Political Parties Sub-nationalism

Centre-Province Relations in Contemporary China


China has a total of 31 administrative units directly below the central government in Beijing – 22 provinces, five autonomous regions and four provincial-level cities – all of equal rank in the administrative hierarchy, if not always in political terms. In addition, Hong Kong and Macao form separate Special Administrative Regions. While Chinese provinces do not have powers that inherently belong to them by law and whatever powers they exercise are delegated from the centre, they constantly lobby the centre for resources and for greater flexibility in formulating and implementing policy. Indeed, flexibility is a hallmark of Chinese political processes and institutions.
The Constitution of China adopted in December 1982 is clear in stating that “[t]he People’s Republic of China is a unitary multi-national state built up jointly by the people of all its nationalities” but China’s history has shown that to ensure a functioning national polity, the province needed to exercise sufficient authority to institutionalize and to oversee local government. While there is a need for strong state capacity it has to exist as much at the local level as at the central level. Provinces are crucial to building up state institutional capacity at the local level. While each new regime in Chinese history tried, on assuming power, to centralize power and limit provincial autonomy, it eventually had to seek the assistance of provincial governments to maintain the credibility of the government at the centre. Centre-province relations, before the communist revolution in China and since, have thus followed a pattern of centralization and decentralization.

an advertisement for Chengdu at Beijing airport
an advertisement for Chengdu at Beijing airport

Stronger and more autonomous provincial economies have in the reform era, led to increasingly assertive provincial governments but to assume this has come entirely at the expense of the central government is a mistake. Increased provincial assertion could also mean increased inter-provincial competition or intra-provincial competition, necessitating a strong central government that can play the role of arbitrator. Indeed, ties between the centre and the provinces have seen greater institutionalization due to structural changes introduced during the reform era but this does not imply that the central government has become more powerful vis-à-vis the provinces or vice-versa. Meanwhile, there are additional trends in China that have implications for the administrative, economic and political structure of China. These include the rise of trans-provincial economic groupings such as the Yantze River Delta and the Pearl River Delta regions as also the rise of major cities as powerful political and economic actors in their own right. Centre-province relations in China are therefore, headed towards still greater complexity.

For full article, see Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Centre-Province Relations in China: Ebbs and Flows’, in C. V. Ranganathan and Sanjeev Kumar (eds), The 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China: A Major Turning Point for China (New Delhi: Pentagon Press, June 2013), 117-131.

Comparative Politics Sub-nationalism

The Rise of China’s Cities

Original Presentation: “China’s Cities: New Centres of Political Power and Economic Growth,” Session on “Emerging Trends in China Studies: Politics & International Relations,” 3rd All India Conference of China Studies, organized by the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi and Hariprasanna Biswas Centre for India-China Cultural Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, 20-21 (20) December 2010.


Summary: Centre-province relations in China have for some time now been a major focus of Chinese studies around the world, including in India. Very few however, attribute much agency to the provinces themselves except in the form of a source of fissiparous tendencies that include challenging the centre’s authority over issues of political self-interest and/or identity. However, provinces also have often tangled with the central government over economic policies and goods and in the post-reforms China, these have been a very important area of conflict between Beijing and the provinces. Many provinces have for example, objected to central government policies that impose excessive fiscal demands on them, while others have demanded preferential policies that would allow them to development their economies faster or to protect jobs and industries in their jurisdictions.

Even as these contestations have continued, China’s cities have risen as sites of power and opportunity in recent decades with huge potential impact on the territorial and administrative integrity of the provinces. Preliminary findings on the rise of China’s cities suggest that the central government has encouraged this new contest between provinces and their cities as a way of keeping provincial authorities under control in some instances. There is, meanwhile, also an economic logic driving the growth of cities in China, namely one of encouraging the development of economic growth hubs in the weaker and less developed provinces.