The China Quarterly


Counting Cadres: A Comparative View of the Size of China's Public Employment  *

Yuen Yuen Ang

University of Michigan. Email:


Is China's public bureaucracy overstaffed? To answer this basic question objectively, one needs to define public employment in the contemporary Chinese context; survey data sources available to measure public employment; and finally, compare China's public employment size with that of other countries. Using a variety of new sources, this article performs all three tasks. It also goes further to clarify the variance between bianzhi (formally established posts) and actual staffing size, as well as other permutations of the bianzhi system, especially chaobian (exceeding the bianzhi). A key finding is that China's net public employment per capita is not as large as often perceived; quite the contrary, it is one-third below the international mean. However, it is clear that the actual number of employees in the party-state bureaucracy has grown – and is still growing – steadily since reforms, despite repeated downsizing campaigns. Such expansion has been heavily concentrated at the sub-provincial levels and among shiye danwei (extra-bureaucracies).


  • size of government;
  • bureaucracy;
  • public employment;
  • overstaffing;
  • bianzhi ;
  • state capacity;
  • Chinese state statistics

Yuen Yuen Ang is assistant professor in international and public affairs at Columbia University. She studies the political economy of development, bureaucracies, state–business relations, and public finance in China. She is currently working on a book manuscript, based on her dissertation, tentatively titled, “The Bureau-Contracting State: Incentives, Rents, and Development in Local China.”


*  The author is grateful for comments on earlier drafts from Jean Oi, Andrew Walder and Alberto Diaz-Cayeros. Research for the article was supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation/ACLS Early Career Fellowships and the 1990 Institute-OYCF Research Grant, as well as the Graduate Research Opportunity Grant, O'Bie Shultz Dissertation Research Travel Grant, and East Asian Studies Summer Grant from Stanford University.