The dynamic role of governments in adopting policy innovations in China

Biao Huang and Felix Wiebrecht

Policy innovations and experiments have been considered a cornerstone of China’s economic rise in the past decades. However, the adoption of innovations by local governments is not always mandated by the central government, as one may expect in the case of a strong, centralised, and authoritarian state like China. Instead, higher-level governments often take a laissez-faire approach and merely sponsor some innovations without actively getting involved in the process of adoption. In our recent article in Policy & Politics, we aim to answer the question of why higher-level governments intervene proactively in local innovations in some cases but only offer their backing in others.

To facilitate our analysis of two typical cases in China of higher and lower government interactions in the innovation process, we introduce the concept of ‘innovation copyright’, a term commonly used in the private sector. Defined as the perceived ownership of the innovative idea, the concept helps us to understand higher-and lower-level governments’ expectations about innovations. For instance, when the higher-level government holds the innovation copyright, the local government may be relatively constrained in its choices, as it can only accept or decline a call to innovate. However, policy innovations led by the higher-level government are often successful and therefore are perceived as beneficial to adopt.

In addition to the theoretical explanation for the different behaviours of higher-level governments in the process of innovation adoption, our research also offers two practical implications for facilitating policy innovations. Firstly, noting that it may not always be suitable to mandate innovations even for authoritarian governments, instead we found that by incorporating policy bonuses, higher-level governments can effectively incentivise local governments to innovate. Even the announcement of a competition can provide an impetus for initiating necessary local reforms. In our case study, local governments themselves introduced supportive policies and built adequate local infrastructure prior to adoption of the innovative policy, specifically to meet the criteria set by the higher-level government.

Secondly, we show that, while local governments have the capacity to generate policy innovations (and, in our words, hold the innovation copyright), in politically centralised systems like China they are nevertheless dependent on the backing of the higher-level government. However, currently, there are no formal processes through which local governments can receive such formal support for innovations. Instead, as our second case study shows, local governments often have to resort to informal lobbying. Thus, developing an institutional pathway for local governments to seek approval from higher-level governments may encourage policy innovations.

We hope that the concept of innovation copyright can encourage further interesting debates about the inter-organisational interactions involved in the adoption of policy innovations across a range of varied contexts, for example multinational organisations and not-for-profit organisations. While our article focuses on the process of innovation adoption, future research could explore whether and how the copyright of innovation makes a difference to other stages of the innovation process such as their reinvention, persistence, and institutionalisation.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Huang, Biao; Wiebrecht, Felix (2021) ‘The dynamic role of governments in adopting policy innovations in China’,  Policy & Politics, DOI:

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