Making Bureaucracy Work: Patronage Networks, Performance Incentives, and Economic Development in China

AJPS Author Summary by Junyan Jiang

Patron-client networks are widely found in governments of transitional societies. Most researchers view them as a threat to government performance. In this article, I advance an alternative view that emphasizes the positive roles of patron-client networks in political organizations. I argue that, by fostering mutual trust and raising the value of long-term cooperation, these informal relations can help align the interests between government agents and their principals, and discourage short-term, opportunistic behaviors. When formal incentive schemes are weak or incomplete, these personal ties can serve as an alternative mechanism for principals to mobilize agents to accomplish important but challenging governing tasks.

Making Bureaucracy Work: Patronage Networks, Performance Incentives, and Economic Development in China

My empirical analysis focuses on China, a country where the practice of political patronage is both long-standing and pervasive. I build a new database consisting of fully digitized resumes for over 4,000 city, provincial, and central officials, and develop a new strategy that infers patron-client ties by linking lower-level officials with senior leaders who promoted them at critical career junctures. Exploiting variations in connections between cities and provinces induced by the constant reshuffling of officials at both levels, I find those city leaders with informal ties to the incumbent provincial secretary, the de facto leader of a province, deliver significantly better economic performance than those whose patrons have either retired or left the province. The performance premium of connected agents is estimated to be about 275 million yuan (~42 million U.S dollars) per year for an average city.

I address several alternative explanations, such as clients’ greater propensity to falsify data, distributive favoritism, and heterogeneity in personal or career backgrounds. While all three are plausible explanations for the observed performance premium, the empirical results suggest that they are not the main causal channels through which connection affects performance. I also provide additional direct and indirect evidence on the incentive-enhancing role of connections, drawing on several other data sources.

Findings from this study contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between states’ organizational characteristics and governance outcomes. While the prevailing view in the literature is that effective governance requires the presence of strong, well-functioning political and bureaucratic institutions, my analysis suggests that momentum for development can also be created in a less-than-ideal institutional environment where personal connections remain an influential aspect of politics.

Moreover, this study also speaks to a burgeoning literature on the sources of durability in authoritarian regimes. Just as Robert Putnam has argued in his influential book, Making Democracy Work, that social capital, which refers to “trust, norms, and networks” among citizens, is key to the performance of democratic institutions, this study suggests that social capital among the political elites can also be a valuable asset for the proper functioning of regional bureaucracies in a large, multi-layered autocratic regime. Instead of regarding them as merely a source of inefficiency or corruption, therefore, future researchers should pay greater attention to the enabling effects of these networks in studying both persistence and changes of nondemocratic systems.

About the Author: Junyan Jiang is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Government and Public Administration at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Making Bureaucracy Work: Patronage Networks, Performance Incentives, and Economic Development in China” (https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12394) is now online available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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