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China’s bureaucracy 101
Key to understanding Chinese politics
Your host was writing a thread on Twitter when he realized that many terms that are frequently used when describing China’s sprawling bureaucracy may not be easily understood.
Understanding China’s bureaucracy is KEY to understanding the country’s politics, Your host cannot emphasize this enough. Encompassing over 7 million members and indispensable in the running of the world’s second-largest economy, China’s bureaucracy is nothing short of a science that even its most veteran members can’t fully master.
This newsletter will only scratch the surface of the surface of this subject, and hopefully, offer readers a starting point in understanding how China’s bureaucracy works.
Let’s start from the basics: The Ranking system
Since the dawn of Chinese civilization, China has had a bureaucratic system that helped the highest ruler govern the country. Throughout the ages, the bureaucracy underwent many changes, but one feature that remained intact is its strict ranking system.
To avoid boring you, this newsletter will only address the current ranking system. If understanding the bureaucracy is the key to understanding China’s politics, then understanding the ranking is perhaps the key to understanding China’s bureaucracy.
First, to clarify a term: strictly speaking, China’s bureaucracy refers to 公务员系统，or the civil servant system, which includes people that hold proper government positions.
Then there’s the larger concept of 体制内, or “within the system”, that encompasses not only civil servants but staffs of state-owned enterprises, and public-run not-for-profit institutions, such as public schools, hospitals, and the media.
While only civil servants are considered part of the bureaucracy, those outside the government may also have a bureaucratic ranking and is transferrable with inside the bureaucratic system.
According to 公务员法，China’s law regulating the civil servants, there are 10 levels of leadership:
national, sub-national, provincial-ministerial, sub provincial-ministerial, bureau, sub bureau, county-division, sub county-division, township-section, and sub township-section.
There are other levels for non-leadership roles, but to keep things simple this newsletter will omit those.
The bureau level ranking is regarded as proper counterparts of Director-Generals in the European Union civil servant system.
As mentioned above, those who are “within the system“ but not a government official may also be given these rankings. The ranking does not give them the identity of a government official, but allows them to transfer into in the government when possible.
For example, Peking University’s president’s ranking is sub provincial-ministerial.
Even military ranking is somewhat translatable to the civil rankings. This happens when a military officer retires from the service to become a civil servant, the officer is then given a ranking that reflects his military ranking. However, since civil servants rarely become military officers, this is usually a one-way street.
Government agencies or other 体制内企事业单位（public run for-profit and not for profit institutions） are also given a ranking status, for instance, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a Provincial-Ministerial level entity, so is the city of Beijing, but the city of let’s say Langfang in neighboring Hebei province is a bureau level entity.
The tricky thing here is that it can be misleading to judge the ranking of an entity by its Chinese name.
For instance, 北京市，大连市，廊坊市，义乌市，or Beijing City, Dalian City, Langfang City, and Yiwu City, are all formally known as “cities”, but they actually have different rankings.
Beijing, which is a 直辖市, or “directly administered municipality of China”, enjoys a provincial-ministerial level status. Other cities of this status include Shanghai, Tianjin, and Chongqing.
Dalian City, a key coastal city with a vibrant economy, is given a sub provincial-ministerial status, aka 副省级市. Other cities of this status are Harbin, Shenyang, Changchun, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Jinan, Qingdao, Ningbo, Xiamen, Wuhan, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu, and Xi’an.
Among them, Qingdao, Dalian, Ningbo, Xiamen, Shenzhen are economic hubs, while the rest are provincial seats. However not all provincial seats enjoy this status.
The vast majority of entities named as cities belong to the bureau level, such as Langfang city. They are commonly referred to in Chinese as 地级市.
Yiwu City represents a class of cities called 县级市, or County-level cities. They are in fact county-level entities but are given the name “city” often for their economic or political importance. Yiwu, which is a world-famous trade hub, is one example. There are hundreds of such county-level cities, though large in number, they are still a minority among the nearly 3000 counties in China.
During a conversation with a local when your host was working in Syria, the local commented that he believed that the top three most famous cities in China were Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Yiwu, to prove how fitting it was for Yiwu to be named a city.
The ranking of lower administrative regions under a city follows the ranking of that city. Chaoyang district, a part of Beijing that is home to many of this newsletter’s subscribers, would be bureau level, while a district of bureau level city would hold county-level ranking.
One thing your host would note is that China translates Japanese prefectures as 县，even though Japanese prefectures are first-tier administrative divisions, equivalent to the Chinese 省，or province. China usually translates U.S. counties as 县，but U.K. counties as 郡, a character that had been used in Chinese history but not in modern-day times.
U.S. and German states are translated into 州，a character also used by some Chinese bureau-level administrative regions where large populations of non-han ethnic groups live. French regions are translated into 大区。
Similarly, don’t jump to any conclusions when you spot a 厅， 局，委员会，部， 处 or 办公室。中共中央办公厅 and 云南省公安厅 are both 厅s，but wield vastly different amount of power.
Nongovernment entities that are “within the system“ may also hold a ranking.
Adding to the confusion is that while most times the top official of a certain entity holds the same ranking of that entity, it is not ALWAYS the case.
In a practice called 高配，or “super-allocate“, sometimes the top official of an entity is promoted to a higher ranking than that of the entity, or that an official of higher ranking is charged with leading an entity of a lower ranking. The practice does not change the official ranking of that entity, but temporarily promotes the importance of that entity.
Now let’s take a closer look at the top two tiers of Chinese officials. They are collectively known as 党和国家领导人，The Party’s and Nation’s Leadership, a term that you may see from time to time.
Broadly speaking, this group includes everyone in the CPC Central Committee Politburo. Officials who hold the following titles are also considered among the top two tiers, even if they are not Politburo members.
中共中央书记处 Members of the Secretariat of the CPC Central Committee
全国人民代表大会常委会副委员长 Vice-Chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee
国务院副总理 Vice Premier of the State Council (In recent decades all vice premiers have been Politburo members)
国务委员 State Councilor (A position that is on the same official ranking with vice premiers, but lower in status)
国家监察委员会主任 Director of the National Supervisory Commission (Not to be confused with the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. )
最高人民法院院长 The President of the Supreme People’s Court
最高人民检察院检察长 Prosecutor General of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate
中央军事委员会副主席 Vice-chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission
政治协商会议全国委员会副主席 Vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference
At the other end of the spectrum, the lowest leadership ranking is the sub township-section or the 副科级。 Township, 乡or镇 in Chinese, is the administrative level that is between a county and a village.
That is to say, village officers, the 村委会主任 and 村支部书记，are officially NOT civil servants. They are in fact a part of the 基层群众自治制度，or the system of self-governing for the Grassroot mass.
The system of self-governing for the Grassroot mass refers to the policies, regulations, procedures and norms for the direct exercise of the people's democratic right to be the decision-makers of public affairs and public welfare in rural villages and urban communities under the leadership of the Party, and is the basic political system that has grown up along with the course of development of the PRC.
It is one of the four pillars of the Chinese political system. (The other three are the People’s Congress, Multi-party cooperation under the leadership of the CPC and the political consultation system, and autonomy of ethnic regions).
II Party and the State
Within China’s bureaucracy, there are two tracks of positions, namely the 政府口 and 党口，or government positions and party positions.
In day-to-day operations, the two sets of officials are responsible for different functions, but officials routinely crisscross between the two tracks.
Traditionally the party positions oversee publicity, personnel changes, united front, and discipline（宣传、组织、统战、纪律）, while other gov’t functions are left for the gov’t positions. (Int’l department of the CPC central committee not mentioned here)
At the top of an entity is a group known as the standing members of the party committee, which is composed of a group of top party AND gov’t officials, with the party secretary at the helm.
Typical composition include
the party secretary 书记
the chief of gov’t (a gov’t position), e.g. the mayor, the governor, etc, or if in a ministry, the minister
the vice party secretary
the minister of organization (组织部长，a party position)
the minister of publicity (宣传部长，a party position)
the deputy chief of gov’t (a gov’t position)
the secretary of discipline (纪委书记, a party position)
party secretaries of important administrative divisions of a lower level, for example, party secretaries of provincial seats are often a standing member of the party committee of that province.
the secretary-general of the party committee (秘书长，who oversees the daily operation of the party committee. There are some who liken the secretary-general to a chief of staff of the party secretary)
Secretaries of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission sometimes also becomes one of the standing members.
It’s not uncommon for one official to simultaneously hold multiple positions as a standing member. It is also not uncommon for officials to simultaneously hold gov’t and party positions. For example, it’s common for mayors to also serve as the deputy party secretary.
While the party secretary is always the most senior position and the chief of gov’t the ranking member, the seniority among other members is not fixed and is subject to change due to a number of factors. (The factors are not going to be a part of the 101 course)
Due to the seniority of the party secretary over the chief of gov’t, a chief of gov’t being moved to party secretary role is considered a promotion.
The standing members of the party committee is the most powerful group of a political entity and is charged with deciding the most important issues.
There are at least two major mechanisms designed to keep power in check.
The first is the traditional party practice of 民主集中制, or the “democratic centralism”. The party charter has a paragraph dedicated to this term, simply put it is a mechanism that intends to balance the expression of opinions and efficiency.
Fourth, adhere to the democratic centralism. Democratic centralism is a combination of concentration on the basis of democracy and democracy under the guidance of concentration. It is both the fundamental organizational principle of the Party and the application of sticing to the masses in the operation of the Party. It must give full play to democracy within the Party, respect Party members, protect the democratic rights of Party members, and give full play to the enthusiasm and creativity of Party organizations at all levels and the majority of Party members.
In practice, it dictates that any decision made by the standing members should reflect the opinion supported by a majority of its members.
To ensure that committee members can express their opinions more freely, the party secretary is supposed to speak last, in what is called 末位发言制, after others have spoken. Voting among the members takes place after its members feel that the matter has been fully discussed.
The party secretary can exert his influence by setting the agenda, not unlike a majority leader on the congress floor.
The other mechanism is in regard to the 三重一大, or the “three important and one big”, a term that refers to matters that must be collectively decided by the standing members. It is a policy that dates back to 1996, specifically speaking, 三重一大 refers to important decisions, important personnel decisions, important projects, and big spending plans.
Granted, the wording seems vague and is open to different interpretations, but in practice, this rule has been a powerful check on those who are in leadership roles.
Individual entities often form their own policy papers interpreting this policy. Here is an example of such a policy paper released by a Shanghai community college in 2006 specifying the criteria of 三重一大.
Observation of these mechanisms vary, but it is generally believed that party discipline has been better observed across the board since the 18th party congress.
III Promotions and Punishments
Before we get into the promotion and punishments, a brief paragraph on how to enter the Chinese bureaucracy.
Unlike the revolving doors in some countries, Chinese bureaucracy is a closed system with very limited points of entry, with the 公务员考试，or the Civil Service Entrance Examination being one of the few. It is highly competitive and the starting point of the vast majority of civil service careers.
After the exam is passed, civil servants work up the ladder. All senior gov’t officials came from the rank and file, in modern times it is unheard of for an outsider or a green hand to parachute onto a senior position.
Another point of entry into the government is transfer from public run for-profit and not for profit institutions (体制内企事业单位). But this opening is mostly designed for mid level to senior positions and is seen as a conduit for more technocrats to enter the government. For example, the director of a public hospital may become an official of the health commission, or a public school principal may enter the bureau of education.
Canadian scholar Daniel Bell has described this mechanism as a political meritocracy, which ensures that anybody who wields great power is veteran politicians who have shown sufficient capability.
Evaluation of officials mainly falls on the organization departments. They would make decisions or recommendations on who gets what position.
Then there is the question of which level of the organization department is in charge of which officials. For officials of sub-ministry level and above, they are sometimes referred to as 中管干部，or central-managed officials, meaning that the Organization Department of the Party Central Committee is charged with overseeing their performance and promotions. To be precise, the power to appoint or fire these officials lies with the CPC central committee, the organization department has the responsibility to recommend the fittest candidate.
Similarly, there are the 省管干部, or officials oversaw by the provincial organization departments. They typically refer to the sub-bureau and bureau ranking officials.
A general rule of thumb is that the organization department of one level of bureaucracy is in charge of officials of the immediately lower level of bureaucracy.
To be precise, party committees does not have the final say for government positions, such as a mayor. They may make recommendations to the people’s congress of the same level of government, which will vote on the recommendation.
Mirroring the two tracks of officials of the party and the state, there are two sets of punitive measures.
For party members, there are five disciplinary actions: 警告，严重警告，撤销党内职务，留党察看， 开除出党，warning, serious warning, removal from party posts, probation within the party, and expulsion from the party. These decisions are made by 纪委，or disciplinary committees (recall that secretaries of disciplinary committees are often standing members).
The process of taking disciplinary actions takes place before a criminal investigation. Sometimes the investigation stops at the disciplinary committee, while other times they’d transfer relevant evidence to the law enforcement afterward.
For civil servants in general, they face 政务处分, or administrative penalty, for their wrongdoings. Administrative penalties include 警告，记过，记大过，降级，撤职，开除，warning, demerit, serious demerit, demotion, removal from post, expulsion from civil service.
The two sets of punishments are targeted at different groups, the former is against party members, while the latter is against civil servants. For civil servants who are party members, they are subject to both punishments.
To wrap things up, your host would like to stress that Chinese bureaucracy is an incredibly complex system with many exceptions and unwritten rules, as is with any other country. This newsletter only attempts to paint a picture in the broadest strokes, leaving plenty of room for further study. Your critique and suggestions are highly welcomed.
This newsletter is penned by Yang LIU, the founder of Beijing Channel. Wencai ZHAO contributed to this newsletter. Also a big thanks to Zichen, host of the other cool China-focused newsletter Pekingnology, for his thoughts.