There’s No Bureaucracy Like Chinese Bureaucracy

It seems in the last few years in the US the fear of “Big Gov’t” has been enough to draw large crowds to the Tea Party. Apparently these people have never been to China. The idea of small gov’t in China would be almost heretical here in the Middle Kingdom, where there are 5 levels of gov’t compared to the US’s 3. Bureaucracy though isn’t limited to China’s bloated gov’t, it bogs down every business and transaction.

For example during the Swine Flu scare a few years ago, teachers and students were not allowed off campus without permission. For one teacher, who had daily lessons on a different campus, this meant an hour of filing paper work every day for TWO MONTHS! She had to go to one office to pick up the paper, than bring it to the campus nurse who would check her temperature and make a note, then she would bring that note to another office that would put the official medical stamp on the paper, before she could return to the English department that would make the final decision as to whether or not her reason was good enough to leave campus.

At the hospital I work at we have a small memorial hall that houses a few exhibits of old medical equipment. If you want to see it, you need to contact me and provide me with a copy of your CV and a detailed explanation of why you want to visit it. I will then copy that information onto the appropriate form, and submit it to the hospital president for his seal of approval.

These are just a few of the examples of the seemingly limitless forms of bureaucracy in China that hamper China’s efficiency. I would think that the hospital’s president has more important things to do than micromanage the museum. I would hope that a teacher with the Swine flu would have the common sense to stay at home. As we keep digging we start to get to the real issue.

Bureaucracy is a helpful defense against blame. After all when 7 other people had to stamp the document along with you, each shares a bit of the liability. If I let you into the Memorial hall directly and something got broken (I really don’t know what could possibly go wrong in there), it would be my fault. However, if the president himself approved your visit, than I am completely free of responsibility for your actions, and the president is above criticism.

The same is true in the school. If the teacher got sick they would show all of the stamps and signatures that proved she was healthy when she left. The only possible explanation would be that one of the students from outside of the campus gave it to her. Or at least that’s what the thinking seems to be.

During the height of swine flu a friend’s brother came to China. He cleared the health quarantine with no problems. Upon arriving at the school, the leaders flipped out and ordered that he and any other foreigner who he had met with leave the campus for two weeks (It didn’t matter that he had met some Chinese teachers, they were allowed to stay). Needless to say he didn’t even have a cold, and the leaders hadn’t seen him when they made this decision. Since they had made the decision collectively though, there was no one leader that could be held responsible.

It’s hard to say which came first: bureaucracy or passing the blame, but in modern China these two go hand in hand in ensuring inefficiency.

This post was delayed because of a broken internet connection at the airport hotel in Shanghai. When I called the front desk, they passed me to house keeping, who passed me to the internet person who couldn’t speak English. After another attempt they patched me through another 3 people before I could talk with the manager. The manager told me that it was a problem from the Internet company so it was not the hotel’s fault, and that it might be working tomorrow morning.

11 responses to “There’s No Bureaucracy Like Chinese Bureaucracy”

  1. Chopstik says:

    An interesting corollary to make and perhaps some limited historical reasoning for this behavior.

    In the military, it is common belief that, when asked for volunteers, everyone takes one step back so as not to do so. The underlying reasoning being that standing out/volunteering is one sure way to be the one punished when things go wrong – and we all know that something will inevitably go wrong.

    Along that same line, the history of the Party says that whoever stands up is usually the first one down. The best to ensure you’re not cut down is to ensure that blame is spread around equally – and most especially to higher ranking people than oneself. Certainly this was very true from the very beginning and especially so during Mao’s heyday. It shouldn’t be surprising that it persists to today.

    • Tom says:

      I think it’s true that this fear of punishment was fostered by Mao’s attitude toward failure, and his inability to ever admit that he may have made mistakes (perhaps more than the 30% the party assigned him). However I wonder how much further back this goes. China’s Imperial system always favored bureaucracy, and the party seems to have perfected it. I know I’ve said this before, but it’s currently 68 people per official, that’s pretty crazy.

  2. Homer says:

    Spot on.

    Here is just another example to strengthen this post. We had a machine start to malfunction at work a few days ago. This machine is very very important but is very very old. The factory mechanics did not want to take it apart and see what was wrong with it, nor did the department manager. I assume this was out of fear that if they broke it, they would be held responsible.

    It took the president of the entire company to actually come down to the factory and hold a meeting, were in I told them the only way to find out what was wrong was to take the machine apart. Thus we all agreed and the president told the mechanic to tear apart the machine to see what was wrong.

    Turns out it was a simple fix. If the president hadn’t come down, or was out of town, or busy, the machine would of sat there for, what I would guess would be forever. Even though we needed to use it as soon as possible.

    Such is China.

  3. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    To take the military corollary further, my husband, who served 15 years in the British Royal air Force, pointed out that the military are also vastly overstaffed. The reasoning behind this is – stability! When he was in the RAF, there were always far more people than needed – in peacetime – but hey, come a war, they would be needed instantly and needed to be already trained into disciplined ways. “Rookies” would not be reliable troops viz. the Rebels in Libya. My husband said that many RAF personnel had pretty meaningless jobs and a favourite denigration was to label someone as “Corporal in Charge of Toilets”! When military personnel leave the armed forces, they frequently cannot cope with the more competitive civilian workforce. Is there a parallel here with the present day Chinese work force?

    • Tom says:

      Let’s not forget, China has had a “peaceful rise” but also has the world’s largest army.

      • Devin Popp says:

        How many soldiers per capita? How does this compare to other area countries or other countries with large armies?

      • Tom says:

        It’s about 4 soldiers per 1,000 civilians (low compared to many countries), but still totals nearly 4.5 million when accounting for all personnel related to the army. The total number of active troops is 2.285 million, making it the largest active force in the world.

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