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MA, Xiao. 2022. Localized Bargaining: The Political Economy of China’s High-speed Railway Program. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bingzhao Chang
p. 90-91

Full text

1The Chinese government has invested over 800 billion RMB (129.2 billion USD) every year since 2013 and built more than 35,000 kilometres of high-speed railways, which is twice as much as any other country in the world. Xiao Ma’s Localized Bargaining: The Political Economy of China’s High-speed Railway Program is a pioneering study focusing on this state-directed infrastructure program. By unpacking China’s Party-state hierarchies and the interaction between local governments and their superiors, the author demonstrates how institutions mediate public resource distribution.

2Investment distribution remains a vital problem in public infrastructure programs, as government intervention often undermines economic principles. Conventional wisdom identifies the models of “loyalty purchasing” and “technocratic solutions” in distributive politics. Ma, however, notes that these models with a top-down perspective neglect the problems of information asymmetry and uncredible commitment within the state apparatus. Moreover, prior scholarly work also takes it as a given that China’s administrative system is centralised, and most scholars overlooked local governments’ constant bargaining actions and respective strategies.

3According to Ma, Chinese localities (including municipalities and counties) play a more significant role than conventional wisdom acknowledges in the decision of many public issues, such as the allocation of high-speed railways and stations. His study refers to this as “localised bargaining,” in which localities use strategic actions to shape their superiors’ decision-making and extract more benefit for themselves. Furthermore, the author suggests that cities have different bargaining strategies based on their corresponding bargaining power (Chapter Two).

4To reduce the bias of experience, Ma uses qualitative analyses, based on information from news reports and interviews, to make assumptions and judgments, and the quantitative data collected from questionnaires and files further verify his conclusion. Specifically, the interviews with central bureaucrats show that there are many veto points in the cumbersome approval process of building high-speed railways. The fragmentation of authority in the central government provides bargaining opportunities for local authorities. The survey of 893 local officials suggests that localities also recognise the significance of efforts in bottom-up policy bargaining (Chapter Three). 

5However, bargaining power is unbalanced among different cities. Ma calculated the total number of times that each municipality was mentioned in the two recent waves of five-year plans (2011-2015 and 2016-2020). After considering certain properties for each city, such as GDP, population, revenue, and capital, Ma discovers that the municipality whose leader had a dual appointment in the provincial leadership (referred to as “the cardinal”) could acquire more bargaining power than other cities (“the clerics”) in procuring policy support from the province (Chapter Four). That means localities with greater bargaining power (including higher political status, more effort from local leaders, and some idiosyncratic opportunities) can obtain approvals more efficiently. To present effectiveness based on different bargaining power, Ma collected data on the duration of construction for 54 high-speed railways from 2004 to 2014. The data analysis showed that “cardinal” cities constructed their high-speed railways before other cities and at a faster pace. Furthermore, they were also able to build more stations within their jurisdictions (Chapter Five).

6For unprivileged cities, inadequate bargaining power did not reduce their appetite for attracting high-speed railway investment. For instance, in Linshui County, Sichuan Province, civic protests over the absence of high-speed railways and stations compelled the provincial government to reconsider the railway location. Local officials acquiesced to the mass mobilisation and transformed public pressure into bargaining power (Chapter Six). First-hand information about protests against government mergers in eastern county C also present the same kind of strategic action on the part of local officials. Ma developed the concept of consent instability to signify their actions, which I believe to be highly insightful. If consent instability is accepted, it will reverse many established statements about Chinese conservative bureaucracy. To increase the credibility of consent instability, Ma issued a questionnaire to 368 officials from around the country. The results from the questionnaire also prove that China’s bureaucrats are more likely to approve a request when they are put under pressure by the public (Chapter Six).

7From a traditional perspective, centralised planning in economic affairs (including infrastructure investment) is criticised for rigidity and despotism. In contrast, local bargaining provides another possibility, as bottom-up policy bargaining enables local preferences to be considered in national policymaking. This would explain why the authoritarian state, compared with tyranny, is more beneficial for the economy and society. Similarly, Ma has never concealed his theoretical ambition in this book, as he declares, “The majority of the book’s empirical evidence is situated in the context of China’s high-speed railway program, the argument and findings of the book could and should be extended to explain dynamics in other policy areas” (p. 34-5). Apart from describing an administrative phenomenon, Localized Bargaining presents an alternative lens to interpret the cohesion and resilience of the authoritarian political system in China and other similar states.

8However, although this book challenges readers’ understanding of authoritarian politics, some aspects of Ma’s study are not discussed sufficiently. First, considering the process of bargaining, many readers, including me, expect the author to use a story to introduce the effect of institutional and idiosyncratic factors in bargaining. But one should not be too demanding in this respect, as probing bureaucratic processes is not easy in any political context. Second, it would have been better if the author presented a competition for resources between two cities with similar bargaining power. To do this, he could have used data obtained from news reports, participant observations, or interviews. These examples would facilitate understanding the significance of local bargaining and make it more credible. Third, other factors that affect bargaining over the construction of high-speed railways, such as geographic location, should also have been considered in Ma’s study.

9Despite these minor defects, Ma’s book offers an insightful demonstration of localised bargaining, and thus has theoretical significance and current relevance. It is essential reading for those who want to understand China’s high-speed railway program and authoritarian politics. I recommend this book to scholars of social science and anyone interested in the current Chinese government.

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Bibliographical reference

Bingzhao Chang, MA, Xiao. 2022. Localized Bargaining: The Political Economy of China’s High-speed Railway Program. Oxford: Oxford University Press.”, China Perspectives, 133 | -1, 90-91.

Electronic reference

Bingzhao Chang, MA, Xiao. 2022. Localized Bargaining: The Political Economy of China’s High-speed Railway Program. Oxford: Oxford University Press.”, China Perspectives [Online], 133 | 2023, Online since 01 June 2023, connection on 02 October 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Bingzhao Chang

Bingzhao Chang is a PhD candidate at the School of Social and Behavioural Sciences, Nanjing University, 163 Xianlin Road, Qixia District, Nanjing, People’s Republic of China (

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The text and other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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