Ten Principles for a Rule-ordered Society

Professor Yan Tang, Research Director of the Center, has recently published a book Ten Principles for a Rule-ordered Society: Enhancing China’s Governing Capacity in China (Beijing: China Economic Publishing House, 2012).  The book was originally written in English and was translated into Chinese.  The current edition has the English and Chinese versions printed side by side.  We asked Professor Tang some questions about his book.

How did this book come about? What made you want to write on the topic?

I have always wanted to write a book that would be of interest to the general reader in China and combine what I know about modern social science with what I learned from reading Chinese history and studying contemporary Chinese issues.  Yet I thought I would write the book only after retirement.  A chance visit to Beijing changed my plan.

I visited Beijing in December 2010 at the invitation of the Beijing DeTao Masters Academy.  During the trip, I also visited the National Academy of Socialism and the National Academy of Governance.  In the latter, I delivered a lecture “Governance and Rule-ordered Society” to over a hundred government officials from all over China who were undergoing short-term training at the Academy.

The topic was slightly different from the one I originally prepared before I left for Beijing, which was about comparing the U.S. and China experiences on collaborative governance.  Because I arrived in Beijing a few days before my scheduled lecture at the National Academy of Governance, I had chances to discuss ideas I could cover in the lecture with friends over dinner.  One idea came up in the discussion; how to use rules effectively to solve policy and management problems—an issue that I have covered regularly in my class at USC.  My friends at the dinner in Beijing seemed to be quite interested as they all appreciated the difficulty of getting people to follow rules in China.

The dinner discussion subsequently led me to develop a new outline for my lecture at the National Academy of Governance that covered ten principles for strengthening China as a rule-ordered society.  My plan was to draw on ideas and examples I covered in my MPA class, and relate them to situations in China. My own views on rules have been shaped by the contemporary literature on institutional analysis, rooted primarily in economics and political science.

Since I wrote the book for the general readers in China, particularly those who are interested in improving the quality of governance in China, it does not explore the academic literature on institutional analysis explicitly, but most of the ideas covered in the book are rooted in that literature.  To make the book interesting to the general reader, I don’t go too deep into theoretical issues, but use as many real life examples as possible to illustrate my arguments.

Why is this an important subject?

As a new generation of leaders is set to take over power in China this coming year, governance reform has been a hot topic there.  It is widely acknowledged that China has been very successful in growing the economy in the past three decades, but less so in dealing with finer governance issues such as those related to resolving social conflicts, product safety, reducing social inequality, fighting corruption, improving social services, and more.   My book provides ideas about how to improve China’s governing capacity for addressing these finer issues.

What are the ten principles?

  • The difficulty for rule conformance is minimized.
  • Rules are made to be clear and easy to understand.
  • Informal rules are shaped to support formal rules.
  • Widespread societal expectations for rule conformance are created.
  • Enforcement is reasonable, fair, and consistent.
  • Rules are fitted to the characteristics and scale of the problem.
  • Rules and public decisions are made at a level that is closest to the community affected by them.
  • A facilitating framework exists for resolving conflicts when existing rules fail.
  • Credible constraints are in place to hold accountable those who make and enforce rules.
  • Rules are made to advance “self-interest rightly understood.”

What impact do you hope this book will have?

The book was written for policy makers and the general reader.  What I attempted to do in this book was not to write on purely abstract theories that are of no practical use, but to make my analysis as relevant to current problems in China as possible.  Yet I also recognize that one cannot undertake meaningful institutional and policy analysis without a coherent framework guiding one to ask the right questions and identify the most critical issues related to a problem.  This book does not offer any magic formula for solving any one specific problem, but I hope that it provides a perspective for people to come up with their own solutions to the governing problems they face using one or more of the ten principles for a rule-ordered society presented in this book.

What are some conclusions or insights that you think people would find most interesting or surprising?

One common complaint in China these days is the dominant influence of informal (hidden) rules on social, economic, and political behaviors/interactions.  Many see them as the foundations for corruption and social injustice.  In the book, I explain that the solution is not to eliminate all informal rules, but to shape informal rules and societal expectations such that they support formal rules and facilitate the development of mutually beneficial solutions to social problems.  To achieve this, it is important to not just rely on centralized control, but to develop more horizontal mechanisms for holding officials at different levels of government accountable to the constituencies they serve.  If governments can develop better formal rules and policies, and implement them in a reasonable and consistent way, ordinary people will be more motivated to develop and maintain informal rules to support formal rules.