Ambiguity and Clarity in China’s Adaptive Policy Communication

The China Quarterly

18 Pages Posted: 15 Sep 2022 Last revised: 23 Sep 2023

Date Written: August 26, 2022


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 selected 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 Xiaoping to Xi Jinping.

Keywords: China, bureaucracy, policy communication, adaptive, ambiguity, authoritarian lawmaking, automated text analysis

Suggested Citation

Ang, Yuen Yuen, Ambiguity and Clarity in China’s Adaptive Policy Communication (August 26, 2022). The China Quarterly, Available at SSRN:

Yuen Yuen Ang (Contact Author)

Johns Hopkins University ( email )

Baltimore, MD 20036-1984
United States

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