The incursion in January of a Chinese spy balloon into U.S. airspace seemed to many observers like a bad miscalculation by Beijing. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had been scheduled to travel to China the following month, but the balloon incident led to the scrapping of the much-anticipated visit. Chinese leader Xi Jinping would have preferred to see diplomacy proceed as planned. Likely, he would not have sanctioned this operation had he known its consequences. He was mistaken if he believed the United States would overlook the incursion.
Authoritative sources inside the U.S. government, including senior Pentagon officials, suggest that the real culprit may have been a bureaucratic error. It is possible, for instance, that Xi approved the balloon reconnaissance program in general but did not know the particulars of this specific mission—and could not identify how it might undermine his immediate diplomatic priorities. This lack of control seems to belie the conventional image of Xi as a strongman with a tight grip on his lieutenants. After all, Xi does have a firm hold over the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). At the 20th National Party Congress last fall, for example, he appointed to prominent positions an array of party officials with whom he has close personal ties. But how could such a powerful ruler be unaware of, or lack quality information about, the potential fallout from a risky operation?
The fault lies in the institutional processes that inform decision-making in the Chinese government. Xi may be a strongman with unchallenged control of the party apparatus. Still, his decisions in shaping China’s foreign policy are only as good as the information he receives from his subordinates. Many bureaucrats who advise Xi and his predecessors are prone to mislead their superiors; others do not have access to all the information required to assemble a complete picture of a situation. For those reasons, the very structures that Xi relies on for his political survival—namely, the rules that make it costly for subordinates to push back against Xi’s conclusions and that limit coordination between the military and civilian arms of the state—are the same ones that lead to the production of bad advice. This habit of flawed decision-making in Beijing makes costly missteps more likely. If Xi is misled into a more drastic miscalculation than the spy balloon, it could have dangerous consequences for China and the world.
Brain, Not Brawn
The conventional understanding of Chinese policymaking holds that strong leaders can choose whatever foreign policy suits them, whereas weak leaders must bargain with the bureaucracy. Under strong rulers such as Mao Zedong, the bureaucracy had little influence over policy; it only implemented the decisions that came from above. The picture differed under comparatively weak Chinese leaders, such as Jiang Zemin, who led the country from 1989 to 2002, and his successor, Hu Jintao, who was in power from 2002 to 2012. These rulers always feared resistance or challenges from members of the elite. Under Jiang and Hu, bureaucrats could leverage their leaders’ sense of vulnerability to advance their parochial interests by pressuring their bosses to adopt particular policies.
In this reading of Chinese governance, famously labeled “fragmented authoritarianism” by the political scientists Kenneth Lieberthal and Michel Oksenberg, when the party’s supreme leader is weak, the country’s policy often reflects the narrow preferences of the most potent parts of the bureaucracy. This view also implies an obvious solution to the problem: a strong person who can put the bureaucracy in its place. If leaders rule uncontested, bureaucrats lack the political power to advance their particular agendas, much less resist leaders’ important decisions. As such, strong rulers keep narrow-minded bureaucrats from leading their country into costly miscalculations.
This view helps explain the conduct of the Chinese government when it comes to domestic issues, such as economic planning and environmental regulations. Still, it fails to characterize decision-making around issues of national security adequately. Chinese leaders, both strong and weak, have closely guarded the process by which crucial foreign policy matters are decided. As China’s first foreign minister, Zhou Enlai, famously noted, “There are no small matters in diplomacy.” No Chinese leader has chosen a foreign policy to appease the bureaucracy—nor have the most critical decisions in national security crises been made by anyone other than the supreme leader.
The traditional account also needs to explain why influential Chinese leaders have often made poor foreign policy choices. That is because more than strength alone is required to guarantee good policy. The information leaders use to make decisions can be unsound and guide them into costly errors.
The Cloud Of Unknowing
The CCP is a giant information machine. The bureaucracy exists to collect and process vast data so leaders can make decisions based on sound analysis. Leaders decide, but the reports and assessments of bureaucrats shape their choices. In short, the power of the bureaucracy lies in its ability to shape a leader’s thinking.
If bureaucratic power is fundamentally about information, then the institutional norms that govern the quality of the production and distribution of that information are essential. Ideally, these norms empower and incentivize bureaucrats to provide quality information. They encourage the appointment of bureaucrats with credentials and expertise, establish inclusive decision-making bodies that make it easier to relay reliable information to leaders and give bureaucrats a platform to share information and deliberate with one another. In reality, however, two types of institutional pathologies prevent this from happening.
One set of problems arises when institutional structures encourage bureaucrats to intentionally distort the truth or discourage them from speaking truth to power. In such cases, the information that leaders receive reflects what bureaucrats think leaders want to hear. Bureaucrats do not work hard to discover the world’s actual state; they work hard to figure out what their boss already thinks and wants to believe.
Such problems have led to devastating miscalculations. For instance, in the spring of 1969, Mao ambushed Soviet troops along China’s northeast border. Mao chose the counterintuitive strategy of “escalate to de-escalate,” aiming to lower tensions with the Soviet Union. Relations between the two countries had grown increasingly hostile since the Sino-Soviet split, and Mao began to worry, based on flimsy intelligence, about an impending Soviet attack. In Mao’s mind, a show of force would compel Moscow to rein in its details. But his strategy had the opposite effect. The ambush prompted the Soviets to push back in the northeast, open a new fighting sector along China’s northwestern border, and issue nuclear threats. Mao’s miscalculation emerged from an echo chamber. Amid the Cultural Revolution and its ruthless purges, few bureaucrats were willing to speak their minds to Mao.
A similar pattern was evident in China’s decision to invade Vietnam in February 1979 under the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping—a strong leader at the time of the war. In theory, the war aimed to “teach a lesson” to Vietnam, punishing the country for its recent occupation of Cambodia, which Vietnamese officials had done despite Chinese warnings. The war, however, backfired on China. The Chinese military fared poorly on the battlefield, convincing Vietnamese leaders they were in a solid position to repel their neighbor. As one senior Vietnamese official noted shortly after the fighting, Hanoi had taught Beijing “a lesson.”
China blundered into the war through poor decision-making. Important institutions—such as the Central Military Commission, the party’s mechanism for defense planning, and the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group, the party’s arm for diplomatic planning—that the Cultural Revolution had destroyed had yet to be repaired. As a result, military advisers who accurately forecasted the struggles China would face on the battlefield were reluctant to speak out against the campaign. Chinese diplomats provided assessments that they later acknowledged were overly optimistic. In short, the 1969 and 1979 conflicts illustrate how powerful Chinese leaders can miscalculate—and that they often do so because of inaccurate information.
Spy Planes And Hot Dogs
A different set of problems arises from norms pushing bureaucrats to provide leaders with information skewed toward a narrow way of seeing the world. Institutional restrictions on sharing across organizational silos block bureaucrats from accessing one another’s data. Siloing makes it difficult for generals, for instance, to see when military actions are unlikely to yield diplomatic concessions—and for diplomats to see when diplomatic demands exceed the country’s military capabilities. Worse still, siloing prevents bureaucracies from policing one another. Diplomats, for instance, cannot question the military’s recommendations if such information travels strictly up the stovepipe to the leader. This creates misaligned incentives: bureaucrats are tempted to provide biased information when they know it will not be double-checked.
These dynamics led Chinese leaders to miscalculate during several past national security crises. For instance, the 2001 EP-3 was concerned when Jiang chose to detain the crew of a U.S. reconnaissance plane after it collided with a Chinese fighter jet in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) next to Hainan Island. Jiang did not make this drastic decision under duress. He rejected even more hawkish recommendations, such as placing the crew on trial, likely because he believed such actions were too reckless.
Instead, Jiang detained the crew because he thought China could compel the Clinton administration to apologize for the collision. This hope made sense based on what his military advisers told him: the crash was caused by a sudden change in direction by the U.S. aircraft. If Washington were to blame, Jiang believed, the Americans would apologize. After all, the United States apologized in 1999 after it accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.
But the situation was different in 2001: China was to blame. Because Washington and Beijing had different understandings of the actions permissible in the EEZ, the United States routinely sent reconnaissance missions into this airspace, often intercepted by the Chinese military. In this episode, the Chinese pilot involved in the collision was hot-dogging the U.S. aircraft by undertaking risky aerial maneuvers. As a result, the United States stood firm. Although it made some half-hearted gestures expressing regret about the situation, it refused to capitulate to Beijing’s demands for an apology.
What is remarkable about the 2001 EP-3 crisis is how little support Jiang had in figuring out that the military had misled him. Available accounts suggest that the foreign ministry and civilian intelligence agencies did little to push back on the information the Chinese military provided early in the crisis. China’s institutions were deeply separated between military and civilian silos, which made it hard for diplomats and intelligence officials to correct what the military told the leader.
Strong and weak Chinese leaders face the challenge of determining whether the information they receive is accurate. Everyone has his lie-detecting methods. But bureaucrats who are either unwilling to deliver or incapable of providing precise information offer their superiors little support. Leaders must make decisions without the benefit of bureaucracies committed to refining and correcting one another’s work.
Xi’s Institutional Dilemma
Bureaucracies in all countries can commit these sins of commission and omission. But some tend to do so more than others. Many countries design institutions in ways that ensure that bureaucrats feel secure enough to speak truthfully. They establish mechanisms that make it easier for bureaucrats to share information, making it harder for them to lie to their bosses. Officials expect to face criticism and debate if their analysis is half-baked. But the system works only if bureaucrats feel safe from retribution for their assessments and if the system’s internal workings are transparent enough to give officials a sense of what their counterparts in other agencies are thinking. If siloed away from each other, bureaucrats cannot have productive arguments that generate better policy.
Xi’s dilemma—and the one all leaders in the People’s Republic of China have faced—is that the same processes that deliver inaccurate information also tend to help leaders subdue would-be political challengers. Appointing loyalists to vital bureaucratic posts and restricting information sharing among bureaucratic organizations ensure the bureaucracy does not grow too powerful. Enfeebled bureaucrats might not offer good information, but they are unlikely to support or lead a political challenge against the leader. Restricting information sharing and deliberation may produce poor advice in the long run, but it also ensures that the bureaucracy cannot oppose the leader in the short run.
This dilemma is more acute in foreign policy because the Chinese national security bureaucracy plays a vital role in a supreme leader’s political survival. In authoritarian regimes like China, leaders survive when they can dissuade and put down political challenges from elites and society more broadly. Leaders give themselves the best chance of perseverance when they firmly control the coercive arm of the state, such as the defense and intelligence bureaucracies. As Mao famously noted, political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.
The unfortunate reality is that bad institutional design can make for good politics. Chinese leaders politically profit from ensuring that the national security bureaucracy is firmly under the leader’s thumb. The structures that provided poor intelligence during China’s conflicts with the Soviet Union and Vietnam were part and parcel of a political strategy Mao pursued during the Cultural Revolution to guarantee that the bureaucracy could not challenge his chosen successor or deviate from his revolutionary path after his death. The delivery of incomplete information during the EP-3 crisis resulted from the political design intended to limit interaction between the Chinese military and other civilian organs of the state.
On The Verge Of Error
The implications of China’s institutional pathologies are profound. A future conflict between the United States and China is not inevitable. But a war could ensue if one or both sides miscalculate the costs and benefits of fighting. The same type of inaccurate reporting that, according to many news outlets, occurred in China during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic could spill over into national security decision-making. Xi’s senior defense and diplomatic advisers might feel it is politically impermissible to tell him the truth and end up claiming that China is more vital than they believe it to be. China could then charge headfirst into an invasion of Taiwan based on false optimism.
The good news is that Xi’s actions do not yet mirror the mistakes that produced China’s worst foreign policy miscalculations during the 1960s and 1970s when it was impossible or highly costly for senior advisers to speak candidly. In Xi’s China, this would require significant developments, including the suspension of key bodies such as the Foreign Affairs Commission, the removal of senior diplomatic and defense officials from these bodies, or the shifting of Xi’s decision-making into different forums in which senior diplomatic and security elites are not permitted.
The bad news is that Xi seems to have done little to address the siloing of the state’s civilian and military wings—the same siloing that produced China’s 2001 crisis with the United States. On the contrary, Xi has strengthened the power of the Central Military Commission and continued to exert unilateral control over the party’s military bureaucracy. This places tremendous pressure on Xi to put all the pieces together himself. And this imperative might help explain the balloon blunder: Xi may have approved a general policy for balloon reconnaissance, perhaps years ago, with limited debate about how such a policy could backfire in the future. The possibility of such miscalculations in the coming years should cause concern for U.S. policymakers. The Chinese military may tell Xi it is ready for war, and a catastrophe could ensue if the rest of the bureaucracy is institutionally prevented from checking the military’s math.