The extent of government centralization

As one endeavours to understand how the Chinese government operates, the word “centralization” will often come across in documents and discussions. All countries have a central government and to various extent regional political entities. The key question is, to what extent are the power relationship and the decision making process distributed between the various levels of government.

In China, there are 32 regional authorities (provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities) under the control of the central government. The provinces and autonomous regions are further divided into prefectures, counties, townships and villages.

In addition to the central government, there exists a range of national regulatory bodies which can issue directives that impact the lower levels of government.

Let us look at an article that was published in the Shanghai Daily on March, 7, 2017 as we try to understand the dynamic between the various levels of government.


Better toilets will help boost tourism

Shanghai Daily, Source: Xinhua, March 7, 2017

 Toilet at a Tourist Destination

CHINA plans to boost its tourism sector by upgrading infrastructure and giving the public easier access to travel information, a government document said yesterday.

The National Tourism Administration unveiled the plan in a development guideline for the tourism industry during the 2016-2020 period. It echoes the country’s national strategy to spur the service sector.

According to the document, roads to the country’s major tourist attractions will be renovated by 2020 to meet growing travel demand. Large tourist destinations will have easier internal transportation.

In the next four years, the country will add 20 inter-region bike lanes with a total length of 5,000 kilometers to boost zero-emission travel. More tour buses and recreational vehicle campsites will also open.

Toilets at tourist sites have long had a nasty reputation of being unhygienic. To address the problem, the country aims to install and upgrade 100,000 restrooms. Toilets at major tourist sites should apply stringent hygiene standards with environmentally friendly cleaning approaches at most facilities.

The document also outlines plans to build a more integrated information sharing system and provide visitors higher-quality services.

China’s tourism revenue totaled about 4.69 trillion yuan (US$689.7 billion) in 2016, up 13.6 percent year on year. Domestic tourists made 4.44 billion trips last year, an increase of 11 percent, official data showed.

Tourism plays a key part in the world’s second-largest economy as the country moves to build an economy driven by the service sector and consumer spending rather than trade and investment.

By 2020, the country will spend about 2 trillion yuan on the tourism sector, which will contribute more than 12 percent of GDP, according to the plan.


Here are some points to highlight in order to explain the context of the document:

  • The National Tourism Administration is a quasi-governmental body at the national level which issues directives that lower government levels must implement.
  • The tourism industry was identified as a key economic development sector as the national government tries to re-align the economy away from “investments in fixed capital” and “exports”, towards “household consumption”.
  • The “2016-2020” period is the timeframe for “The 13th Five-Year Plan for Economic and Social Development of the People’s Republic of China”. The year 2020 is stated again in the last paragraph.
  • A budget in capital investments for roads for 2017 was released on March 5, at the National People’s Congress, two days before the article was published.

We can clearly see in the article that the central government will immerse itself in the minutia of governing when it impacts national objectives. It will not hesitate to provide detailed guidelines that all levels of government must implement.

It also indicates that the autonomy of the lower government levels is limited by whatever the national government elects to get involved in. There are few areas of decision that are entirely at the lower levels. If any action is undertaken by the lower governmental level, it must be validated by the national government, unless a national directive has been issued on that topic.

This most probably reduces the level of initiatives that are taken at the lower levels by government employees as they await decisions and directives from the national government. This is clearly a top-down government structure, not a bottom-up approach to governing.

Not a good way to encourage the development of initiative that has been identified as vital for the future growth of China.


One thought on “The extent of government centralization

  1. I agree. Central planning has helped many countries reduce the gap in sectors like health care and education, but greater autonomy will encourage innovation at all levels.


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