Symptoms of pseudoreform at the National People’s Congress

The annual meeting of China’s National People’s Congress, underway this week, is that time of year when the bureaucracy of the Chinese government displays itself in all its ponderous glory, with all its reports, meetings, and discussion sessions. While it’s usually wrong to expect excitement from such process-heavy events, I’m still finding it underwhelming this year. A lot of the big initiatives that are being trumpeted seem to me like the phenomenon that János Kornai called pseudoreform, or “substitutes for deeper and more radical reforms,” in socialist countries.

One big current theme is the so-called “three critical battles” against financial risk, poverty, and pollution, a set of priorities that Xi Jinping has been emphasizing since last year. These campaigns are increasingly supplementing the traditional focus on sustaining economic growth–if not replacing it, with the GDP growth target for this year unchanged at 6.5%.

All of those three goals are certainly worthy ones, and are clearly an attempt to correct some of the problems caused by the mandate to force high growth, which led to a buildup of risk in the financial system and massive environmental degradation. The “three critical battles” nonetheless seem to represent a style of pseudorefrom Kornai called the “perfection of control.” The problems arising from government targets can be fixed by just finding better things to target:

Another trend in the perfection of planning is to try to transform the system of plan indicators. The representatives of this tendency … are not arguing for or against retaining the command nature of plan directives. Their concern is with exactly what needs prescribing.

Another major item on the agenda for the National People’s Congress is the approval of legal and constitutional changes that will create the National Supervision Commission, in effect transforming the Party’s anti-corruption agency into a new branch of government. This will allow it to lead campaigns not just against graft, but against laziness, ineptitude, and any inexplicable failure to follow Party priorities. Again, this intense focus on discipline is very much a symptom of “perfection of control” type of thinking; here is another passage from Kornai:

The bureaucratic mesh must be narrowed, so that nothing slips through. If some designated aggregate indicator or other is evaded, more and more detailed indicators are required. If a regulation is too general and comprehensive, others that go into more detail are needed. If the existing apparatus cannot perform all its regulatory tasks, extra authorities need setting up.

The way bureaucratic coordination can perfect itself most is by completion, trying to regulate every detail. The obvious concomitant is more vigorous action to apply the decisions, tighter discipline. This was reemphasized in the Soviet Union not only under Andropov but in the early Gorbachev era, when attacks began on absenteeism and alcoholism eroding work discipline.

Both quotes are from Kornai’s The Socialist System: The Political Economy of Communism; here is a previous post on the book.




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