College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences
Sociology Expert Sheds Insights on Informal Institutions in the Chinese Bureaucracy

The Global China Studies Program of CLASS invited Professor ZHOU Xueguang, Professor of Sociology, the Kwoh-Ting Li Professor in Economic Development, and a senior fellow at Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, to deliver an insightful lecture entitled “Informal Institutions in the Chinese Bureaucracy: Reconceptualization and Reinterpretation” on 15 March 2019.

Informal institutions, which are stable and informal patterns of bureaucratic behaviors, are prevalent in the Chinese bureaucracy and they play a critical role in the institutional logic of governance in China. Having a research focus on institutional changes in contemporary Chinese society, especially the role of the government bureaucracy in China’s governance, Professor Zhou developed an analytical framework, and related concepts and typologies, to make sense of such informal institutions in light of their relationships with formal institutions and bases of legitimacy. He then used this analytical framework to reinterpret salient patterns of bureaucratic behavior in the literature, for example flexible implementation, dual-track politics, and collusion, and discuss the mechanisms of their reproduction in contemporary China.

In the lecture, Professor Zhou offered insights into the topic by quoting his “logic of the empire”. “The coexistence and shift between formal and informal institutions is the key to governance in the Chinese empire. The fundamental tension between centralization and effective local governance means that the central-local relationships have to be in a state of continuous adjustments between centralization and decentralization of power. In the Chinese history, such cyclic shifts take place in the form of subtle changes between formal and informal institutions. That is, the formal institution tends to be stable and rigid, but in the actual process, central-local government relationships often evolve through changes in the scope of informal operations by the local government,” he said.

The internationally acclaimed sociology expert attracted a full house. He also initiated a lively discussion with the audience on informal institutions and the logic of governance in China.