than you expected and not learn anything" (Holm, 1990; 20). This advice is contrary to our academic training. Yet to understand China, we must suspend our paradigmatic preconceptions. Deductively applying Western models to describe China's CSR is misleading. Foreign experts with little knowledge of China cannot even take their interpreter's words at face value.(3) These difficulties impose limitations on us as interpreters of Chinese CSR. They make descriptive study most realistic and useful. Even so, our words also should be taken tentatively.

Three Basic Values in Tension

Suzanne Ogden (1989) proposes that three basic competing values underlie all decisions of the Chinese government: traditional Chinese culture, socialism, and development.(4) As the political winds change, the priority of the values changes. Chinese CSR reflects the tensions among these values. …

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