How to prevent sycophancy in China’s civil service
EEmperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty is often considered one of China’s greatest rulers, in part because he surrounded himself with intelligent and upright advisers. His minister, Wei Zheng, defined a good official as someone who does not flatter and wants to point out the mistakes of a ruler. A bad officer, according to Wei, always says yes to the ruler, tries to please him in any way and goes along with him even when he is wrong.
Is China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, surrounded by good officials? Last year he assembled the Politburo Standing Committee, the main governing body, with loyalists unlikely to challenge him. But lower down, the Chinese government is designed in a way that could be used to encourage sycophancy.
There are two heads at each level of government: the person in charge of the local Communist Party committee, known as the party secretary, and an administrative head, such as a village head. Since officials could be evaluated by either, this could be a safeguard against sycophancy.
In a study to be published this month, researchers led by Alain de Janvry of the University of California, Berkeley, divided 3,785 entry-level civil servants into two groups. In one, they were told which of the two leaders would be evaluating them. In the other, the identity of the evaluator was kept confidential. As expected, those in group one tried to please the evaluator, choosing activities that were more important and more visible to them. As a result, they got higher scores from them than from the other director.
What if it is not clear who should be flattered? In the second group the difference in scores disappeared. These bureaucrats were judged to be more productive. Their colleagues thought more of them too. The authors observed a large “achievement gap” between group one and group two.
Ordinary Chinese have official expectations. If China wants to control sycophancy and improve the performance of bureaucrats, this study suggests that they should be left in the dark about who is evaluating them. At the highest level of government, however, that is not possible. The seven members of the Standing Committee know exactly who to flatter.■
Subscribers can sign up for Drum Tower, our new weekly newsletter, to understand what the world is making of China – and what China is making of the world.