China Experiments

China Experiments: From Local Innovations to National Reform

Ann Florini
Hairong Lai
Yeling Tan
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    China Experiments
    Book Description:

    All societies face a key question: how to empower governments to perform essential governmental functions while constraining the arbitrary exercise of power. This balance, always in flux, is particularly fluid in today's China. This insightful book examines the changing relationship between that state and its society, as demonstrated by numerous experiments in governance at subnational levels, and explores the implications for China's future political trajectory.

    Ann Florini, Hairong Lai, and Yeling Tan set their analysis at the level of townships and counties, investigating the striking diversity of China's exploration into different governance tools and comparing these experiments with developments and debates elsewhere in the world. China Experiments draws on multiple cases of innovation to show how local authorities are breaking down traditional models of governance in responding to the challenges posed by the rapid transformations taking place across China's economy and society. The book thus differs from others on China that focus on dynamics taking place at the elite level in Beijing, and is unique in its broad but detailed, empirically grounded analysis.

    The introduction examines China's changing governance architecture and raises key overarching questions. It addresses the motivations behind the wide variety of experiments underway by which authorities are trying to adapt local governance structures to meet new demands. Chapters 2-5 then explore each type of innovation in detail, from administrative streamlining and elections to partnerships in civil society and transparency measures. Each chapter explains the importance of the experiment in terms of implications for governance and draws upon specific case studies. The final chapter considers what these growing numbers of experiments add up to, whether China is headed towards a stronger more resilient authoritarianism or evolving towards its own version of democracy, and suggests a series of criteria by which China's political trajectory can be assessed.


    1. China at a Crossroads

    2. Streamlining the State

    3. The Evolution of Voting Mechanisms

    4. Civil Society

    5. From Local Experiments to National Rules: China Lets the Sunshine In

    6. Where is China Going?

    eISBN: 978-0-8157-2201-4
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-x)
    Strobe Talbott

    Even in its first decade, the twenty-first century has provided multiple auguries that the decades ahead will be characterized by a number of transformative trends, including deepening globalization, changing demographics, shifts in economic power, and threats to the viability of our ecosphere—especially global warming. Taken together, those developments constitute a challenge to governance at the metropolitan, provincial, national, regional, and global levels.

    China is at the nexus of that phenomenon, given its spectacular economic growth, its growing middle class, its robust and sometimes assertive sense of sovereignty—and, of course, its sheer size.

    In this timely and trenchant book,...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. 1 China at a Crossroads
    (pp. 1-39)

    Srl Leather was upsetting its neighbors. Leather processing is not the cleanest business, and SRL Leather, like tanneries everywhere, was prone to emitting noxious odors and waste gases. The problem got so bad that exasperated residents filed multiple complaints with the local government in the early 2000s. The town’s Environmental Protection Bureau responded by listing the company as a pollution standards violator from 2004 to 2009 and ordering the company to rectify the problem. SRL Leather undertook some measures to mitigate its pollution, but they were not sufficient and were not communicated to the residents—and so the complaints and...

  6. 2 Streamlining the State
    (pp. 40-61)

    In 1988, nearly a decade of economic reform had not yet made doing business within China an easy task for Chinese enterprises. Fifteen months of efforts going through thirty-three administrative organizations to get 126 stamps of approval still left one state-owned enterprise at Baoshan prefecture in Shanghai municipality unable to carry out its plans for a joint venture—it needed yet more stamps of approval from yet more administrative bodies. Around the same time, an enterprise in Guizhou province spent a year going through the endless procedures for 170 stamps of approval, nowhere near enough to actually allow it to...

  7. 3 The Evolution of Voting Mechanisms
    (pp. 62-87)

    A direct and competitive election for the mayor of a township called Buyun in Sichuan province was reported in the Chinese newspaperNanfang Zhoumo(Southern Weekend) on January 15, 1999.¹ The report caused a sensation across the nation as well as among the international community of China-watchers, because competitive elections for any local authority higher than the village level had not happened since the revolution of 1949.

    Thousands of websites, not just popular commercial websites such as and, but also government-owned websites such as and, reprinted the news. The Buyun story has been posted by thousands...

  8. 4 Civil Society
    (pp. 88-122)

    While on a trip to China in 2010,Philadelphia Inquirerforeign affairs columnist Trudy Rubin filed the following story:

    Late last year, HIV-AIDS activist Thomas Cai was suddenly summoned to appear the next day at a mysterious meeting in Beijing.

    Cai is the founder and director of the well-known nongovernmental organization AIDS Care China—one of the first civil society groups to provide support for AIDS sufferers and their families. But he had no idea whom he would be meeting in the Chinese capital. To his total surprise, he and eleven other scientists were ushered in to meet with President...

  9. 5 From Local Experiments to National Rules: China Lets the Sunshine In
    (pp. 123-159)

    In February 2009, Premier Wen Jiabao held his first online chat with Chinese netizens, offering an unprecedented opportunity for ordinary citizens to directly raise their concerns with top leadership. During the online conversation, Premier Wen said, “I have always believed that the public has the right to know what its government is doing and thinking about, and the right to criticize and make comments on government policies.”¹ He has since held two more online chats, in 2010 and 2011, responding on issues from rising consumer and housing prices to corruption and access to health care and rural education.² These events...

  10. 6 Where Is China Going?
    (pp. 160-180)

    To say that China is at a political crossroads is a cliché—but correct. Although the country remains far from anything that could be called a democracy in the Western sense, its increasingly complex governance is by no means straightforwardly autocratic. As the numerous detentions of 2011 reveal, China’s leaders still are not constrained by rule of law or systems of accountability when they feel their grip on power may be under threat. But that same leadership also recognizes that China cannot be governed by centralized diktat. The modernizing and marketizing economy, the rapid rise of a vast middle class,...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 181-206)
  12. Index
    (pp. 207-216)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 217-217)