It is difficult to move away from what is comfortable, especially when it has brought you much success. The Chinese party-state has pushed the level of GDP in the country to heights unknown previously and has done so at a blistering pace since the beginning of economic reforms in 1978.
Part of the way that the regime has managed this growth is by rewarding and promoting local officials based on achievements in these domains. (There is a fascinating scholarly discussion on the strength of the evidence in support of this contention. Shih, Adolph, and Liu make a strong case that for high level officials, GDP is not as important as connections and political networks in a recent issue of APSR. At lower levels, however, GDP still matters.) This success, then, makes the recent Xinhua headline noted on Bill Bishop’s Sinocism intriguing:
President Xi promises to shake off GDP obsession in promoting officials
The piece continued:
It should consider a local official’s work in various aspects including people’s livelihood, the development of local society and the quality of environment.
“We should never judge a cadre simply by the growth of gross domestic product (GDP),” he said.
Yet these words echo words so familiar that their meaning seems forgotten. Hu Jintao, the core of the previous generation of leaders in the CCP, attempted to push the idea of “people-centered development” during his tenure. As Chris Buckley tweeted:
Before you get excited about Xi saying GDP shouldn’t be sole performance test for cadres, Hu Jintao said much same: http://tinyurl.com/mkpo4kt
Moving away from what has worked and what is measurable is very difficult. Graeme Smith’s almost-too-fun-to-be-published piece in the China Journal, “Political Machinations in a Rural County,” makes the point that local officials are judged on quantifiable metrics, like kilometers of roads paved or hospital beds provided. Judging local officials on the quality of these provisions is difficult in a large, complicated place. Imagine the machinations possible if promotions could be made by officials judging the quality of roads in a county or the socialist character of a cadre.
The necessity of moving away from GDP as a sole metric becomes apparent to anyone who walks around Beijing for more than a few minutes, but I believe the center will find it difficult find other ways to assess development around the country.