China’s Secret? Performance Targets

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China’s Secret? Performance Targets

The extensive use of targets in governance keeps the CCP responsive to changing demands.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) remains in power because its governance system has proven flexible enough to either respond to or preempt emergent social, economic and political pressures. In a recent Diplomat article, the authors argue that broad public support of the CCP and high political trust – “a belief in the legitimacy of the government” – is due to “government responsiveness to public demand.” Performance targets account for that responsiveness.

In democratic systems, if people are dissatisfied with one party, they simply support another. Losing parties then conduct polls and find new strategies to convince the public to vote for them in the next election. In China, there are no second chances for the CCP if public dissatisfaction erupts. Deng Xiaoping’s maxim, “stability overwhelms everything” holds true.

To avoid public dissatisfaction, “authoritarian upgrading” is key; but without elections and with infrequent leadership changes (every ten years at the highest levels) the CCP must also employ other, internal adaptive mechanisms. In fact, the party uses performance targets (kaohe zhibiao) and cadre evaluations (ganbu pingjia) to adapt and thus preempt threats to its legitimacy. This system of bureaucratic targets and controls forms the backbone of contemporary Chinese governance and helps account for CCP resilience.

Performance targets are essentially yearly goals assigned to government departments, local governments, firms and individual cadres. Targets are used in service of goals articulated in central Five-Year Plans (FYP) or from other ad hoc plans articulated by central departments and local governments. There are both broad governance targets used to assess leading cadres and local People’s Governments and specific policy performance targets. Targets set priorities for local agents and provide a framework for achieving goals, as well as providing a benchmark for assessment at the end of the year and a basis for comparison across time.

Targets are ranked by priority: “priority targets with veto power” must be met, the consequences for failure being possible termination for cadres. Next are “hard targets” and “ordinary targets”. Lynette Ong has shown that “scoring high on ‘hard targets’ – as opposed to ‘ordinary targets’ –  is what really makes or breaks local cadres’ careers.”

Importantly, some broad governance targets can vary in ranking regionally, while some, such as population control (a veto power target), are set centrally and cannot vary. Other targets, such as economic growth, are not set centrally, but are almost always hard targets due both to central pressure and local incentives. At this level, targeting is primarily about balancing government priorities. Cadres that perform well on quantifiable, hard targets get promoted faster and receive honorary titles and higher year-end bonuses, while those that do not could face fines and termination.

Policy area performance targets use the same ranking principles, but focus on specific policies and apply to firms and government departments, in addition to cadres and local People’s Governments. Policy scoring tables summarize targets and tasks and assign points based on their relative importance. The development of scoring tables is an important source of policy innovation. Through consultations with experts, government officials, cadres and managers, local and provincial governments determine which specific targets to use and how to distribute points. Differing strategies either develop organically in reaction to a broad policy goal, or can result from deliberate experimental points set up by the central government. Then, the central government, based on differing local experiences, can determine which strategies work best and develop national standards.

Preference is given to targets that are specific, quantifiable, relatively easy to collect, consistent and uncorrelated. Higher ranked targets are allocated more points. Failure to meet the goal could result in loss of bonuses and promotions for the leading cadres responsible and financial and administrative punishments for local governments and enterprises. More points are assigned to those goals that will ensure other tasks are completed.

Performance evaluations also encourage innovation and adjustment. Each year, evaluations proceed along line relations: higher levels of government evaluate the next lower, local governments evaluate various departments, and so on. First, each “agent” submits a self-examination to the “principal” who oversees it. Self-examinations require agents to give themselves a score out of 100, which often break down to four grades: “incomplete, basically complete, complete or complete above target.” The principals then review the self-examinations, checking evidence against the grades and discussing discrepancies.

According to evaluators in Chongqing, where I am based, discrepancies often result from a lack of expertise necessary to conduct a “scientific” self-evaluation. There are also incentives to inflate performance, another common explanation for discrepancies. Finally, the principals at the next level up approve the review, establishing the final grading reports. These reports follow cadres throughout their careers and impact chances for promotion, but are confidential. In contrast, grades at the firm and government levels are often reported publically. Thus, performance targets and evaluations provide powerful incentives, though through differing channels, to meet policy targets. 

This evaluation process accounts for the CCP’s institutionalized responsiveness. Evaluations are designed not only to oversee lower levels, but also to provide regular opportunities for lower levels to raise implementation problems and policy suggestions.

Evaluation procedures are also deliberately kept flexible, allowing for localized responsiveness. Most targets include instructions to “implement policies in accordance to local conditions”, making local effectiveness a priority. Though performance targeting can result in “one-size-fits-all” problems, the evaluation process’ informal flexibility seeks to overcome this potential rigidity by allowing evaluators leeway in assessing disparate local implementation strategies according to the local context. In this way the system can both preempt or assuage purely local grievances and transmit potential flashpoints up the chain. In practice, performance targets are less about box-checking and more about finding effective strategies to achieve broad policy goals.

Obviously, there are concerns with the efficacy, transparency and integrity of evaluations. Flexibility, absent redundant oversight mechanisms such as third-party evaluators or public oversight, can result in corruption and inconsistency. Principal-agent problems, whereby central and local actors have different priorities and incentives, make for inconsistencies. Locals often pursue economic growth, which is most heavily weighted formally and also offers informal rewards to officials, to the detriment of other priories, such as emissions reduction.

Moreover, when performance targets determine cadres’ futures, cheating – in which locals “engineer” statistics and grades – becomes an attractive strategy. The central government’s current response to inconsistent policy implementation, making targets more specific and less flexible, can solve this problem but exacerbates the one-size-fits-all problem and consequently lowers the overall effectiveness of governance.

These problems notwithstanding, nuanced use of performance targets has accounted for the CCP’s overall governance performance. Targets both improve central oversight and allow for local flexibility. By orienting performance targets towards central priorities, and making the consequences of failure more stringent, local officials have incentives to find new strategies to achieve overall goals, within certain bounds. Additionally, feedback mechanisms embodied in the evaluation process ensure that targets and strategies are continually adjusted in line with changing conditions and local realities.

Finally, this system is safe for the CCP; it is gradual, avoiding large-scale, potentially disruptive changes, and is mostly internal and preemptive, meaning that wide-scale public participation is not necessary. Institutions change incrementally in any political system, but performance targets and evaluations ensure continual adaptation, and thus effective governance and continued legitimacy for the CCP.

Tucker Van Aken is a 2012-13 Fulbright Scholar.