The Political Beliefs of Chinese Officials

It is true that China is a one-party state, but the ideologies of its official representatives are not indicative of a monolithic bureaucracy. It is also true that the Chinese state has tried to influence the beliefs of its citizens and officials, but there is indeed variation among officials – both in opinions and degree of belief in those opinions. What do we know about these beliefs and are their patterns of political beliefs among officials in China?

Greg Distelhorst, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto and Mitsubishi Career Development Professor in International Management at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sought out answers to these questions by conducting a multi-region survey of currently serving officials in 2015-2016. These officials, in the professor’s own words, are “high enough in rank to matter, but low enough in rank to be surveyed.” The survey asked specific policy questions to discern bureaucratic political beliefs and political orientation, rather than classifying them along a left-right or liberal-conservative spectrum.

Distelhorst pointed out the economic and legal policy dimensions as regions of particular interest. The economic policy space asked about issues like public education, minimum wage, regulation of natural monopolies, economic protectionism, and price controls on real estate. The legal policy space was concerned with criminal procedure, vigilantism, and general law abidance. He found that the median respondent was a “law-abiding interventionist,” meaning that he or she supports legal norms as well as state intervention in the economy.

These results have important ramifications for Chinese politics and policymaking. Distelhorst showed that the biggest ideological division was along gender lines: millennials tended to be more pro-market and more attached to legal norms than more senior officials. Furthermore, he also noted that these political beliefs of non-elected officials in China are exactly that: they do not mirror the preferences of the public. In fact, officials are often more nationalistic, less-market favoring, and more legally attached than the general citizenry. He concluded with the question: are these disparities in beliefs indicative of enduring generational change within China or are these pro-market, pro-law ideologies simply a passion of the youth? 

Professor Distelhorst’s talk today is based off of original research conducted with Margaret Boittin; these two scholars partnered with Francis Fukuyama on the Governance Project at Stanford in 2016. If you’re interested in looking into more of his research, you can find some of his projects here.

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