Book review: China Governance Puzzle

Stromseth, J., Malesky, E., Gueorguiev, D. (2017). China’s Governance Puzzle: Enabling Transparency and Participation in a Single-Party State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781316388501

Stromseth’s China’s Governance Puzzle focuses on a central question in China’s political developments: what motivate an authoritarian regime to initiative democratic reforms and how such reforms impact both leaderships and citizens? To answer this question, China’s Governance Puzzle examined two aspects of governance in particular: transparency in the provision of information on government activities, processes, and regulations; and public participation in the formation of government policies (p.3). different from conventional debates on whether ”democratic” reforms in China is “window dressing” or preamble of democratization, this book departed from the simple dichotomy by exploring the possibility that reforms have led simultaneously to improved governance and more effective one-party rule (p.4). This book provided both substantial qualitative analysis from field interviews, government archives, case comparisons as well as robust quantitative evidence to argue that the impact of participation and transparency reforms on important governance outcomes such as reduced corruption and improved legal compliance and policy effectiveness.

Practically, this book reflected on the importance of China puzzle because it appears to offer evidence that unprecedented economic growth and modernization can coexist with budged authoritarian rule and shrinking human rights. Academically, this book situates in the intersection between Andrew Nathan’s argument that “authoritarian reforms are instrumental to persuade citizens the regime is lawful and should be obeyed” which they call “authoritarian resilience” and McCubbins and Schwartz’s fire-alarm theory that reforms in fact deter corruption and improve compliance by engaging citizens in monitoring and decision-making. Furthermore, this book innovatively relates deliberative democracy literature to the compelling benefits from mass public participations in authoritarian China, as decisions made in public are better informed and more legitimate than those made in private, echoing with a strand of latest research such as Milan Svolik’s famous book on how autocrats deliberate power-sharing and political control and Chen and Xu’s work on why authoritarian leaders allow citizens to voice publicly.

Chapter 2 to 5 discussed the topic of transparency. Chapter 2 started from the political context of reforms. Historically, the “Mass line” advocated by the Chinese Communist Party(CCP) ever since its birth framed Chinese citizens’ expectation for political participation and the quality of governance. As the concept of transparency has evolved in China over time and the increased importance of transparency, the current context of Internet developments, socioeconomic improvements in Chinese society imply for the conceptual foundation of reforms. Given the backgrounds, the authors pointed that Chinese officials have used transparency as a tool to rein in subordinates, including civil servants and subnational officials. Transparency has rarely been seen as a good in itself but as a means to limit the transgressions of government actors far from Beijing (p.58). Instead, the authors proposed that transparency, as an administrative procedure reform in the face of Internet developments, was a substitute for direct accountability through elections and voters–it provides an efficient mechanism for central officials in Beijing to monitor the activities of lower officials by essentially delegating the task of oversight to groups and individuals with more intimate local knowledge.

In Chapter 3 and 4, the authors continued the analysis of whether the seemingly self-interested reforms would be a huge accomplishment for the CCP and improve the lives of Chinese citizens. Statistical evidence indicated that transparency initiatives introduced as part of China’s Open Information(OGI) program have led to reductions in macro-corruption among subnational officials (p.96). Given the nature of heterogeneity within Chinese subnational regions, a potential alternative is that in more developed regions, corruption reduction and transparency reforms are implemented simultaneously instead of a causal effect. Therefore, the authors then adopted case study approach to compare two typical models: Guangdong and Chongqing, to examine the causal relationship between transparency and reduction of corruption. Their findings noticed that Guangzhou’s early adoption of OGI policies and it has achieved success at limiting abuses of authority. In sharp contrast, the state-led, aggressive approach of Chongqing’s transparency reform ultimately foundered due to its inability to properly police the guardians (p.151). Regarding this book’s methodological rigor, these two Chapters provide an example of mixed method analysis. Especially, Chapter 5 followed Gerring’s “typical selection” approach to illustrate that Guangdong and Chongqing are two typical cases close to the regression line of all provinces, namely the two provinces are representative. Also, the authors introduced Humphreys and Jacobs’s “high-leverage cases”, identifying the clues or steps in the causal process of the theory is particularly important. In other words, if the “transparency-corruption” mechanism works anywhere, it must work in Guangdong. If it fails anywhere, it should fail in Chongqing.

Chapter 5 theoretically identified the benefits for authoritarian leaderships from allowing wider public participation. First, restrictions on media and political competition in autocracies mean that autocrats have relatively poor quality information on public preferences and opinions, making it more likely that they misjudge public opinion and adopt unpopular policies, while deliberation or civil consultation addresses the information asymmetry problem between citizens and governments; Second, because autocrats are not selected through free and fair elections, their policies lack popular mandates. Consequently, any legitimacy gained by way of public consultation is likely to go a long way, especially when implementing sensitive policies. The third benefit of consultation concerns the policy implementation process and, in particular, the problem of selective agency loss in autocracies. In short, agency loss in China is biased towards unpopular policy implementation because popular targets are systematically neglected. Authors believed this structural inefficiency as one more reason why public consultation under an autocratic system has a high instrumental value (p.162). These three theoretical hypotheses were justified by a multidimensional empirical strategy for studying the effects of consultation on policy outcomes, social stability, and public satisfaction in the labor and environmental sectors.

Chapter 6 took the next step by exploring the empirical relationship between open policymaking and policy effectiveness in China. Empirical evidence supported that civil engagements in policy making significantly lowered mass dissents linking to deliberative democracy literature. However, the result has been a sharp division between those who see participation as a new model of consultative authoritarianism and those who dismiss it as democratic “window dressing” (p.244). The next, to validate this claim, in Chapter 7 the authors provided another case comparison to address threats to causal inference. By comparing three provinces, each with varying capacity and resources for dealing with policy challenges, the authors clarified conditions under which Chinese policymakers rely on public consultation as well as the conditions under which consultation contributes to more effective policy choices. The authors contributed that, the role of public opinions rely on how much political resources (i.e., fiscal expenditure, political ranks) the province has. Chapter 8 concluded and summarized the future roads of Chinese political reforms.

Nevertheless, there remain some problems despite the great advance. As the authors emphasized heterogeneity within China, it could be odd to adopt international index, suggesting the authors need to provide substantial reasons to justify cross-country comparison. Moreover, debates on the benefits of authoritarian reforms lie in a rhetoric that democratization is a ”universal good” and destination but context-specific analysis disagree so scholarships need to rethink whether collective policymaking is optimal universally under all circumstances.

Overall, this book contributed to the knowledge in the following aspects. First, the authors emphasized Chinese governance reforms must be understood on their own terms and in the context of the Chinese policymaking process. Different form the conventional dichotomous analysis of reform outcomes, the authors enlightened that Chinese reforms were only partially successful, indicating the complex in understanding the rationale behind government-led quasi-democratic reforms. The reforms to some extent achieved better policy compliance and legitimacy while some failed. Third, both quantitative and qualitative evidence proved the heterogeneity within domestic governance ranging from policy-making to specific reform actions—as the authors argued, there is no single China model. Finally, this book provided several policy suggestions for future governance reforms such as institutionalizing public participation as an approach to democratization.


  1. Chen, Jidong and Yiqing Xu. “Why Do Authoritarian Regimes Allow Citizens to Voice Opinions Publicly?” In: The Journal of Politics 79.3 (2017), pp. 792–803.

  2. Gerring, John. Case study research: Principles and practices. Cambridge university press, 2006.

  3. Humphreys, Macartan and Alan M Jacobs. “Mixing methods: A Bayesian approach”. In: American Political Science Review 109.4 (2015), pp. 653–673.

  4. McCubbins, Mathew D and Thomas Schwartz. “Congressional oversight overlooked: Police patrols versus fire alarms”. In: American Journal of Political Science (1984), pp. 165–179.

  5. Nathan, Andrew J. “Authoritarian resilience”. In: Journal of Democracy 14.1 (2003).

  6. Svolik, Milan W. The politics of authoritarian rule. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Ziwen Zu (祖梓文)
Ziwen Zu (祖梓文)
Ph.D. student in Political Science