How the Chinese Bureaucracy Decides
Image Credit: REUTERS/David Gray

How the Chinese Bureaucracy Decides


The Chinese bureaucracy has been toughening its stance toward the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) regime, seeking to rein in the latter’s nuclear and missile programs. Specifically, the People’s Republic of China’s Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM), the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), the General Administration of Customs (GAC), and the China Atomic Energy Authority (CAEA) recently published announcement number 59. The announcement came with a 236-page appendix, which details a comprehensive list of banned exports, and, in particular, dual-use goods and technologies that could contribute to the advancement of the DPRK’s weapons of mass destruction and missile programs.

Hong Lei, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), said the restrictions are intended to “encourage de-nuclearization” on Korea’s peninsula. This recent development reflects an unprecedented shift in China’s nonproliferation policies and practices, not only because it targets a specific country with the harshest sanctions to come out of the bureaucracy yet, but also because it covers an extraordinary range of goods and technologies. This significant change in China’s nonproliferation policies and practices provides incisive insight into the bureaucratic complexities and decision-making process of the Chinese system as well as the internal and external factors that drive this policy change. Why did the Chinese bureaucracy take these measures and why now? And what factors have had a more or less impact on this issue in the Chinese mind and why?

Although China observers tend to characterize the Chinese political system as an authoritarian, top-down model with the Standing Committee of the Politburo making the decisions and the relevant bodies implementing the decrees, the classification is an oversimplification. When attempting to grasp how decisions are made for any specific policy in the Chinese system, it is imperative to start with a basic assumption that every bureaucracy that has even the vaguest interest in that policy has been asked to comment on the preliminary proposal. In the case of the DPRK and nonproliferation, the key decision-making agencies include the State Council, the Central Military Commission (CMC), MOFCOM, MIIT, GAC, CAEA, State Administration for Science Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND), the MFA, and state-owned enterprises – specifically the enterprises involved with the manufacture and trade of dual-use goods and technologies. Also part of this agency list is the Chinese military establishment, which since around 2008 has been increasingly integrated into and becoming an important player in shaping China’s nonproliferation policies and practices.

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The Chinese bureaucracy could best be described not as a hierarchical decision-making structure but rather as a series of concentric circles, with some circles overlapping. Generally the initial policy proposal sits at the center of the structure. The bureaucracies with the most interest in the policy and its outcome are situated in the circles closest to the center. And those with varying degrees of interest and even the most vague interest in the policy are located in a descending order of interest in each subsequent circle out to the most distant points of the concentric circle schematic.

The concentric circle structure is one that Dr. Pan Wei, a Professor of International Studies at Peking University uses to explain the relationship between Chinese society and state, but I also find it useful to analyze the Chinese bureaucracy decision-making process in other realms, such as nonproliferation. In this unique decision-making environment, the Chinese officials within and among each agency operating within the bureaucracy have disagreements about the policy changes. And counter to conventional wisdom about the process of decision-making in China, the officials engage in negotiations, bargaining, and logrolling with other agencies located within the concentric structure to promote their agendas and interests in the policy under consideration.

Sometimes this decision-making process results in changes in the agency. It also allows officials within the bureaucracy to manipulate the consensus in one direction or another. Whether changes occur within an agency or whether the consensus is manipulated is contingent upon the scope and the importance of the issue at hand. The DPRK is a major national security and foreign policy issue, so it is most likely that both foregoing conditions occurred. Some agencies within the bureaucracy experienced a change, and others manipulated the consensus to push through this dramatic policy shift. But ultimately the input of the agencies having to operationalize and enforce compliance with the policy is given greater weighting than the institutions with a vague interest in the policy and its outcome; in other words, those agencies sitting closest to the center of the concentric circle structure are the most powerful actors for that particular policy issue. And in the case of China’s nonproliferation policies and practices toward the DPRK, this means the aforementioned strategic trade agencies are the most important players.

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