Propaganda board calling for “scientific outlook on development” and “skilled government”, Zhejiang Province, 2009. 

Propaganda board calling for "scientific outlook on development" and "skilled government," Zhejiang Province, 2009.  Source: A. Ahlers.

Project (2020-)

From Technocracy to Scientocracy? Science-Policy Interactions in the Chinese Local State, 1990–2020

With the beginning of the Reform and Opening Era (gaige kaifang) at the end of the 1970s, pragmatism and institutionalization began to replace traditional and ossified ideology as a basis for political decision-making in the People’s Republic of China. Represented by policy programs and structural reforms, this trend was also reflected in what the Communist Party of China (CCP) stressed as the main qualities of its cadres ever since: no longer were they merely loyal Party soldiers and knowledgeable practitioners, but they had to possess specialized and formally-certified expertise in fields and for issues deemed politically important. Consequently, particularly since the 1990s, the metaphor of the matter-of-fact “technocrat” came to supplant that of the “red expert.” Like in the case of the latter, this new concept was employed by the CCP for legitimation purposes, as well as by observers looking to import a handy analytical concept able to grasp the turn to non-ideological problem-solving and the heightened influx of scientific insights into the Chinese political process.

The features of the Chinese model of technocracy and expertocracy have been studied extensively at the national level. Less is known about if and how it plays out "on the ground," where policies have to be adjusted to local conditions and negotiated with different stakeholders and the general public. While main political guidelines are designed by the central government in Beijing, subnational governments, i.e., especially at the provincial, city, and county level, have considerable leeway in adjusting these plans and in crafting supplementary measures. Over the last decades, government and party agencies have increasingly been staffed by highly-trained personnel, and at the same time external scientific knowledge is increasingly sought and contracted for the purpose of policy concretization and innovation.

Propaganda board calling for “scientific outlook on development” and “skilled government”, Zhejiang Province, 2009. 

Propaganda board calling for "scientific outlook on development" and "skilled government," Zhejiang Province, 2009.  Source: A. Ahlers.

This project seeks to understand the scope and nature of scientist/scholar-bureaucrat intersections and interactions in Chinese local governance, focusing on the evolution of this relationship over the last three decades. It aims at a typology of the empirical patterns and outcomes of this relationship, and ultimately asks whether technocracy is still the best ideal type definition of what is observable at the interface of science/expertise and politics in China today.