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Technocrats and Mid-Level Policy Entrepreneurship in China: Explaining Local Policy Innovations in the Social Welfare Arena

Project Scheme:
General Research Fund
Project Year:
Project Leader:
Dr He, Jingwei Alex
(Department of Social Sciences and Policy Studies)

What explains policy innovations in authoritarian states in which political centralization and rigid personnel control are thought to stifle innovation? 

China’s experience of ‘crossing the river by feeling for the stones’ in the past four decades has defied the conventional wisdom drawn from state failures in the Soviet Union and former Eastern European Bloc. While some theoretical explanations suggest that China’s long tradition of policy experimentation establishes a cognitive and institutional framework conducive to bottom-up innovations, others posit that the promotion tournament amongst communist cadres powerfully incentivizes them to initiate policy innovations for the purpose of career advancement. 


The proliferation of studies in this decade has greatly enriched scholarly understanding of policy innovations in authoritarian China. However, a major gap remains in that most previous studies either analyze macro-level institutional or fiscal arrangements, or focus on political decisions made by senior local leaders such as party secretaries, mayors, and other administrative executives. We know very little about the middle- and lower echelon of the huge bureaucratic machinery that plays a crucial role in policy innovations. In many policy domains—health care, public housing, long-term care financing, and the like—policy reforms are associated with a great deal of technical sophistication and fiscal complexities, where technocrats extensively participate in policy formulation, implementation, and even agenda setting. 


Against the theoretical backdrop described above, this project seeks to investigate how middle-level technocrats in Chinese local governments maneuver within the bureaucracy and promote policy innovations in the social welfare realm. We extensively engage with the prominent literature on policy entrepreneurship, especially the emerging studies on middle- and low-level policy entrepreneurship. This project intends to elucidate the unique role played by mid-level technocrats in social welfare innovations in China, their motivations, entrepreneurial strategies, processes, and outcomes. 


Qualitative in nature, this project adopts an innovative compound comparative research design to fill the research gaps stated above. Multiple cases from Zhejiang Province and Hubei Province are selected for investigation in a rigorous comparative fashion. The highly experienced international team comprises senior and mid-career scholars outstanding for their academic background, track record, and local connections. Upon completion, this project is expected to advance scholarly knowledge of the dynamics of social welfare innovations in an authoritarian system, and achieve a renewed understanding of bureaucratic behaviors in contemporary China.