We’ve seen how limited interconnectedness and a lack of communication have been causing problems in China’s banks and hospitals. Today I want to bring up a third trend that is critical to understanding how China works.
This might not be a popular view in the West, but China’s National government has created some excellent policies and laws (for the most part, the most oppressive laws are hold-outs from twenty years ago). I believe that they have a clear vision of what they want for China, and they are eager to be in a globally respected position. The problem is their inability to implement many of these plans because of local officials.
I realized this last year when I read “Will the Boat Sink the Water?: The Life of China’s Peasants” (or Kindle) which opened my eyes to the problems in the countryside. The book detailed the ways in which local governments regularly ignore national policies and how their actions hurt the farmers. Time and again the book showed that local governments were starting expensive projects to further their careers at the expense of their citizens.
I have seen this effect in several news stories this year, and I think it is one of the issues the government is the most concerned with.
One of the most obvious was China’s bold claim that it was going to be in full compliance with the World Health Organizations anti-smoking measures. The agreement was supposed to be in place by January 2011, but even the People’s Daily reported that China’s actions were among the least effective in the World (We can’t even get doctors to stop smoking while treating patients!). This was in large part due to local governments’ unwillingness to put laws in place which might lower their GDP figures.
Another example showed up at the end of 2010 when China was struggling to meet its targets for reducing carbon emissions. In this situation each local government was responsible for lowering their use of coal (which was the measure being used). So they shut down their power plants and patted themselves on the back for being so successful. However companies simply fired up their much less efficient diesel generators and the world saw fuel prices climb.
The final example comes from my personal experience last year in Chengdu. I worked for a group of schools that was accomplishing great things throughout rural Sichuan. Unfortunately I worked in their middle school, which I believe may be the worst school in all of China. The school had daily fighting in the hall, desks broken in class, teachers smoking while they lectured their smoking 15 year-olds, and students who couldn’t be bothered with learning. The heads of the system knew all of these problems (and talked about how the middle school was an embarrassment), but they were unable to replace the middle school principal because of his “connections.”
This inability to overcome the desires of local governments is keeping China from being the superpower it seems destined to become. Once this issue is addressed we could see China grow even faster.