Transitional meritocracy: institutions and practices of personnel management

In Kjeld Erik Brødsgaard (ed.), Globalization and Public Sector Reform in China. London, U.K.: Routledge (2014)

ntroduction Since China’s gradualist reform started in the early 1980s, its governance record has been relatively successful. Despite a large number of severe challenges, the government in Beijing has managed outstanding economic performance and large-scale social transformation (Naughton 2007). Overall, the regime seems to enjoy relatively high levels of public support (Gilley 2006; Wang 2009), and a reform and state-building process controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party looks set to continue for the next ten to 20 years. One key element of the Chinese political or governing system is management of its Party and government officials, or “cadres” in its own terminology. We argue that the Party-state’s personnel management features a meritocratic system that has so far largely evaded scholarly attention. This system retains strong influences from the Confucian scholar-official tradition of China’s imperial past, as well as the Leninist “vanguard party” tradition that was established in the revolutionary and Maoist eras. In recent years, however, this system has paid increasing attention to nurturing managerial competence for the purpose of administering a modern economy and a modern society. How the Party attempts to strike a balance between political loyalty and professional competence is the focus of this study. We will examine several aspects of the Chinese cadre management system. These include the formal rules, institutions, and actual practices regarding (1) recruitment, (2) development, and (3) promotion of officials. From this analysis we will understand how political loyalty and professional competence are defined and measured in the Party’s personnel regime, and how a balance is sought between the two. We will also look at the changes that are taking place in the relative importance, or weights, of these two criteria as the Party-state tries to build a modern governance machine. We find that while political reliability and commitment still feature prominently when the Party staffs the state and party bodies, rapid economic development and social changes have amplified the need for capable and competent managers and administrators, in order to deliver successful governance. Whereas in the past political loyalty played a crucial role for officials’ success within the state ranks, today professional competence has become more central. Whether this trend will continue, to a future state in which political loyalty becomes almost irrelevant, will be discussed toward the end of the chapter.
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