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From Administrative Science to Chinese Statecraft: The Local Governance of Central Politics School and Its Political Modernity, 1927-1945


The present dissertation deals with how a specific kind of modern political discourse and practice, which was associated with an American style approach to public administration, was introduced, experienced, and then adapted during the 1930s and 1940s in China. The research focuses on local officials who graduated from the Central Politics School, an institution established by the Nationalist Party to train professional public administrators. These individuals were supposed to modernize the entire system of Chinese local governance, making it more rational by bringing it inline with the precepts of scientific knowledge and the scientific method. The actions of the school’s graduates in various counties expose the failure of orthodox public administration methods to deal effectively with Chinese political reality, due to a tendency to underestimate the importance of variable human factors. It was, ironically, only when some of the school’s best former students broke with the precepts of their training and use innovative strategies, which took local realities into account and made use of ideas derived from China’s own statecraft traditions, that they achieved success. This dissertation thus suggests that researchers need to pay more attention in future to Chinese statecraft and its assumptions regarding the importance of sensitivity to human nature and variability, as well as imported ideas concerning rationality and scientific methods, when trying to understand trends in Chinese politics and governance. Moreover, the historical meaning of the rise and deviation of public administration is by no means a story only of frustrated modernization or periodic revivals of “tradition.” Rather, it represents an important case study of how non-scientific indigenous resources are deployed in the face of drives in settings outside the West to impose a form of political modernity, which has the potential to overcome the problems insurmountable in the current political conceptual framework.

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