How Beijing Commands: how the Communist Party combines Ambiguity and Clarity to Maximum Effect

March 30, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

Yuen Yuen Ang is a rising star in International Development scholarship. Understandably, she doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed as ‘the China person’ despite her brilliant book, How China Escaped the Poverty Trap, and has written more global works on corruption, among other things. But in a recent paper, she returns to the topic of China – analysing the combination of vagueness/ambiguity v clarity in the Communist Party’s public statements, and it’s fascinating.

Academics spend a lot of time demanding definitions and precision, so find the deliberate use of vagueness in statements such as Deng Xiaoping’s slogan, “Socialism with Chinese characteristics,” baffling/infuriating. But actually, it turns out they are a crucial part (but only one part) of China’s rise.

Here’s the abstract

‘In China’s one-party bureaucracy, central directives issued by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council are the most important instrument of formal policy communication, yet their language has rarely been studied. This study highlights three politically salient varieties of directives: grey (ambiguous about what can or cannot be done), black (clearly states what can be done), and red (clearly states what cannot be done). Grey directives encourage flexible policy implementation and experimentation, black ones strongly endorse and thereby scale up particular initiatives, while red ones forbid certain actions. Together, this mixture of ambiguous and clear directives forms a system of adaptive policy communication. Using automated text analysis, I classify nearly 5,000 central directives issued from 1978 through 2017 into the categories of grey, black, and red. This first-of-its-kind measurement effort yields new insights into the patterns and evolution of central commands from Deng to Xi.’

Here are her examples of grey, black and red directives:

Grey. In 1979, the State Council issued Directive No. 1, “Guidelines on the Development of Commune and Brigade Enterprises,” a foundational directive that jumpstarted a process of rural industrialization in the 1980s. This directive neither endorsed nor forbade the establishment of collective enterprises (initially known as commune and brigade enterprises). Instead, it urged local governments to be “self-independent” and explore solutions “according to local conditions” and “based on need and feasibility,” provided that they abide by socialist principles. Such language encouraged local officials in parts of China to experiment cautiously with collective enterprises.

Black. The economic success of collective enterprises caught the central leadership, including Deng Xiaoping, by surprise. Once the State Council was convinced that collective enterprises worked, it elevated the initiative to a national policy by issuing a black directive: Directive No. 1, “Guidelines on Rural Work in 1984.” This directive proclaimed in affirmative language: “Collective enterprises are part of the collective economy, so we should help refine and improve them.” Afterward, the number of collective enterprises jumped dramatically nationwide—in other words, the experiment scaled up. In China, clearly worded edicts are powerful amplifiers of outcomes, for better or worse.

Red. In 2011 the State Council issued Directive No. 1, “Decision on Accelerating the Regulation of Water Consumption.” This directive drew a bright “red line” of 670 billion cubic metres of water for total annual consumption; this was translated into quotas that 19 Axelrod and Cohen 1999, 32. 20 Ang 2016, 54; Axelrod and Cohen 1999, 33. 21 Local tailoring and experiments generate feedback that subsequently inform central authorities as to whether they should elevate an initiative to a national policy. 22 These examples draw from Ang 2016, 88–100. Electronic copy available at: 5 were distributed by region, industry, and product. Compliance with these quotas was incorporated into officials’ evaluations and violations of this red-line policy would incur punishments. Red directives are meant to be clear and firm, with little or no wiggle room.’

She goes on to analyse which topics attract different colour directives. She finds “New industries”, like e-commerce, ride-hailing, big data, and artificial intelligence, attract the highest proportion of grey directives, as the government tries to ‘cross the river by feeling the stones’.

Policies in the domain of “reform and opening” (which includes trade liberalization, attracting foreign direct investment, agricultural liberalization, and regional development plans) have the highest share of black directives. She doesn’t say so, but my guess is that these policies are most likely to be opposed by vested interests, so need to be pushed without any ambiguity.

Red Directives that clearly spell out restrictions are most prevalent in public security, banking and securities, and land management  – all areas that threaten the political and social stability so prized by the CP.

Most surprising, given what we read about China, is how the balance between grey, black and red directives have changed over time. I’d expected Xi to be the least given to ambiguity, but it’s the exact opposite:

‘The share of grey directives has increased over time and peaked in 2015 during Xi’s tenure, which may be surprising given his authoritarian turn. Black directives were most dominant under Deng. Red directives peaked under Jiang’s administration.’

Ang concludes that ‘Xi’s authoritarian turn, at least up until 2017, may have coexisted with selective adaptive governance’ and cites various speeches of Xi exhorting officials to experiment and, yes, cross the river by feeling the stones.

Remember, the analysis only goes up to 2017, so I imagine there will be a lot more red in the mix since then, but still, Xi’s commitment to improvisation is striking.

I love the way she has taken forward systems thinking in understanding the role of the CP in China’s take-off. In a country of this size and complexity, it turns out that ambiguity (grey directives) can play a constructive role in encouraging exploration and innovation, as she argued in How China Escaped the Poverty Trap, but only in combination with clearer stop/go signals (red and black), with the relative weight determined by the issue and the political context. Brilliant.

March 30, 2023
Duncan Green


  1. Many thanks for sharing this Duncan. I have downloaded the paper for further study. It is fascinating stuff.

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