SecondTaizong The Tang Dynasty is often regarded as one of China’s greatest rulers, in part because of the intelligent and forthright advisors he had at his side. His minister Wei Zheng’s definition of a good official is: not flattering, and dare to point out the ruler’s mistakes. Wei said that a bad official always says yes to the ruler, tries to please him in any way, and follows him even when he is wrong.
Is China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, surrounded by good officials? Last year, he filled the Politburo Standing Committee, the top governing body, with supporters unlikely to challenge him. But further down the line, the Chinese government is designed in a way that can be used to discourage flattery.
Each level of government has two heads: the head of the local Communist Party committee, known as the party secretary, and administrative leaders, such as township chiefs. Because officials could be evaluated by either party, this could be a measure against flattery.
In a study published this month, researchers led by UC Berkeley’s Alain de Janvry divided 3,785 junior civil servants into two groups. In one, they are told which of the two leaders will be evaluating them. On the other hand, the identity of the evaluators is kept secret. As one might expect, those in the first group tried to please the evaluators, choosing tasks that were more important to them and easier to observe. As a result, they get higher points from them than from another leader.
If you don’t know who to compliment? In the second group, the gap in scores disappeared. These bureaucrats were assessed as being more productive. Their colleagues also value them more. The authors observed a significant “performance gap” between the first and second groups.
Ordinary Chinese have increasingly high expectations of officialdom. If China wants to rein in flattery and improve bureaucratic performance, the study suggests keeping them in the dark about who is evaluating them. However, at the highest levels of government, this is impossible. The seven members of the Standing Committee knew exactly who to flatter.■
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