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This feat by tightrope walkers 100m above the Pearl River in Guangzhou is nothing compared to the difficult balancing act China needs to achieve between political centralisation and economic decentralisation. Photo: Xinhua

How China’s balancing act between centralised control and local leadership will be critical to its future

Zhang Jun says while recent years have seen a pullback from the decentralised governance instituted in the Mao Zedong era, it risks stifling growth and innovation. The answer may lie in a system of downward accountability

Five years ago, China’s leaders decided to target modern state governance as a top reform priority. The goal of such reform is to improve the state’s capacity to adapt to the sheer size and increasing complexity of the Chinese economy, and to mitigate risk. Achieving this objective will not be easy. 

To understand why, and what it will take to succeed, consider how Chinese governance has worked in recent decades. Overall, governing the country involves a combination of political centralisation and economic decentralisation.

In particular, China’s spectacular income growth has been enabled by a delicate balance between the concentration of political power in the hands of the central leadership and the delegation of economic management to local authorities.

This balance has often proved difficult to maintain. For example, when China still had a fully planned economy, Mao Zedong had to delegate the management of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to local authorities for some time in order to boost production, as local governments were in a better position than the industrial ministry in Beijing to manage local suppliers.

But, within a few years, this system had become so disorganised, due to economic chaos in the wake of decentralisation, that the central government reasserted its control.

Workers remove an old portrait (left) of Mao Zedong and install a new one on Tiananmen Gate in Beijing on September 27 ahead of China's National Day on October 1 this year. Photo: AFP

Nonetheless, in 1978, Deng Xiaoping not only delegated authority to local governments, but also increased their revenue through a system of fiscal contracting, in an effort to maximise their contribution to overall gross domestic product growth. Again, the plan worked for a while – until China’s leaders confronted the downside of fiscal decentralisation: the central government’s declining revenue share under this system limited its capacity to assert its authority and manage macroeconomic stability.

To this day, local governments have to raise extra-budgetary funds to finance the rising deficit between revenues and expenditure

As a result, in 1994, the central government had to revise the intergovernmental fiscal relationship. It reverted from fiscal contracts to a system in which the central government acquired the majority of tax revenues and the revenue share of local governments was substantially reduced.

But while this change strengthened the central government’s hand, it undermined local governments’ ability to sustain their spending, which still amounted to some 80 per cent of total government expenditure. In other words, revising the intergovernmental fiscal relationship did not calibrate the expenditure responsibility between central and local governments. To this day, local governments have to raise extra-budgetary funds to finance the rising deficit between revenues and expenditure.

Understandably, Chinese local leaders have not negotiated a reduction in their share of total expenditure responsibility, not least because the central government has appointed provincial leaders over whom it maintains substantial control.

Meanwhile, since 1994, the central government has implemented a performance-based system for assessing and promoting local leaders, thereby fuelling competition among local authorities. This point is the key to a better understanding of Chinese governance today, which the economist Chenggang Xu aptly describes as a “regionally decentralised authoritarian system”.

It is not easy to assess this system, because competition among local authorities has always had both good and bad outcomes. While this horizontal competition has helped China to reach growth targets, central leaders must be supportive of local leaders’ discretionary powers, authority to raise funds and capacity to attract investment.

In most cases, however, local officials would abuse such powers and do more than needed. For example, local authorities have long had a perverse incentive to improve their own standing by allocating resources to image-building projects that serve no genuine economic need or purpose. This might boost growth in the short term, but unproductive investments can also threaten macroeconomic stability in the longer term.
A man walks down a deserted public area flanked by residential buildings in Kangbashi district, Ordos city, Inner Mongolia, on February 16, 2017. The district garnered attention after international media characterised it as a “ghost city” with few actual residents. Photo: Simon Song

Another difficulty in assessing Chinese governance arises from the complicated relationship between politics and business in different regions. Decentralisation rewards local officials who are competent and devoted to supporting economic growth. But it also creates opportunities for these officials to forge surreptitious ties with business owners, and this undermines growth in the long run.

Because of the strong competition to stand out in terms of growth, especially at the provincial level, many lower-level officials use their authority more to advance their personal interests. At the same time, business owners seek illicit relationships with local officials to gain protection, privileges (such as contracts), loans, a blind eye to safety standards and regulatory exemptions – activities that generate financial risks and undermine competition by raising entry barriers for more efficient enterprises.

The delegation of discretionary power to the bottom of the system could therefore create a dilemma for the central leadership: exercising more control would hurt growth, but so would the rampant corruption that results from not exercising it.

Yet the solution is not as simple as cracking down on graft. Since President Xi Jinping launched his anti-corruption campaign in 2012, China’s overall economic performance has not improved, partly owing to local officials’ increased reluctance to take bold steps to boost growth.

Watch: The far-reaching powers of China’s new anti-corruption ‘super agency’

The crux of the problem may lie in China’s system of upward accountability in governing its officials. While Chinese governance undoubtedly has its advantages – in particular, it enables the central government to mitigate risks, including preventing debt and financial weakness from triggering crises – it can hamper the kind of policy experimentation needed to sustain economic progress.

The crux of the problem may lie in China’s system of upward accountability in governing its officials

Given the system of upward accountability, de-emphasising GDP growth in assessing the performance of local officials would help reduce their incentive to abuse decentralised powers and make unproductive investments. But, if Chinese leaders do not abandon the system of upward accountability, how would they measure and assess local officials’ relative performance? A step towards introducing downward accountability into the governance system is perhaps necessary.

China’s leaders are right in the sense that the country’s governance must be modernised. To succeed, however, they may have to revise their approach to managing local governments and introduce greater downward accountability in assessing their performance. This shift undoubtedly carries risks, but ultimately they are worth taking in the course of adapting governance for continued economic development.

Zhang Jun is dean of the School of Economics at Fudan University and director of the China Centre for Economic Studies, a Shanghai-based think tank. Copyright: Project Syndicate 

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Governance balancing act is key to the nation’s future