1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Theories of Reform and Imitation
  4. Explaining Variety in the Reform Experiences of Upper Echelons in Chinese Provincial Government
  5. Methods
  6. Discussion and Conclusions
  7. References

This article explores the attitudes of officials in the upper echelons in Chinese provincial and local government toward the origins of administrative reform. The authors examine the somewhat dichotomous argument that reform imitates the West or is indigenous and contend that both influences are present. Data drawn from a survey of party cadres and government officials show that cultural factors (time in government, overall knowledge of administrative reforms, together with familiarity with the move from a planned system of government to a market economy) and structural variables (upper echelon and familiarity with business management techniques) are correlated with learning from the West. Cadres and officials who spend more time managing outward and those who are familiar with performance assessment do not learn from the West. The theoretical and research implications of these findings—that learning from the West is an important influence on the adoption of administrative reforms in China—are discussed.

Public sector reforms around the world are often the result of a complex combination of historical traditions, efforts by political leaders to pursue new goals, and pressure from domestic and international environments (Pollitt and Bouckaert 2004). With the New Public Management (NPM) reform wave from the early 1980s, and post-NPM from the late 1990s, both originating primarily from Anglo-Saxon nations, it is often said that countries around the world increasingly imitate international reform trends and develop similar reform features, a process that is commonly labeled “isomorphy” (DiMaggio and Powell 1983; Meyer and Rowan 1977). This may involve the spreading of reform ideas, myths, or fashions and may also include the diffusion of actual initiatives and real change in governmental structures (Sahlin-Andersson 2001). China is a country where many waves of reforms have occurred during a relatively short period of time, but particularly during the last two decades (Ngok and Zhu 2007). Scholars of China's reforms are divided on the issue of whether such reforms are mostly domestically based and have “Chinese characteristics” (Ngok and Chan 2003; Gao 2010) or are cases of diffusion. In the second camp, some point to the fact that many recent measures look very similar to reforms found elsewhere, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries, suggesting that imitation may be taking place (Caulfield 2006; Foster 2005).

However, this is not an “either/or” question. We expect to find evidence of both learning from the West and emphasis on domestic features. Our analysis focuses on searching for variations in how cadres and officials see external influences and trying to understand what is shaping any differences. The reforms of interest are NPM and post-NPM, and we focus on the countries that led these changes, namely, the United Kingdom, United States, and other Anglo-Saxon nations. We report a survey of the attitudes and experiences of a group of upper-echelon or elite Chinese cadres and officials. We describe and analyze how these actors perceive and experience influence from the West in public sector administrative reforms, including imitation and learning, and draw on three organization theory perspectives—demographic, cultural, and structural—in seeking to explain any variations in their responses (Christensen et al. 2007; Egeberg 2003). Our main questions are the following: How do Chinese party cadres and government officials experience influence from the West concerning public reforms? And how can we explain variety in their experience based on demographic, cultural, and structural factors?

This is a study of perceptions and attitudes, not of the actual reform record. We do not address a number of important aspects of the topic of learning and imitation in public sector reforms. For example, we do not directly explore the processes or mechanisms of learning and imitation (e.g., whether officials went on overseas study tours, were exposed to contemporary reform ideas when studying for their degrees or during training associated with their job, or whether particular government bodies have specialized reform units whose job is to scan for best practices and innovation overseas). Nor do we try to explain which reforms are adopted and which are not—for example, the type of reform or the sector in which it takes place. We are, at the same time, interested in respondents’ knowledge of and experience with different types of reform as a possible explanation for their understanding and experience of overseas models. Likewise, we do not directly explore whether learning occurs more at the symbolic level rather than in the precise detail of actual adoptions, although we try to draw some inferences on this from our data and suggest avenues for further study.

In the next section, we present a theoretical discussion of mechanisms of imitation and administrative reform. We next justify our selection of independent and dependent variables and set out the logic of our analysis. Following this, our methods are outlined, including a discussion of our survey of upper echelon actors in Zhejiang Province, together with measures. Statistical results of correlates point toward a balanced view of the origins of adoption of administrative reform, but with perhaps more weight toward learning from the West in this sample of respondents. In the conclusion, we discuss the implications of these findings for ongoing work to understand administrative reform in Chinese government.

Theories of Reform and Imitation

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Theories of Reform and Imitation
  4. Explaining Variety in the Reform Experiences of Upper Echelons in Chinese Provincial Government
  5. Methods
  6. Discussion and Conclusions
  7. References

The purpose of this section is to set a broad theoretical context for our empirical analysis. The development of reforms in a country such as China, including imitation of other countries, may be the result of complex and dynamic processes that are constrained by structural, cultural, and environmental forces (Christensen and Lægreid 2007; Wescott and Jones 2007). The structural or instrumental preconditions for reform (March and Olsen 1983) include the capacity of political and administrative leaders to decide on and implement reforms. For example, China, with its one-party system and strong central political leadership, has high potential for pursuing reform measures and controlling reform processes. Another instrumental aspect is the degree of homogeneity of the administrative system (Christensen and Lægreid 2001). Arguably, the larger a system is, the more likely it is to be heterogeneous and for reform to be problematic (Egeberg 2003). Adding to this is the significance of the scope of reform, with extensive and wide reforms demanding the most capacity and resources (Wright 1994). At the one extreme, narrow reforms and homogeneous systems of limited size are the most easy to decide on and implement, while broad reforms in large and heterogeneous systems are more difficult to control; the latter is seemingly the situation in China.

Another aspect of instrumentality concerns rational calculation (Dahl and Lindblom 1953). What is the quality of the organizational thinking of executive leaders with respect to reform processes? Do they have unambiguous intentions and goals, clear definitions of problems and solutions, and insights into the possible effects of reforms—in sum, unambiguous reform-related thinking? Preconditions for the quality of organizational thinking are resources and expertise available in the leadership or its apparatus and the complexity of the systems and, therefore, the magnitude of problems to be solved through reforms. Generally, one might imagine that Chinese executive leaders have the capacity for rational calculation and control but struggle with complexity and the scope of problems.

If some of the basis for reform in a country is instrumental imitation from abroad, this could happen through at least two types of processes, singly or in combination. Reform advocates from other countries or in international institutions (such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; see OECD 2005) could try to persuade a country to imitate certain reforms, or a country may actively search out and imitate reforms that it thinks would be suitable. The advantage of the first, more passive process is that the search process is effortless, while a major disadvantage is that the sender may exaggerate or distort the reform experience. To the extent that overseas models can be seen as having an influence, the dilemma in China has been how to balance imitating alleged successes with more critical assessments of the reform experiences abroad, based on an active and in-depth search and analysis of these experiences (Christensen, Dong, and Painter 2008).

The cultural preconditions of reforms are of a different character. Political-administrative systems over time develop cultural-institutional features of informal norms and values related to gradual adaptation to internal and external pressure (Selznick 1957). One central mechanism is path dependency, meaning that the cultural “roots” that are typical of the formative years of a public organization will determine the routes or paths taken later on (Krasner 1988; March 1994). A crucial question is how compati-ble a set of reforms—for example, externally initiated—is with the historical traditions in a country (Brunsson and Olsen 1993). This does not mean that the political-administrative leadership always will initiate or imitate reforms that are culturally compatible because they may consciously want to change historical traditions and create a new cultural path (Christensen et al. 2007). However, imitation of other countries may be a challenge culturally because the historical traditions are different. The more passive a country is in accepting overseas reform models, the more likely it is that these reforms will be “out of context,” while more active search may make it easier to adapt what is learnedto a country's own cultural traditions. So-called decontextualized, one-size-fits-all approaches to reform are common reasons for running into difficulties (Boyne et al. 2003; Czarniawska and Sevón 1996; Røvik 2002).

Imitation of other countries may be a challenge culturally because the historical traditions are different.

A third set of factors influencing imitation of reforms from other countries is environmental factors. Meyer and Rowan (1977) make a distinction between the technical and institutional environment. The technical environment generates mechanisms or pressures for change caused by political, economic, technological, or social changes—for example, the economic problems that prompted NPM reforms in New Zealand in the early 1980s (Aberbach and Christensen 2001). The institutional environment comprises ideas and beliefs about practices that are communicated through organizational processes such as myths and symbols shared among organizational leaders about what is “modern” or “best practices.” International or national organizations function as reform entrepreneurs, spreading the message of what are the appropriate reforms to imitate, which may increase the legitimacy of political executives (Brunsson 1989). Both of these mechanisms may have been working with regard to public reforms in China. In our analysis, we do not directly explore these environmental influences or the processes by which they are but imparted, but rather focus on how one group of senior public officials in China experienced and related to them by exploring their perceptions and attitudes.

Explaining Variety in the Reform Experiences of Upper Echelons in Chinese Provincial Government

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Theories of Reform and Imitation
  4. Explaining Variety in the Reform Experiences of Upper Echelons in Chinese Provincial Government
  5. Methods
  6. Discussion and Conclusions
  7. References

Within the framework of these broad theoretical perspectives on imitation and reform, we discuss what might explain variety in the way Chinese upper echelons experience imitation of the West concerning administrative reforms. We use three sets of perspectives to do this—demographic, cultural, and structural.

The premise for including a demographic perspective (Pfeffer 1983) is that personal characteristics are likely to be very important in shaping people's understandings of reform origins. The theory of representative bureaucracy is based on such a premise (Meier 1973). Christensen and Lægreid (2009) have argued that personal background may be more important than either position in the organizational structure or the cultural experiences of upper-echelon actors in influencing modes of thought and behavior. Based on early socialization in different phases, people arrive in public employment with different “baggage,” for example, based on gender, education, or age. For instance, an older cadre would have more familiarity with pre-reform-era practices and less familiarity with Western reform models. Education is also likely to influence experiences; for example, the higher the educational attainment of an elite respondent, the more likely he or she is to be knowledgeable of Western models and experiences.

Second, as discussed in the previous section, the cultural perspective looks at the development of public organizations as a gradual development of an administrative culture based on mutual adaptation to internal and external pressures (Selznick 1957). Thus, one's starting point as a public official bears the traces of modes of administrative thought and practices that were characteristic of that point in time. This is a somewhat more specific usage of the term “culture” than is often adopted in discussions of Chinese public administration—for instance, in the expression “national culture” to refer to specifically Chinese traditions of administrative thought and practice, or in the use of the concept of “political culture” to encapsulate features associated with the norms and conventions governing the behavior of public officials in a one-party state (Aufrecht and Li 1995; Lam and Chan 1996). Starting from our somewhat narrower perspective, one way to operationalize administrative culture is to explore whether government officials’ mind-sets are “stuck in their generation” (Christensen and Lægreid 2008). In the context of this study, the respondents with the longest tenure are expected to be those having the least experience or understanding of the West; conversely, elites with a relatively short tenure experienced and learned from quite another era in Chinese government (the reform era), when ideas and experience from the West were more relevant and more closely studied.

Knowledge about reforms is a central cultural variable likely to affect the perceptions of upper echelons. Knowledge about administrative reforms is likely to be connected both to a cumulative career version of tenure and to length of education or exposure to reform experiences. We expect that elite respondents having the most knowledge about reforms will be the ones experiencing the most imitation of the West. Based on the “generational” perspective, we should ask when this knowledge was acquired, and in what era elites report encountering key reform experiences. In the case of China, we expect that officials who learned their experience of administrative reforms during the era of transition to the market economy are more likely to have been exposed to and influenced by experience in the West. At the same time, we do not rule out the possibility that the unique starting point of China's reform experience, which was clearly very different from the historical experience of Western countries, may also affect the reform perceptions and attitudes of senior officials.

The third argument rests on the structural perspective discussed in the previous section, from the starting point that formal structure channels capacity and attention—the familiar idea of “bounded rationality” (Simon 1957). Upper-echelon cadres and government officials will be on different levels, work inside different policy sectors, and have different types of tasks, all of which can generate a complex set of differences in attitudes, contacts, and actions (Egeberg 2003). Formal position in the hierarchy is traditionally one of the most important explanatory structural variables used in studies of bureaucracy (Egeberg 2003). Organizational groups have been termed social positions (Aiken and Hage 1968), hierarchical positions (Payne and Mansfield 1973) and echelons (Walker and Enticott 2004), which are defined as “the level of stratum in the organization and the department or type of professional activity” (Aiken and Hage 1968, 918). In this study, we focus on upper echelons, that is, officials who are likely to have more general tasks, are less rule driven, pay more attention to political signals, have most responsibility for coordination, and have broader contacts (Christensen and Lægreid 2009; Moore 1995). We expect that the higher the Chinese elite respondents are in the hierarchy, the more they will have experiences from and will attend to imitation of the West. In focusing on the upper echelons, we are not able to test the effects of position in the whole hierarchy, but still we expect a leadership effect. In particular, we can explore the effects of the structural distinction in the Chinese system between formally designated party cadres (secretaries) and departmental officials (directors, deputy directors and so on).

Alongside argument about echelons is the type of task orientation. This variable is a reflection of the fact that many upper echelons work on inward-oriented tasks such as personnel management, budgeting, auditing, and accounting, while others have tasks that demand an external or outward orientation, such as planning and policy development, preparation of new laws and rules, regulatory tasks, implementation tasks, international tasks, and so on (Moore 1995). Accordingly, our expectation is that upper echelons in Chinese provincial government working on outward-oriented tasks will be more oriented toward imitating the West than those having inward-looking tasks.

Our expectation is that upper echelons in Chinese provincial government working on outward-oriented tasks will be more oriented toward imitating the West than those having inward-looking tasks.

The kinds of reform measures encountered in the upper-echelon respondents’ work are also likely to influence their perceptions of the origins of reform. In this study, we focus on reform efforts that have had a particularly important effect on China and would be expected to be familiar to upper-echelon cadres and government officials. Important reforms include the wide-ranging use of market mechanisms in government that have resulted in a market structure in education, health, and housing (Dong, Christensen, and Painter 2010; Mok et al. 2010). Inside the bureaucracy, many administrative reforms have been implemented. These include reforms to personnel management (Dong 1993; Chen, Li, and Zhou 2005) and the introduction of a complex and wide-reaching performance assessment system for all government officials and cadres that is used as a mechanism to manage the large and heterogeneous public sector (Gao 2010). Within government, a range of new management practices have been introduced, many of which had their origins in business and were sometimes adaptations of international practice (Chou 2006; Ke et al. 2010). Attempts have also been made to open up government to the public. Examples include the citizen's charter initiatives reported by Foster (2005) and the wide-ranging use and publication of data on user satisfaction with government services as evaluation results are made more public (Ahmad 2006). Our expectation of the likely impact of these reform efforts on perceptions of the origins of administrative reform is not necessarily clear—marketization and performance assessment reforms are now deeply ingrained in the Chinese system of government, and extensive adaptation to the local context has taken place. Alternatively, the elite's experiences of reforms of different types in their daily work could focus their attention and resources on imitation of the West.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Theories of Reform and Imitation
  4. Explaining Variety in the Reform Experiences of Upper Echelons in Chinese Provincial Government
  5. Methods
  6. Discussion and Conclusions
  7. References

Units of Analysis and Data Sources

This study is located in Zhejiang Province, which has a population of 54.43 million people (as recorded in the November 2010 census). It is located immediately south of Shanghai, and the provincial capital is Hangzhou. There are 11 prefectural-level cities, 58 counties or county-level cities, and 1,171 towns and townships in the province. Zhejiang is one of the most developed provinces in China and has played a leading role in China's administrative reform in recent years. It has particularly made progress on performance and financial management and on relations between the province and counties. It ranks highly on a number of indicators of competitiveness and economic performance. Twenty-seven of China's 100 most competitive counties lay in the province, and per capita gross domestic product is fourth in the country. These economic achievements are attributed to lower levels of government interference. For example, around the time of China's entry into the World Trade Organization, Zhejiang Province was praised for its drastic reduction of the business transactions needed for administrative examination and approval (He 2009).

The units of analysis in this study are public sector elites in the upper echelons of Zhejiang Province working for the provincial, city, county and township governments. The upper echelons fall into two groups: party cadres or secretaries and administrators or government officials. Administrators are directors of bureaus and divisions and deputy directors or section directors or their equivalent. Given the interchangeability of roles, secretaries mirror government officials—for example, a party secretary of a prefectural-level city is equivalent to the director general of a provincial department, and a county secretary is similar to a division director.

The data are drawn from a survey conducted September 1–9, 2010, at the Zhejiang Provincial Party School. Three hundred questionnaires were distributed to officials attending training courses. Completed surveys were received from 253 upper-echelon actors, giving a response rate of 84 percent. However, nil response to many survey items reduced the number of responses to 182—a usable response rate of 60.7 percent. Clearly, this can have an influential impact on the results, so difference-of-means tests were undertaken on three sociodemographic items for those with partial and full responses: age, education, and gender. Statistically significant differences were identified for education (m = 3.37 and 3.40, t = 5.034*), suggesting that our sample of respondents was slightly more qualified. In total, respondents came from 22 (of 44) provincial departments (ting) and from 19 (of 46) municipal government bureaus (ju).

Undertaking surveys of party cadres and civil servants in China is complex, and access is difficult. For example, simply mailing out a questionnaire to cadres and civil servants would result in a near-zero response rate because of high levels of power distance and issues associated with trust relationships (Robertson, Lo, and Tang 2007). An examination of the literature on surveys in China in related fields such as political science or urban studies shows that probability samples are increasingly adopted and successfully implemented within a chosen locality (i.e., there are few full national probability samples) and have been growing rapidly over recent years (Manion 2011). However, the unit of analysis in these surveys is not cadres or administrators, but households, and the topics include questions about public policy (see, e.g., Manion 2008; Mok et al. 2010; Wu, He, and Webster 2010). A limited number of studies in public administration have surveyed officials and achieved probability samples within organizations chosen for convenience. For example, Walker and Wu (2010) implemented a Delphi panel and constituted the panel of experts from members of the Government Performance Management Research Association. In this case, the authors had access to the professional organization, and this legitimized the survey. However, in other cases, researchers have noted that they had to surrender some control over the data collection process in order to gain access to the necessary data. This included having the survey administered by the local government department that was being researched (Robinson, Lo, and Tang 2007). Lui (2009) conducted two surveys of frontline social workers in one city on the topic of public service motivation. This survey was undertaken with the cooperation of the local administration departments. While the local administration department gave the researcher access to the study group, to secure responses, “social workers were informed that while their participation was compulsory, they did not have to put their names on the questionnaire” (Lui 2009, 359). No study, to the authors’ knowledge, has surveyed the upper echelons of Chinese provincial government, including both party cadres and government officials, in order to provide evidence on the attitudes and behavior of elites. This study therefore trades access to this elite group of actors against the rigors of probability sampling and notes the limitation of this for the statistical analysis undertaken and for the capacity to generalize the results.


The aim of this study is to examine some of the reasons for differences in the extent to which upper-echelon or elite officials in Chinese provincial and municipal governments perceive management reform during the NPM and post-NPM eras to emanate from inside or outside China. To this end, we created an index of survey items examining learning from the West, in particular, countries associated with the early adoption of NPM and post-NPM reforms that captures this perception, labeled learning from the west. Table 1 lists these survey items, along with descriptive statistics. (Values for all variables included in this analysis are measured on a scale from 1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree, unless otherwise indicated.) A principal component analysis was undertaken on the measures, which all loaded positively onto one factor with an eigenvalue of 3.041 (43.44 percent variance explained). The index also achieved a satisfactory Cronbach's alpha of .723.

The aim of this study is to examine some of the reasons for differences in the extent to which upper-echelon or elite officials in Chinese provincial and municipal governments perceive management reform during the NPM and post-NPM eras to emanate from inside or outside China.

Table 1. Learning from the West
To what extent do you think overseas fact-finding missions provide information on administrative reform?2.94.93
Administrative reform in China is affected by international administrative reform trends.3.61.78
China's present administrative reform has learned muchfrom the West.3.13.83
The following countries have influenced administrativereform in China:
New Zealand2.78.64
United Kingdom3.24.75
United States3.60.80

Independent variables were divided into three groups discussed earlier: demographic, cultural, and structural perspectives. Table 2 lists the variables together with descriptive statistics and a correlation matrix. Demographic data include age (measured in five categories: below 30, 31–40, 41–50, 51–60, and over 60), education (senior high or below, junior college, university, master's degree, and PhD degree), and gender (female = 1, male = 2).

Table 2. Descriptive Statistics for Independent Variables
  1. Note: Correlations above .12 are significant at p < .05.

Demo-Graphic1. Gender1.73.45               
 2. Age2.88.61.19              
 3. Education3.40.64.10-.27             
Cultural4. Years in government4.711.24.17.63-.25            
 5. Knowledge of reform3.25.77.09-.06.14.02           
 6. Planned to market economy4.03.61.11-.02-.01-.13.07          
 7. Early years reform3.29.85-.07.04.05-.13-.13.31         
Structural8. Secretary.35.48.11-.11-.23-.03-.05.16.06        
 9. Bureau director.       
 10. Deputy director.29.46-.24-.14.09-.19.04-.01.05-.47-.48      
 11. % time managing outward36.1415.67.02-.05.13-.     
 12. Marketization3.321.06-.03-.03.08-.    
 13. Performance assessment3.82.80-.01-.07.11-.   
 14. Client orientation3.69.73-.02-.03.10-.03.02.04-.05-.  
 15. Business management techniques3.80.76-. 
 16. Personnel reform4.03.77-.06-.04-.05-.12.13-.00.06.01-.00-.01-.

Four items were used to operatio-nalize the cultural variables. The first asked respondents to indicate how many years they have worked in government (5 or less, 6–10, 11–15, 16–20, 21–25, and 30 or more) and asked about their knowledge of administrative reform: “I know a lot about administrative reform” (labeled knowledge of reform). Respondents were also quizzed about one of the main drivers of reforms in China, the shift to a market economy: “Administrative reform in China is affected by transition from the planned economy to the market economy” (labeled planned to market economy). Because current reform and understanding thereof builds on what went before, the senior echelons of government in Zhejiang were asked, “Administrative reform in China is affected by administrative reform in the early years of the PRC” (labeled early years reform).

Three sections of the survey were used to measure the structural perspective. First, we identified three echelons based on their job. Officials with the role of party secretary were labeled secretary; job titles include party discipline inspection committee secretary, town party secretary, and city and county party secretary and deputy secretary. Directors include bureau and divisional directors, for example, director of the Hangzhou Municipal Education Bureau and director of its Division of University Teaching Staff. Deputy directors were drawn from deputies in bureaus and divisions together with section heads. Dummy variables were created, and the echelons were distributed thus among our sample: secretaries, 83 (31.2 percent); directors, 106 (39.8 percent); and deputy directors, 77 (28.9 percent). Given we are using dummy variables, Deputy Directors were omitted from the statistical analysis.

Second, we examined the orientation of the respondent's job. Respondents were asked to think about their job during a typical week and to divide their time between managing the services that the organization delivers, managing the organization and staff, and interacting with people outside the organization. Respondents were instructed to sum these items to 100 percent in two questions: “time on managing the service/organization” and “time on interacting with people from outside the organization.” We entered the time managing outward variable into the regression equation (labeled % time managing outward). These items have been used in a number of prior studies that sought to examine the behavior of public managers (Meier and O'Toole 2001; Walker et al. 2007). Finally, a number of variables were included that probed the extent to which officials encountered administrative reform in their government organization. Respondents were asked, “The following are encountered in my work” in relation to “marketization of public service,” “performance assessment,” “client orientation,” “importation of business management techniques,” and “reform of personnel system.”

Statistical Results

The results of our ordinary least squares regression are presented in table 3. The regression explains 16 percent of the variation in the dependent variable, and there were no problems of multicollinearity in the model (all variance inflation factors were 3 or less and below the threshold of 10).

Table 3. Regression Results (dependent variable, learning from the West)
 Unstandardized Coefficients
  1. a

    p. < .1,

  2. b

    p. < .05,

  3. c

    p. < .01,

  4. d

    p. < .001

Years in government–.17b.08
Knowledge of reform.26c.09
Planned to market economy.42d.12
Early years reform.04.09
% time managing outward–.01a.00
Administrative reform
Performance assessment–.23b.10
Client orientation–.07.09
Business management techniques.20b.10
Personnel reform–.08.10
R 2/Adjusted R2.23/.16 

The correlates model includes 15 variables, of which seven returned statistically significant results. Interestingly, none of the three demographic factors was statistically significant when controlling for other variables. That is, age, education, and gender did not correlate with learning from the West. However, three of the coefficients for the cultural perspective variables were statistically significant and in the anticipated direction. The negative coefficient for the years in government variable indicates that the longer officials have served in government, the less likely they are to see administrative reform as emanating from the West. Those who claim to be knowledgeable about administrative reform are more likely to see Chinese reforms as influenced by the West than those who are familiar with the move from a planned to a market economy; the coefficients were positive and statistically significant in both cases. However, understanding of the early years reform was not a predictor in this model.

The respondent's echelon was significant in explaining the extent to which respondents perceived Chinese administrative reform as being influenced by learning from the West. The coefficient for secretaries was positive and statistically significant (but at the lower 10 percent level), whereas directors did not attain statistical significance. Thus, the results indicate that secretaries are more likely to see Western influence in administrative reform in China in comparison to the lower tier of elite echelons represented by deputy directors (the referent group), supporting our argument. The coefficient for time spent managing outward was negative and statistically significant at the .1 level. This suggests, contrary to our expectation, that those who spend more time interacting with those outside the organization are more likely to have a negative association with the notion that administrative reform emanates from the West. Two of the management reform coefficients were significant: performance assessment and business management techniques. The coefficient for business management techniques was positive, while for performance assessment, it was negative, suggesting that some reforms are associated with learning from the West, but others are associated in the minds of our elite respondents with a more Chinese model of reform.

Discussion and Conclusions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Theories of Reform and Imitation
  4. Explaining Variety in the Reform Experiences of Upper Echelons in Chinese Provincial Government
  5. Methods
  6. Discussion and Conclusions
  7. References

In this article, we set out to examine how upper-echelon cadres and government officials in one province of China experience imitation of the West in relation to administrative reform. One of the main findings is that there is evidence of learning from the West, with particular emphasis on the United Kingdom and United States (see table 1), but this needs to be counterbalanced with evidence that reform also emanates from within China, suggesting a complex and hybrid system consisting of different layers of governmental eras and reform waves (Mahoney and Thelen 2009). In drawing this conclusion, we point toward the veracity of cultural and structural variables, as demographic variables were not significant in our statistical analysis, probably because there is less variety in elite backgrounds than normally is the case in broader civil servant studies. More precisely, those newer to government who have experience of administrative reform and of the shift from a planned to a market economy, and who also have experience with business management techniques, saw learning as coming from the West, as did the more senior echelons of secretaries. However, those who spend time managing outward and are more familiar with performance assessment reforms were negatively correlated with the dependent variable of learning from the West.

The main results for the cultural variables are interesting in several ways. First, they indicate that path dependency for modern reforms in Zhejiang is not that important in a long historical perspective, but more in a shorter perspective, indicating that the era of market economy represents a break in the historical path from the early days of the People's Republic of China and the start of a new and modern path (see Kingdon 1984). This insight into the transition from a planned to a market economy, combined with more general knowledge of modern reforms, gives the highest potential for cadres and civil servants to be exposed to or actively searching for imitation and learning from Western reforms.

Among the structural variables, secretaries seem to be more exposed to the experiences and imitation of the West, while this is not the case for the rest of the elites. This may indicate that the political importance of reforms is significant, that is, ideas from the West that are considered relevant to the Chinese experience and problems are politically controlled and vetted through party channels, such as through participation by party secretaries in party meetings and in disseminating the “party line.” The layers of directors may have more exposure to Western reforms than ordinary Chinese bureaucrats, which we could not show with our elite data. However, the lesser exposure of government officials than secretaries may also reflect the more varied administrative tasks that they have.

The results for the structural variables are somewhat mixed, related to our expectations. As expected, experience of business management techniques, which is a rather central feature in the Chinese reforms, correlates with more experience of imitation of the West. The negative sign for the performance assessment variable is, as we noted earlier, not unsurprising. Over recent years, a sophisticated system of performance management and assessment has been put in place that cascades objectives from Beijing down to township governments. At each level, a contract is drawn up between the superior and subordinate level of government and targets are specified. There is a strong party political component to these performance measures. As Gao (2010) notes, often the contracts contain non-mission-based targets as a mechanism to achieve control over lower levels of government, and as such, this is a reform (as much political as managerial) that clearly has very strong Chinese characteristics. Respondents who highlighted this aspect of the reforms may see them as having a local origin and as a mechanism to control heterogeneity.

The negative correlation for managing outward is puzzling. One possible explanation is that those who spend more time on managing outward are more closely immersed in the practical local issues of coping with the transition to a market economy and associated problems in China, and hence reflect less on the origin of many ideas and practices, including their origin in the West, in the course of the shift from a planned to a market economy. To them, everything in their daily work has “Chinese characteristics.” An alternative explanation is that “inward-looking” managers are actually quite likely to be exposed to reform measures emanating from the West. Many of these measures have inward-looking elements, for example, administrative policy related to recruitment and other personnel matters, performance management, budgeting, auditing, and accounting. These have been a key focus of NPM. This, for our purposes, may somewhat blur the inward/outward distinction (Christensen and Lægreid 2007).

Summing up our findings, the Chinese elite respondents we surveyed in Zhejiang agree that China has been affected by Western administrative reforms and learned from the West. We have also shown that the variety of experiences of the elite respondents is connected, first, to cultural variables (a generational effect, experiences from a new cultural reform path, and knowledge) and, second, to structural variables: being among the political elite echelons and doing work with NPM elements. A structural perspective helps us understand the control factors in reform processes, with Chinese political elites seemingly most involved in imitating the West. As well, organizational thinking about reform is influenced by the tasks that elites are working on. A cultural perspective helps us understand the importance of cultural discontinuity and the new reform path, the generational effect, and the importance of knowledge about the new reforms. Overall, our results seem to indicate a somewhat shallow imitation of certain reforms and organizational forms from the West, headed by political elites (see Westney 1987). Our data, however, do not allow us to go deeper into the question of the extent to which the content of these reforms also contains Chinese-originated elements.

Overall, our results seem to indicate a somewhat shallow imitation of certain reforms and organizational forms from the West, headed by political elites.

Our analysis has taken some first steps toward a better-grounded, more rigorous understanding of the Chinese administrative reform process than has hitherto been available. We have found that a general theoretical framework for understanding the impact of learning and imitation on a country's administrative reforms can be used to generate valuable insights in the Chinese case. Empirical analysis has highlighted some specific features of China's experience, but it has also shown that China's increasing exposure to external ideas and influences has had an impact in Zhejiang. In probing some of the factors that shape exposure to these influences of different types of officials, with differing backgrounds, we have also begun to uncover some of the empirical detail of China's reform processes. Further work is merited on the influence of administrative culture and, in particular, on the manner in which role and position affect reform experience and perceptions in China's administrative elite.

There are a number of limitations to this study. The major one is the sampling strategy adopted, which trades probability samples against access. This suggests that our findings cannot be generalized beyond those surveyed. While this may be so, our study is, to the authors’ knowledge, the first example of an upper-echelon survey in Chinese government. Another possible limitation is that single items measured our independent variables, although we were able to use an index for our dependent variable. Single items have the virtue of being easy to interpret and can lead to higher response rates, as shorter questionnaire can be used; however, they might not fully operationalize the concepts at hand. Furthermore, our study is cross-sectional, and we present correlates. Future studies should seek strategies to improve sampling techniques in order to generate more robust and generalizable findings. In doing so, it would be possible to trace out the extent to which reforms are actually implemented, rather than just adopted, and the degree to which this is driven by the type of reform (see Andrews 2011). Future work could also extend its remit to other organizational echelons to develop a more comprehensive picture of the perceptions of the origins of reform in Chinese government. We propose that future research deal with this methodological problem by implementing alternative survey administration techniques to ascertain the most viable approach.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Theories of Reform and Imitation
  4. Explaining Variety in the Reform Experiences of Upper Echelons in Chinese Provincial Government
  5. Methods
  6. Discussion and Conclusions
  7. References
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