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When Bureaucracy Gets Politicized

There has been a lot of concern about the tainted milk scandal in China, and with each passing day, the scope of the scandal gets bigger. How did this happen, why was it covered up, and what needs to be done about it?

My answer is simple: this is the kind of thing which happens when the bureaucracy becomes politicized, and government appointments are made for political instead of professional reasons.

For more than 2,000 years, when China was ruled by an imperial bureaucracy, China had a complex system of imperial exams to insure that anyone who passed could enter the government bureaucracy. This bureaucracy was largely apolitical, except for the most senior appointments in the imperial court or on the provincial level. Most were just professional officials, and would serve their masters, whoever they were.

With the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, and with the foundation of new China in 1949, the party organization affected all levels of the bureaucracy. Endless political movements until 1978 politicized the whole society, not just the bureaucracy. Appointments were made for political reasons instead of professional capabilities. Sometimes, professional qualifications were completely ignored.

The tainted milk scandal is an example of what happens when political considerations override business, health and even ethical concerns. This is what happens when government officials are judged by how much investment they attract and how many jobs they create. Then there is a natural tendency to cover up any information which draws a conflicting picture. What should be a health and ethical issue instead becomes a political issue.

The problem now in China is that there is a severe shortage of people who are apolitical professionals, not politicians. How do they fit in, even survive, in a completely politicized bureaucracy? Does the government have the energy and will to depoliticize the bureaucracy, and create a professional bureaucracy which will fulfill the needs of modern Chinese society?

That is the question for the next stage of Chinese reforms.

4 Responses to “When Bureaucracy Gets Politicized”

  1. godius says:

    Great article, keep it up. I found you guys via the new website indexing service over at

  2. You make a good point about the history of the entrance into China’s government positions. One wonder’s if apolitical workers can be found when strengthening the party is seen as the faster way to advance in a career.

  3. Dan says:

    I agree, but how does a country break out of this? I fear this will require a whole new generation or more.

    Dans last blog post..What’s Gonna Happen To China’s Economy? I Dunno.

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