The Struggle between Traditional and Adopted Public Service Values in China

By Hu, Di; Mingus, Matthew S. | Public Administration Quarterly, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

The Struggle between Traditional and Adopted Public Service Values in China


Hu, Di, Mingus, Matthew S., Public Administration Quarterly


Governance, culture, and societal development are intertwined because values that are compatible with and supported by the society and grounded in its culture are an essential aspect of good governance. Dissonance between values within and across systems may minimize the resilience of a society and thus have a deleterious effect over time. Modern China provides an example of the challenge as traditional and recently adopted values seek to coexist.

A key challenge with public sector values in China is that "good government" reforms implemented since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 have promoted the Western civil service values of merit and transparency while the traditional values of guanxi and a politically-driven bureaucracy (i.e., dualism) have remained in place. While Aufrecht and Bun (1995, p. 178) define guanxi as "a network of outstanding personal favors and obligations stemming from town or regional ties, school ties, or family ties," the complexity of guanxi will become clear as it is developed throughout this essay. Current views about guanxi in the literature are concerned about either individual interest maximization (Pye, 1995) or ethics and etiquette in the superior-subordinate relationship (Guo, 2001). This essay discusses those perspectives, but also the function of guanxi in the political arena to form a close knit group of people supporting the same ideology.

We seek to describe how guanxi fits within China and to describe the clash between recently adopted values and this traditional value. We begin with the contrast of the regimes of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

Political Ideology in Post-Mao China

In contrast with the 'Politics in Command' slogan that characterized Mao's era, Deng's regime adopted an 'Economics in Command' slogan after the Cultural Revolution. He aimed to introduce capitalist techniques in the short-term to enhance the long-term benefits of Chinese socialism by creating strong financial support for it (Goodman, 1988).

Deng's theory was read into the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) constitution at its 15th Congress in 1997. Although Deng sought to focus more on administration and development than mass mobilization, real changes were slow due to the perceived incompatibility between traditional political values such as guanxi and the new ones, which were often perceived as radical. This led to competing factionalism within the party as traditional politics called for an outward display of conformity and unity, akin to "followership" as a tenet of leadership (Kellerman, 2008). For example, Deng had not supported the market forces solution until he rose to power in the 1970s because he was one of Mao's favored political allies when those ideas were proposed by Chen Yun in the 1950s (Khrushchev, 1977). Chen and Mao were in opposing factions and Deng stuck with Mao in those early years.

Jiang Zemin advanced what came to be called the "Three Represents" principle in 2000--the CCP represents (1) the development of advanced economic forces, (2) the orientation of an advanced culture, and (3) the fundamental interests of the majority of Chinese people. While the 16th Congress adopted the Three Represents in 2002, its greatest political achievement was the ability to maintain and advance the current set of policies into the future (Mohanty, 2003). Jiang's principle privileged learning experiences from outside China to strengthen Chinese socialism while retaining positive ideas from the past (2002), and thus was a significant step toward adopting Western public service values while also supporting existing values.

Jiang's successor Hu Jintao pushed both scientific development and harmony, while emphasizing traditional political values: "We must work energetically to build a harmonious socialist society. Social harmony is an essential attribute of socialism with Chinese characteristics ... building a harmonious socialist society is a historical mission" (Sullivan, 2011, p. …

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