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.

This concentric circle decision-making approach explains the gradual shift in China’s policy toward the DPRK. Evidence that the Chinese bureaucracy was moving toward a policy shift regarding the DPRK surfaced in 2010 in the media. This suggests that prior to 2010 the bureaucracy was debating its DPRK policy and was moving toward some decision. But no clear policy outcome occurred until now – three years later. This eventual outcome indicates the bureaucracy was tied up in negotiations, bargaining, and log-rolling. And because the Chinese system is not a top-down decision-making one, it took time to reconcile divergent opinions within and among the bureaucracy. The duration could mean the more powerful decision-making agencies in the strategic trade bureaucracy were reluctant to implement any policy change, the nature and scope of a policy change was closely scrutinized, and/or some actors, such as some provincial officials who stand to lose tax revenue from the loss of manufacture and export of dual-use commodities, resisted a policy change.

Part of the decision-making process is how Chinese officials interpret the initial policy proposal before them. This offers more insight into why some policies work slowly through the bureaucracy. The officials working within the Chinese bureaucracy examine issues through different lenses of analysis. Some bureaucrats look at the initial proposal from the viewpoint of whether it fits with the current ideology; today the bureaucracy is arguably built on an ideology consisting of Marxism adapted to China’s national peculiarities, which includes facilitating nation-building activities while avoiding outright adoption of the Western experience, as well as nationalism and pragmatism. Others examine the proposal from the viewpoint of whether it is within the current national strategies; the national strategies consist of maintaining internal integrity and stability, moving toward fully establishing the Chinese modern state through national unification, achieving wealth and power, and ultimately attaining what Dr. Yan Xuetong of Tsinghua University terms “comprehensive national power.” This concept means translating the country’s wealth and power into increased power status within the international environment. The bureaucracy required time to evaluate and reconcile how a policy shift toward the DPRK is in line with the current ideology and national strategies. In time the officials worked the issue through the bureaucracy, made an exception to the direction of the policy, and eventually made a clear break with past policy. Previously the Chinese leadership aimed to balance both stability on Korea’s peninsula and its denuclearization; but the current policy indicates that the highest priority for the Chinese now is Korea’s denuclearization. This specific outcome, which took a period of time to reach, means the policy shift was completely intentional and is unlikely to be reversed.

The Chinese bureaucracy took the policy shift one step further and publicly announced it. In doing so, it sent a message to the international community that it is serious about enacting and enforcing the new and exacting nonproliferation measures. But more importantly, the public announcement sends a clear signal to potential domestic violators that the Chinese bureaucracy means business. In other words, the bureaucracy has established sufficient consensus and enough political will with the principal agencies and at the highest levels to implement, enforce, and punish violators; and the penalties can be quite severe as they range from fines to threats of agency closure.

In the DPRK case, both internal and external variables shape the Chinese bureaucracy’s decision-making process. Internally the Chinese leadership is more interested in maintaining stability and internal integrity, stamping out corruption, expanding co-option of segments of society, working toward national unification, and eventually achieving comprehensive national power. It also wants to address current economic, environmental, and social challenges that further complicate and threaten to undermine the foregoing agenda. The leadership is concerned that external factors could destabilize the trajectory of the current domestic experiment. Meanwhile, China’s external environment and in particular the Northeast Asia region is more and more volatilein part due to the DPRK and in part due to Japan as well as the United States.

As for the DPRK, a nuclear-armed North Korean regime with delivery means might cause the Japanese and American leadership to take action, such as a pre-emptive strike. This in turn might force the Chinese bureaucracy to divert attention and resources away from the domestic agenda to deal with the DPRK issue. As for Japan and the U.S., both governments in part cite the threat posed by the DPRK as a justification for Japan’s military transformation, expanded Japan-U.S. security cooperation, and increased U.S. military presence throughout the region. These developments are problematic for the Chinese leadership, particularly because it looks more and more like the Japanese leadership, with substantial help from the U.S., is carving out a new sphere of influence in Northeast Asia. This trend sits poorly with the majority of the Chinese population that prefers a more assertive Chinese policy toward Japan.

In response, the Chinese bureaucracy ultimately instituted significant constraints on the DPRK’s weapons programs, aiming to decrease the effects of external factors on the internal ones. And last but certainly not least, the Chinese bureaucracy could earn some political capital internationally for making such a bold and decisive move at a time when it appears the DPRK regime has hit a tipping point. The Chinese bureaucracy’s new nonproliferation policy toward the DPRK regime should have significant impact on stultifying Pyongyang’s efforts to advance its nuclear and missile programs. But the key is moving the policy into practice: Will the Chinese bureaucracy be able to mobilize resources and coordinate activities to enforce total and sustained compliance with the new nonproliferation policy?

Dr. J.M. Norton teaches international relations and US foreign policy at China’s Foreign Affairs University (CFAU) in Beijing, China. The research discussed in this article is based on two forthcoming papers. The views presented here are the author’s own and are not associated with the views of CFAU.

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