China Experiments

From Local Innovations to National Reform

All societies face a key question: how to empower governments to perform essential governmental functions while constraining the arbitrary exercise of power. This balance, always in flux, is particularly fluid in today’s China. This insightful book examines the changing relationship between that state and its society, as demonstrated by numerous experiments in governance at subnational levels, and explores the implications for China’s future political trajectory.

Ann Florini, Hairong Lai, and Yeling Tan set their analysis at the level of townships and counties, investigating the striking diversity of China’s exploration into different governance tools and comparing these experiments with developments and debates elsewhere in the world. China Experiments draws on multiple cases of innovation to show how local authorities are breaking down traditional models of governance in responding to the challenges posed by the rapid transformations taking place across China’s economy and society. The book thus differs from others on China that focus on dynamics taking place at the elite level in Beijing, and is unique in its broad but detailed, empirically grounded analysis.

The introduction examines China’s changing governance architecture and raises key overarching questions. It addresses the motivations behind the wide variety of experiments underway by which authorities are trying to adapt local governance structures to meet new demands. Chapters 2–5 then explore each type of innovation in detail, from administrative streamlining and elections to partnerships in civil society and transparency measures. Each chapter explains the importance of the experiment in terms of implications for governance and draws upon specific case studies. The final chapter considers what these growing numbers of experiments add up to, whether China is headed towards a stronger more resilient authoritarianism or evolving towards its own version of democracy, and suggests a series of criteria by which China’s political trajectory can be assessed.


  1. China at a Crossroads
  2. Streamlining the State
  3. The Evolution of Voting Mechanisms
  4. Civil Society
  5. From Local Experiments to National Rules: China Lets the Sunshine In
  6. Where is China Going?

Praise for the book:

"Radical experimentation is the secret behind China’s extraordinary rise over the last generation. This fascinating book shows China in a new light as a vast laboratory where different social, political, and economic policies are tested and compete for the attention of the leadership. It is required reading for anyone who wants to understand China as it enters a new phase in its political, economic, and social development."
—Mark Leonard, director, European Council on Foreign Relations

"Florini, Lai, and Tan deliver a thoughtful account of the transformations in China occurring through local experimentation in four key areas of political reform— bureaucracy, electoral institutions, civil society organizations, and government transparency. They shed new light on the process of policy innovation and tackle the question of whether such innovations are likely to reinforce Communist Party rule or lead to greater democratization. An informative and well-written book."
—Lily Tsai, Associate Professor of Political Science, MIT

"There are few more important questions in the world today than the political future of China. This admirable book helps the reader to understand the political and administrative changes which are taking place there. The analysis combines deep knowledge with balance and clarity. It is a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary China."
—Tommy Koh, chairman, Centre for International Law, and rector, Tembusu College, National University of Singapore

"China Experiments is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand why this one-party giant has not collapsed and in what political directions China may head. Florini, Lai, and Tan show how bottom-up innovative institutional reforms have introduced powerful dynamics into the country’s political system. This is a useful guide for the West in formulating its policies toward China, a country which is frequently perceived as a threat."
—Zheng Yongnian, professor and director, East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore