Administrative reforms in China and Hong Kong: 'One Country, Two Experiences' in search of modernization and of political reforms

Bing Leung Anthony CHEUNG

Research output: Contribution to conferencePapers


Most official literature would trace the lineage of China’s contemporary era of reforms to the Third Plenum of the 13th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held in December 1978, which marked the final ascendency of Deng Xiaoping and his policy of ‘opening up and reform’ which reversed the Maoist path of communism. Within three decades, China has been transformed from a centrally planned economy to a thriving market economy under the so-called ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. Private enterprises thrive alongside state-owned enterprises which now account for only some 30% of the nation’s industrial product. The central state was restructured through devolution and decentralization. New administrative systems in personnel, financial and assets management were installed. In a gist, the past thirty years of reforms - though implemented in a gradualist manner described by Deng as “crossing the river by touching the stones”, with tensions between reformist and conservative forces, periodic ups and downs, and setbacks and reversals, have nonetheless managed to break up the previous omnipresent party-state built upon the state’s extraction and monopoly of all resources (manpower, finance, properties and natural resources), operated through a party-controlled centralized cadre system, and state-owned production units and enterprises run by central ‘industrial’ ministries. At the gateway to mainland China stands Hong Kong, a British-ruled enclave until 1 July 1997 when this international city was reunified with the motherland. Unlike the mainland, Hong Kong has always enjoyed a British, and hence Western, style of administration. During colonial rule, Hong Kong had a long tradition of pursuing administrative and management reforms as a substitute for more fundamental constitutional reforms, in order to cope with the government’s legitimacy deficit and to be more responsive to public demands. The 1990s marked the heydays of public sector reform, when many initiatives were launched in a typical ‘new public management’ (NPM) fashion. Efficiency enhancement, civil service reform, devolution of financial and human resource management responsibilities, and contracting-out continued to be on the reform agenda after 1997, but have by now somewhat subsided in thrust because of shifting attention to political reforms, and the lack of mandate for a politically weak government to push for more ambitious management changes. The reunification with China has also imposed a different macro-political and institutional context which may shape the future direction of administrative reforms in Hong Kong This paper reviews the trajectory of China’s and Hong Kong’s administrative reforms over the past three decades, and offers a critical analysis of the outcomes and logic of these reforms. It argues that in mainland China, despite the vast changes made in dismantling or ‘modernizing’ the previous Leninist regime, the decoupling of relations has remained ambiguous. What has changed and what has not changed continues to be a crucial concern in understanding the progress of reform. The paradox of administrative reforms is expressed in three dimensions within China’s party-dominated political context: the instrumentality of reform to serve the dual purpose of modernizing the system and at the same time preserving the Communist party’s supremacy; the interplay with politics of the locality, resulting in toned-down and sometimes distorted reform outcomes; and the inherently contradictory and compromising nature of the reform agenda seeking to concurrently embrace Leninist, Weberian and resulted in a hybrid regime that is currently experiencing new systemic tensions, which cannot be easily captured by the traditional communist, post-communist or Western-NPM paradigms. Similarly, Hong Kong’s path of administrative reform has an institutional logic of its own grounded in both the global NPM discourse and its internal governance needs. The colonial ‘executive-led’ legacy, operating within the post-1997 context of a liberal semi-democracy under the shadow of an authoritarian hybrid Leninist central state, has posed new challenges and constraints. While the ‘one country, two systems’ constitutional framework allows for divergent trajectories of public administration, as the two jurisdictions converge after reunification in 1997 – not just economically and socially, but also to some extent regime-wise, their respective experiences are bound to have increasing mutual impact on each other. This paper conjectures on the possible scenarios of administrative pluralism within and assesses the implications.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2010


Cheung, A. B.-L. (2010, July). Administrative reforms in China and Hong Kong: 'One Country, Two Experiences' in search of modernization and of political reforms. International Symposium on Public Administration in East Asia: Legacies, Experiences and Reforms, The Hong Kong Institute of Education, China.


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