In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Central-Local Relations

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Official Documents/Sources
  • Cultural Perspective
  • The Center and the Minority Ethnic Group Autonomous Regions
  • The Center and the Hong Kong and Macau Special Administrative Regions

Chinese Studies Central-Local Relations
Yongnian Zheng, Cuifen Weng
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0091


According to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, the local administration is divided into three tiers: province, county, and township. In reality, however, it is a four-level system: province, prefecture, county, and township. China currently has thirty-four provincial-level administrative units, some of which are as large in size as a European country but with a larger population. The national constitution states that China is a unitary system. In reality, great discrepancies can be easily observed in almost every policy area between local policy implementation and the center’s policy mandates. Scholars have been greatly interested in how it is possible for a country of continental dimensions, inhabited by people who speak mutually unintelligible languages and who exhibit an amazing array of regional differences, to be organized in a unitary state and to be governed by one power center. The issue has become even more significant and the debate has widened since China’s economic reform and open door policy that began in the late 1970s. The rapid economic development since then has raised the question of whether the established institutions of central-local relations can accommodate such unprecedented economic growth and consequent sociopolitical changes. In the aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, many observers predicted an imminent Chinese collapse. The Chinese have often shown an unconcern toward the disunity of their state. The opening passage of the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo Yanyi) states: after a long separation, there is bound to be unity; after a long unity, there is bound to be separation (fen jiu bi he, he jiu bi fen 分久必合,合久必分). The author affirms that the cycle of unity and disunity seems inevitable in China. Counterarguments also exist, however, in asserting that integration, rather than disintegration, is a growing characteristic of the Chinese state given the fact that the Chinese leadership has actively adjusted the country’s institutions to cope with changing central-local relations. In response to the major politico-economic changes, research on China’s central-local relations has thrived since the 1990s, and much insightful analysis has been done to date. This article will provide a selected bibliography of some of the major works that have appeared on this subject. The focus is on the writings in the post-Mao era even though the article also covers some dated, but still important and relevant, publications.

General Overviews

Chung 1995, though dated, provides a comprehensive review of the literature on the topic, which will prove helpful for readers to quickly acquire a general picture of the research done in the period when central-local relations started to catch many researcher’s attention in the past-Mao era. Chung and Lam 2009 offers a historical and institutional overview of each of China’s nine local administrative levels. Zheng 2007 examines the structure and patterns of central-local relation, which the author characterizes as “de facto federalism.” Breslin 1996 looks at the major issues and trends of central-local political and economic relations in the 1980s during the early years of the reform and open door policy. Jia and Lin 1994 examines the evolution of central-local relations in different functional areas and localities. Li 2010 provides an up-to-date overview of the trends in central-local relations from the 1950s to the 2000s. Goodman and Segal 1994 provides an overview of the evolution of regionalism. All these works were written to reflect China’s changing central-local relations between the early 1980s, when the late Deng Xiaoping initiated rapid decentralization, and the mid-1990s, when Premier Zhu Rongji began to recentralize certain aspects of power. Qian 2001 includes a brief but insightful historical overview of changing central-local relations from the Han dynasty to the Qing dynasty. While this is a historical analysis, the book continues to be influential, particularly in Chinese-language circles.

  • Breslin, Shaun. China in the 1980s: Center-Province Relations in a Reforming Socialist State. London: Macmillan, 1996.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230371170

    Provides an overview of the major issues and trends in political and economic relations between the center and the provinces in the decade. The author argues that reform, which is characterized by rapid decentralization, has resulted in provincial autarky. The center’s contradictory goals of economic development and political control over the provinces are the source of the central-local conflicts.

  • Chung, Jae Ho. “Studies of Central-Provincial Relations in the People’s Republic of China: A Mid-term Appraisal.” The China Quarterly 142 (1995): 487–508.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0305741000035025

    A comprehensive review of the literature in terms of analytical perspectives, research designs, and issue areas. The author identifies both theoretical and methodological suggestions for future research. Although not up-to-date, it is still a very informative evaluation of the major works in the field, which burgeoned in the 1990s.

  • Chung, Jae Ho, and Tao-chiu Lam. China’s Local Administration: Traditions and Changes in the Sub-national Hierarchy. New York: Routledge, 2009.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203871065

    An informative study of different levels of government within the state hierarchy. The book consists of ten chapters, covering the nine local administrative levels in contemporary China. It provides a comprehensive examination of the historical evolution, political and economic functions, and vertical intergovernmental relations of each level of local administration.

  • Goodman, David S. G., and Gerald Segal, eds. China Deconstructs: Politics, Trade and Regionalism. London: Routledge, 1994.

    Although titled China Deconstructs, the edited volume actually demonstrates a process of economic and administrative reconfiguration along China’s regional lines. The book includes essays that provide an overview of the evolution of regionalism and the political economy of regionalism as well as case studies of the new economic regions and their interactions with the external environment.

  • Jia, Hao, and Zhimin Lin, eds. Changing Central-Local Relations in China: Reform and State Capacity. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1994.

    The edited volume comprehensively examines the process and key patterns of the transformation of China’s central-local relations. Consists of three parts: general overview of the process and key issues, changes in several functional areas (fiscal relations, rural economy, state and nonstate industrial sectors, and foreign trade), and regional differentiation; includes case studies (Guangdong and Shanghai).

  • Li, Linda Chelan. “Central-Local Relations in the People’s Republic of China: Trends, Processes and Impacts for Policy Implementation.” Public Administration and Development 30.3 (2010): 177–190.

    DOI: 10.1002/pad.573

    A brief overview of the trends in central-local relations from the 1950s to the 2000s. Divides the period into three phases according to the theme of central-local relations: centralization-decentralization (1950s–1980s), adjusting roles in the market (1980s–1990s), and public service demarcation (the 2000s onward).

  • Qian Mu 钱穆. Zhongguo Lidai Zhengzhi Deshi (中国历代政治得失). Shanghai: Sanlian Shudian, 2001.

    Based on the author’s lecture notes conducted in 1955, and published in Chinese. It was first published in Hong Kong in traditional characters in 1955. This is a simplified Chinese version. It is a brief yet extremely insightful overview of the political systems from the Han dynasty to the Qing dynasty. Central-local relations in each dynasty are examined. As a historical analysis, it remains of interest in Chinese academic circles.

  • Zheng, Yongnian. De Facto Federalism in China: Reforms and Dynamics of Central-Local Relations. Singapore: World Scientific, 2007.

    Provides an in-depth analysis of the structure and pattern of the relations between the center and several provinces in the coastal and the southwestern regions from an institutional perspective. The author characterizes China’s central-local relation as de facto federalism and identifies three institutions embedded in it, namely, coercion, bargaining, and reciprocity, and demonstrates how these institutions regulate central-local relations.

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