I am a political scientist and former diplomat who has studied China for more than forty years, and yet I still can’t answer some of my students’ most basic questions about China’s policy-making process. Where—in which institutional arena and at what level—are various policy issues deliberated and adopted? Which matters are decided by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and which by the government? What role does the People’s Liberation Army play in foreign policy? The CCP Central Committee has the formal authority to select the country’s top leaders, but who actually determines the slate of nominees to be ratified by the Central Committee?
This lack of knowledge stems not just from my own inadequacies as a scholar, but also from the lack of transparency in the Chinese political system. All governments keep some matters secret, especially when it comes to national security. But the scope of secrecy about Chinese decision-making is extreme. Chinese citizens as well as foreigners have to try to figure it out by piecing together snippets of information and rumor. So-called “Pekingologists” base their hunches on “reading the tea leaves.”
What price is China paying economically and diplomatically for its lack of transparency?
How could it be that in a country with such a globalized market economy and vibrant society, national policy-making remains a black box?
Secrecy is a drag on the economy. Most economic, environmental, and social policies are decided not by legislation in the National People’s Congress (where a bill becomes a law by a relatively open process), but by a mysterious bureaucratic game that can only be guessed at. It’s a major struggle just for officials in one government agency to get information from another. Outside the government, businesses make inefficient choices because they are confused about which of multiple overlapping regulatory bodies will be responsible for deciding their fate, and they cannot predict how policies might change in the future. For example, a media company may sign a contract to buy a foreign television show, only to learn that the approvals it obtained from one Chinese agency were not enough and another agency demands the final chop. Foreign firms are calling for regulatory due process because they feel discriminated against in domains like China’s anti-monopoly enforcement that have unclear standards and authority shared by three separate agencies. Questions about fairness and justice inevitably arise because it’s impossible to know who actually made the final call and for what reasons.
Under Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party appears to have reclaimed the authority over policy-making that it previously had delegated to the State Council, China’s cabinet. CCP small leading groups, all chaired by Xi, seem to be in charge of pretty much everything. But it’s impossible to tell whether policies actually are made by the small leading group, the Politburo, the Politburo Standing Committee, or by the leader himself. Leaks about internal deliberations are extremely rare, and when they do occur, are punished by long prison terms. A handful of brave newspapers sometimes report on interagency differences on economic policy, but never dare venture into what might be occurring in top Party bodies.
The CCP’s fetish for secrecy stems from its origins as a Leninist revolutionary organization, and its belief that only by presenting a façade of perfect unanimity at the top can it discourage bottom-up opposition.
Lack of transparency about the civil-military chain of command creates very dangerous misperceptions in China’s international relations. Foreigners don’t know whom to hold responsible when Chinese troops cross the contested boundary with India or a giant deep sea rig suddenly starts drilling off the coast of Vietnam in contested waters of the South China Sea. Managing crises to prevent escalation depends on knowing enough about how the other side makes decisions that you can correctly interpret its signals of resolve or reassurance.
Our ignorance about other aspects of foreign policy-making also can exacerbate mistrust. When the media publishes extremely hostile rhetoric toward America, should America blame the propaganda department, the top leadership, or simply the media’s commercial interest in attracting more readers from the nationalistic public?
China’s most important foreign policy relationship, with the United States, is unbalanced because the American policy process is practically an open book while the Chinese one is a secret. China resists American calls for greater transparency in a mistaken belief that keeping Washington guessing about its capabilities and intentions makes its defense look stronger than it actually is. Domestic factors, such as the Party leaders’ fear of revealing differences among themselves to the public also make them overly secretive. But by refusing to share information, Beijing actually endangers itself by running the risk that its signals will be misunderstood. Countries also can cooperate better when they can make well-informed predictions about the credibility of commitments into the future.
Over the past decade, Chinese policy-makers have come to recognize that excessive secrecy breeds corruption—officials can extort bribes for promising to take administrative actions that actually are automatic or the responsibility of some other department—and economic inefficiency. “Transparency” (toumingxing) has been adopted as a norm, along with rule of law and other aspirational but not yet fully realized ideals. Local government websites nowadays provide information about the content of regulations and responsibilities of specific offices.
The People’s Liberation Army also makes a nod to transparency by publishing defense white papers. The information in the white papers, however, is much less specific than that reported publicly by the United States, Japan, or Korea, and offers nothing about decision-making in the chain of command.
In early April 2015 the State Council issued a general order for central government ministries to make their data more open to the public in order to promote the development of the economy and the market. The document recommended starting with agencies that deal with issues that the public pays most attention to, like public services, food and medicine quality, environment, and state-owned enterprises. But the directive was limited to the output of government and didn’t include information about how the decisions get made.
Yu Keping, the Deputy Director of the Compilation and Translation Bureau of the CCP’s Central Committee, recently advocated the value of transparency for good governance. He wrote that not just businesses or foreign governments need to know how policies get made: “Every citizen is entitled to political information related to his or her personal interests, such as selection of government officials, legislation, making of state policy, administration process and public budget.”
Sharing information about how policies are made would enhance trust and reduce the risk of dangerous miscalculations in U.S.-China relations. China’s fetish for secrecy is not in the interests of the nation or the people. Hopefully, Chinese citizens themselves will start to demand access to the black box of the policy-making process, and my Chinese students will be able to teach me about how decisions get made in their country.