China’s institutional transformation is hard to see in part because it has diverged from standard theoretical accounts of how change is supposed to take place. In China institutional change has been incremental and evolutionary, radical in its ultimate effect, but hardly in its origin and unfolding. Change has not come in response to exogenous shocks or what Ira Katznelson has called “unsettled times.”
It is also difficult to identify who is responsible for change. For at least fifteen years, there has been no charismatic leader or coherent group of reformers of the type associated with post-Soviet Russia. There are no visionary policy elites negotiating the complex terrain of domestic politics. None of the recent “administrations” have had a discernible institutional mission, whether to end socialism, build capitalism, privatize industry, or seek any of the other systemic transformations articulated by post-socialist reformers elsewhere.
But—despite the persistence of an authoritarian, single-party state—the composition of elites drawn into the policy process has evolved. Whereas in the early 1990s, for example, overseas-trained returnees were held suspect, barred from positions of influence, today such individuals routinely populate the high echelons of the state economics bureaucracy. The minister of science and technology earned a PhD in Germany, where he subsequently worked for a decade at Audi. The number-two official at the central bank—and the head of the State Administration of Foreign Exchange—earned a PhD in the United States, where he was a tenured professor of economics. The head of the government’s banking regulatory commission has an MBA from the University of London; the head of the Shanghai government’s Office for Financial Services is a Stanford-trained economist; and the list goes on. Twenty years ago, these people would not have returned to China, let alone been appointed to positions at the core of the state.