17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China

Time to Learn

In January 2002, representatives from the Development and Research Center of the State Council, John F. Kennedy School of Government (KSG) of Harvard University and the School of Public Policy and Management of Tsinghua University signed a public administration advanced training agreement, initiating what is publicly known as the “Harvard Project,” at the Great Hall of the People.

In the five years since, 300 high-ranking officials from Chinese ministries, commissions and provincial governments have undergone three-month-long KSG training courses. Their work comprises delving into case histories of different countries in order to find Chinese solutions to public administration. The Organization Department of the CPC Central Committee considers the Harvard Project as one of the most important government officials overseas training programs ever.

Similar training projects are also underway in British, German, Danish, Singaporean and other American universities. Local governments, in addition to the CPC Organization Department, have also become increasingly active sponsors of overseas training projects.

Learning from the US

Overseas training for Chinese officials started in 1983, with Deng Xiaoping’s proposal to “introduce foreign administration to facilitate the four modernizations.” Back then, however, such training programs were little more than “symbolic measures of reform and opening-up,” as appraised by an official from the Ministry of Personnel. Julian Chang, executive director of the KSG Asia Programs, also points out, “Though KSG saw Chinese faces as early as the mid-1980s, there were no large-scale, well-organized Chinese programs until 1996.”

And it was not until 2000, when the Personnel Ministry discovered that short inspection tours were insufficient to solve China’s administrative problems, that the Chinese public actually became aware of large-scale overseas training programs for officials. Training programs ranged from brief inspection tours to courses lasting three months to one year. These courses were primarily designed for economic officials, and were later expanded to include public administrators. American universities, meanwhile, were the most favored study destinations. Certain Chinese media pointed out that the Chinese government actions in this respect conveyed a clear message to the international community that it was remolding itself into a “learning government.”

Lu Mai, secretary general of the China Development Research Foundation, regards the “Harvard Project” as imperative. “Since China joined the WTO, Chinese officials need to adopt a modern administrative mindset and be conversant in contemporary game rules and practices.”

But why, many might ask, should China learn from the US? Zhang Guoqing, a research fellow of the Institute of American Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, explains, “As the world’s most developed country, the US writes and controls many of the game rules.”

This reasoning also prevails in local government. In 2006 several hundred medium- and high-ranking officials from Hunan, Henan, Shandong and Guangdong went to Harvard University and San Jose State University to study international economy and trade and public administration for three to six months. In recent years, the majority of local governments have initiated similar programs.

Medium- and long-term training is generally takes place in economically developed countries, such as the US, Britain and Singapore, according to Peng Hao, head of the Administrative Office of the Overseas Training Department under the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs. As he explains, “The study destination is chosen according to the aspect of training in question. Singapore, for example, is acknowledged worldwide for its successful housing reforms, which is why related training programs take place there.”

It is generally believed that Singapore is the model for China most favored by the central government, because its concept of governance is closest to China. The political systems and experience of European and American countries, as might be expected, differ greatly from those of China. Wu Wei, vice dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU), is involved in the China program. He elaborates, “No Western experience can compare with Singapore’s as regards achieving high-speed economic development, clean government and social stability during an extended period of single party rule. This is the main reason why the CPC leadership so values its Singapore training projects.” NTU has been running a Master's Program in Managerial Economics, taught in Chinese, aimed at potential mayors on China’s mainland since 1998, and has since graduated around 400 prefectural- and bureau-level officials.

Pu Xingzu, professor of International Relations and Public Affairs at Fudan University, believes that looking beyond Europe and the US for more diversified expertise will help the Chinese government broaden its administration and governance perspectives.

The Decision to Transform Government

China currently sends officials for training to more than 30 countries and regions, including the United States, Germany, Britain, Canada and Singapore. Training program content is adjusted and coordinated by the Administrative Office of the Overseas Training Department according to the situation of destination countries, according to statistics from the Overseas Training Department of the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs.

Zhang Guoqing, a professor at the School of Government of Peking University, regards the central and local governments’ official training programs as an “important supplement to the Chinese government’s human resource development strategy of a new age.” He points out, “The Chinese government must transform its administrative mode from that of a planned economy to a service-oriented government that accords with the market economy and competently meets the challenges of globalization. Training officials, therefore, is an essential strategic decision, and will have significant impact on China’s future modes of administration and economic development.”

Chinese officials generally have a professional background, such as engineering and certain industry, which gives them an advantage, in the opinion of Lu Mai. The public administration skills that they lack are supplemented by the training that they subsequently put into practice.

The central government expects to maximize the effect of overseas training in ways that will benefit more officials. A summary report, therefore, is mandatory homework for every returned official. Harvard Project student case studies are compiled into volumes that are used as teaching material at Tsinghua University and other domestic training programs for Chinese officials.

China currently sends around 40,000 officials overseas for training each year, according to the Overseas Training Department of the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs statistics. Although workable assessment criteria on the effectiveness of overseas training programs have yet to be set up, Chinese government at various levels is agreed on the profound intangible effect of these programs.

As overseas training is costly, and many continue to express doubts as to its efficacy, the Chinese government selects its candidates with extreme care. Taking the Harvard Project as an example, candidates are required to have a bachelor degree and proficiency in English equivalent to University English Level Four or higher. Officials at and above the prefectural/bureau level must have work experience of no less than two years at their current post; and be no older than 45. The age restriction is relaxed for officials above the vice provincial/ministerial level.



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