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Diversity and Distribution: Essays on Local Governance and Public Service Provision in Multiethnic China


Persistent inequality and poverty in ethnic minority areas have long been thorns in the side of the Chinese Communist Party. While coastal cities have grown at a rapid pace, life in minority areas has changed little since the onset of economic liberalization. At first blush, this is hardly surprising: ethnic minorities typically live in remote, mountainous areas, conditions that hardly lend themselves to rapid economic growth. But what makes the stagnation of minority areas particularly puzzling is the fact that it has occurred in spite of large-scale policy interventions designed to prevent it. Out of fear of the kind of ethnic unrest that occurred in Tibet in 2008 and Xinjiang in 2009, the central government has made investment in minority areas a clear priority, targeting domestic and foreign aid to these areas and granting them preferential access to subsidized loans, infrastructure development projects, and teacher training and recruitment programs, among others. And yet, these areas have remained poor—and poorly served by local governments—even as once comparably poor Han areas have grown.

This dissertation argues that local governance in multiethnic areas of China is plagued by a set of distinctive problems that lead to poor provision of public goods and services—a key component of the failure of these areas to develop. Social and institutional elements come together to produce public goods and services that benefit only those citizens who are already relatively advantaged, give officials little incentive to provide high-quality public services to the population as a whole, and make citizens reluctant to use the services that officials do provide. Several factors come together to produce these outcomes. First, the formal mechanisms for monitoring, promotion, and punishment of local officials in rural China work poorly in areas that are geographically remote or contain large minority populations. Mid-level officials in these areas are poorly supervised by officials at higher levels in the geographic- administrative hierarchy of the Party-state, and have little formal incentive to provide high-quality public goods to citizens as a result. When they do provide high-quality

services to citizens, they only have an incentive to serve those areas that are likely to be observed by higher-level officials, which places geographically central, Han areas at an advantage. Second, informal mechanisms of accountability operating through social networks, which are often effective at constraining local officials in Han areas, break down in ethnically diverse ones. The way that China’s ethnic representation policies are implemented impedes the formation of these networks in ethnically diverse areas. Furthermore, ethnic divisions in local leadership mean that even when citizens do try to use social ties to hold their coethnics in government accountable, officials are often unable to act in accordance with the wishes of their coethnics. And third, while non-state public service providers are often eager to work in minority areas with the specific intent of ameliorating inequalities in public service provision by the local state, they are highly dependent on the local state for access and information. Although relationships between service providers and the state can vary, nonstate providers’ dependence on the local state often means that they exacerbate rather than ameliorating existing spatial and ethnic inequalities. Local officials treat nonstate services as another resource to distribute in ways that maximize their own prospects for promotion.

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