China’s Transformation, Part 5. Directed improvisation

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This series of blog posts highlights lessons from one of the greatest transformative development success stories ever. It is also an extraordinary example of the deliberate application of complex adaptive systems concepts in political-economic or transformative development.

I wrote this particular post, the fifth in a series of ten, exactly one year ago, just as I stopped blogging for a long while due to a too-busy evaluation assignment and travel schedule. But perhaps it is now a particularly good time to publish it. We live in a time of supreme ignorance and extraordinary manipulation of societies; the blatant lies, twisted ‘facts’ and hatred that are being carefully curated against China demand counter-narratives and perspectives informed by solid evidence and insightful reasoning. Not everything about China is admirable - no country has that, and there are many books that highlight all that is "bad" in China - but there is certainly a vast amount that can be admired and learnt, both from what is good and from what is less so. We would be very short-sighted if we do not make use of the opportunity to gain from their experience.

One core principle directs much in my life: respectful engagement with, and learning from all cultures, all nations, all societies – until they prove that they are not worthy of my empathy and time.

And much more than most, evaluation professionals should excel in uncovering credible evidence and appreciating the importance of nuanced interpretations that come from integrating multiple perspectives on any matter, especially those that are of great significance in the world.

I have over the years closely followed China’s rise and engagement with the rest of the world. Based on some truly authoritative sources, I intend to highlight some of the most interesting of the many interconnected factors that contributed to China’s steep development trajectory. They hold important lessons for evaluation professionals who want to make contributions to the world at this crucial time.

I provide by no means the whole picture in any of the posts. I only wish to inspire interest and understanding. There is a wealth of detail and nuance from which we can learn; I can only touch the surface of this complicated, inspiring story.

Transformative development in action

Hong KongTransformative development at the level of a society or nation-state requires interconnected events or interventions, initiated in sequence and/or in parallel, that support deep, systemic change on a large scale in interconnected areas that together present a major development challenge. In the context of a nation-state it requires a steady upwards trajectory in key indicators of societal progress and well-being over a lengthy period (ideally SDG linked, but not necessarily). This is a massive challenge for any country.

And now, in the era of the Anthropocene, the indicators related to a society's relationship with nature has gained much more prominence than it had only a decade ago. This should now be part of the transformative development trajectory tracking - something that has been part of China's critical Five-Year Plans only since 2012 with a strong focus on creating an "Ecological Civilisation" - in which it has made very significant progress, incidentally, a little-known fact well hidden by the propaganda-prone Anglophone media.

Few nations are able to escape the dreaded poverty trap; even more unlikely, a country of more than a billion people. China’s economic development is an astounding achievement in the short period of four decades, highly unlikely to be repeated in our lifetime, or perhaps ever. In my previous four posts you will find some of the details of its progress on many different levels of societal development. It is also worthwhile to check its very significant advances in nearly all key indicators in global indexes.

My first visit to China was in 1992 when I was officially recorded as the first person with a South African passport ever to enter Tibet (I also became acquainted with Chinese culture a few years earlier when I lived in Taiwan for two six month periods). I have been back to the country a number of times since then. As I have tried to highlight through a few facts in the first few posts in this series, no-one who has visited China over the past few decades will ever question the astonishing scale and level of its transformation.

What makes for China’s dramatic success - despite daunting odds - since reforms began in 1978? Experts around the world have been debating how such transformation has been possible without any of the dominant development models regularly fed to the world as imperatives for success. Most vexing for many observers is that China does not have a Western-style democratic electoral system widely promoted as essential for ‘good governance’ and ‘development’. This fact poses a serious threat to dominant narratives about development that have been spread around the world.

As ‘experts’ flail around, arguing that China’s success is largely the result of Western-style neoliberal policies - opening markets and encouraging foreign direct investment - I am reminded of Michael Patton’s engaging 2018 review of Elizabeth Minnich’s The Evil of Banality: On the Life and Death Importance of Thinking. The arrogance and shallowness of thought and understanding among most of the so-called 'experts' on China - most of whom have never managed anything larger than at best a smallish organisation - about a country that has lifted 850 million people out of poverty in 40 years are truly breathtaking.

One key reason for success: decentralised experimentation or ‘directed improvisation’

'Decentralised experimentation' or 'directed improvisation' is one of the most interesting aspects of China’s transformative development, analysed in great detail in Yuen Yuen Ang’s widely acclaimed book, ‘How China Escaped the Poverty Trap’.

How China Escaped the Poverty TrapIt describes how China has applied these concepts long before adaptation and experimentation became popular in North-South cooperation through the emergence of practices such as problem-driven iterative adaptation (PDIA), adaptive management, adaptive policies, and social learning. In fact, examples of an approach based on experimentation and adaption already existed in imperial China. But over the past few decades the Chinese government has been extraordinarily successful at blending top-down authority and bottom-up participation in order to get adaptive results. Or, as Ang puts it, “bottom-up experience … bounded by top-down guidance”.

Ang considers directed improvisation as one of the most important reasons for China’s success over the past four decades. In the broadest of terms, it consists of the following:

Those in government responsible for reforms foster improvisation by inspiring officials at the ground level to tackle the problems of the poor.

They also fund possible solutions. They don’t dictate or try to control outcomes, or obsess about best practices or international benchmarks which “suffocate the generation of alternatives”.

Instead, they direct and influence processes: “The role of the central leadership is to construct a welcoming stage for improvisational responses from below. Then, local state actors enter the scene and create their own stories.” Apt here is the well-known Chinese phrase: “Shang mian you zhengce, Xia mian you dui ce” – “Up there you have your policy, down here we have our way of implementing it”. This is stated not in terms of defiance, but in terms of pragmatism. Such pragmatism also meant that even certain forms of corruption had to be allowed, given that it was at that time part of the fabric of society.

Essentially, 'directed improvisation' expresses a licence to play and experiment within the boundaries of cleverly set goals and targets and incentives. It might at a central level be based on sophisticated scenario modelling, but it does not use rigid notions of performance through 'theories of change' or 'results-based management' in the way these concepts are applied in North-South (aid) cooperation, for example. In a later post I will expand on key aspects where differences between these approaches make a real difference in performance.

The role of ‘evaluation’

There are layers of nuance in how directed improvisation works in practice as key part of China’s successful transformative development. The country's complex system of governance is key to its success, reflecting a finely balanced, interconnected and interdependent set of actors, societal values, capabilities, formal and informal incentives (including rent-seeking and graft), accountability measures, and more.

There are many aspects that distinguish the 50 million Chinese bureaucrats and support structures – five layers of officials from central to township level, plus extra-bureaucratic administrative and commercial extensions – from other bureaucracies around the world. Among others, local leaders are more capable than most due to a highly competitive selection and promotion system. They also seldom balk at doing what it takes, “even if controversial”, to fulfill stated financial and other targets expected from their responsibilities. As Ang notes, they behave literally like entrepreneurs, operating in a system that imitates a franchised corporation that merges hierarchical structures with high-powered incentives.

Over the past 40 years this governance system has had to deliver on sets of evolving concrete, quantitative evaluation targets, using a points system as measure in a well-designed and well-implemented system of accountability for performance. There are three types of targets, one of which is ‘veto targets’ where non-performance can override any achievement. Career, financial and reputational awards usually follow success among the leadership.

This is important; it is not only the targets that count, but also the process through which those responsible are held accountable. This is why China's central committee members must have a proven track record in running large states successfully before they can take up a position in the core leadership of the Party and the country.

Ang notes that initially the targets set were entirely economic, without the “softer” social and environmental goals, and there appears to have been a tight correlation between economic performance and promotion. As policy priorities evolved, she explains, in the 2000s a growing list of demands were added to performance targets. In particular, from the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010) onwards, carbon reduction and energy conservation targets were added, in some regions even as veto targets. Social stability also became increasingly important, which is a likely explanation for the hesitance of local officials to warn against an emerging COVID-19 epidemic without solid evidence.

So, in 1991, 18 targets were listed for local party and state leaders’ evaluation, all focused on economic development. In 2009, this had grown to 26 in six categories - economic development, livelihoods, social development, sustainable development, social harmony, and party and cadre discipline, with some targets difficult to measure.

Translating these targets to grassroots action meant that the list grew much longer. As Ang recently pointed out, China’s abandonment in 2020 of GDP targets is not new. For the last 20 years China has been steadily moving away from a fixation with growth to a variety of important non-economic goals. Yet the world hardly took notice.

While a large portion of China’s performance has to do with the structure and approach of its governance system - and with what  Kishore Mahbubani calls “one of the most intelligent governments in the world” - I touch here only on part of the incentives and evaluation system. In a later post I will discuss (limited) insights into how sophisticated scenario modelling and research and think-tank input support broad policy directions, and how successful experiments are identified and scaled.

Implications for evaluation professionals

While we certainly need to engage with ‘participatory planning’ or ‘co-creation’ or ‘collective action’ or ‘synergy’ or ‘adaptive management’ – the ideas that are now in vogue in narratives about transformative change and their evaluation – we also need to get some deeper insights. Despite the fact that China’s political and governance system cannot be replicated elsewhere, there is much that we can learn from the idea of directed improvisation, and from its execution. I will discuss some of these implications in a later post. Here, just briefly two main reasons why we need to take note:

One, it reinforces the call for evaluation professionals to harness systems thinking and complexity concepts to help understand how change happens, how to evaluate from this perspective, and what this might mean for the ideologies, value systems and technical approaches with which we support transformative development.

Two, this one instance starts to demonstrate that development narratives and models based on conventional wisdoms are not necessarily appropriate or the best way to achieve development success. Yet we apply them often unthinkingly in our theories of change. Evaluation professionals need an open mind, and reflect on how to prevent being trapped into unquestioningly acceptance of dominant narratives and models, and to make an effort to interrogate situations critically – including what makes for “good governance”, the values and measures that define it, and the role that evaluation can play in transformative development.

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3 thoughts on “China’s Transformation, Part 5. Directed improvisation”

  1. Dear Zenda, I follow your blog with pleasure – always a good read. This last one on China’s development I find a bit confusing, probably because I know so little about the country but maybe also because I measure development as a process for participation in decisions that affect one’s life more than as a means for improved livelihoods. I see no such participatory process in China’s system with its party system … but I acknowledge that I know too little to know better.

    I have a question about transformative evaluation, namely how to apply it in the assignments we normally get from UN, EU or state agencies with rigid ToRs. For example, I led recently a complex evaluation of a large EU/DFID/USAID funded program (Euro 170 mill) including 6 projects which covered policy, advocacy for system development and people behaviour changes in order to mitigate malnutrition among children. An excelent opportunity for a transformative evaluation I thought. However, despite the program’s rather holistic approach and ToC the focus of the evaluation ToR was on immediate results, and the agencies’ feedback to the report was mainly a dispute of the validity of findings that the concerned Government agencies were not really committed. A whole chapter about the program’s overall achievement (or better said non-achievement) in realising a transformation in developing the governance systems relating to malnutrition recieved no comment. I interpreted this not as agreement with the content of the chapter but more as a sign that the clients did not value such a perspective, although I hope to have misread this. Anyway, my question is how can we evaluators bypass rigid ToRs without being forced in endless revisions of our reports by clients.

    1. John, thank you for raising two very important issues. I will write in a later post about the nature and extent of consultation/participation in China, while recognising not only the complexities in such a large country with its very different, very rich and old culture, but also how little one can explain in a few words, and how limited everyone is in their interpretation when they are not Chinese AND living in China (even specialists like Yuen Yuen Ang has that shortcoming as she is from Singapore, I believe, and lives in the US). The second issue relates to the fact that working with systems, complexity and transformation requires completely new ways of thinking and working – a real paradigm shift – and most professionals are not ready for that, or informed enough to engage. Much of North-South cooperation/aid is driven by political and other motives, with accountability to commissioners and/or their political masters who have agendas that do not necessarily strive to do the best for much-needed development and transformative changes. We all have to work out where we can best contribute, educate ourselves about how such shifts in practice can best be done even in small ways (it is not easy), and work with early adopters to demonstrate value in new approaches. Essentially, this goes against “the system” (how development and evaluation are funded at the moment), and real change in this system will likely take a long time.

    2. John, to add to my earlier comment: building aspects into proposals and good conversations with commissioners during the contracting period can help shape the evaluation assignment in the direction you think important for transformative change. But it takes ongoing engagement to overcome comfort zones, esp. where people feel threatened. Also, when interventions or organisations were not designed or adapted with transformative change in mind, it is difficult to bring it in after the fact. Nevertheless, raising awareness through such discussions, and bringing such thinking into findings even on a small scale can help. You never know exactly where the seeds you sow might land.

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