Before the guideline was released, many provincial governments had already either issued provincial action plans or statements on RCEP implementation based on their respective conditions. These local actions shed critical light on the national guideline.
Although China is by its constitution is a unitary and monothetic state, the fragmentation, bargaining and inter-dependent relationships among ministries and between the central government and local governments are essential to its governance. In a 1988 book, University of Michigan political scientists Kenneth Lieberthal and the late Michel Oksenberg used the term “fragmented structure of authority” or “fragmented authoritarianism” to describe how negotiation and consensus building among different state agencies, horizontally and vertically, shape policy in China.
Meanwhile, in a book published in 2007, Zheng Yongnian, political scientist at National University of Singapore from 2008 to 2020 and now at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, pays special attention to the relationship between China’s central and provincial governments. He characterizes this relationship as “de facto federalism” and notes that the interaction between the center and the provinces is marked by coercion, bargaining and reciprocity. Zheng reckons that local governments exclusively handle most economic matters. Even though there are policies made by the center, their implementation is left to local governments. The central government, therefore, needs to consult the provinces during the formulation of policy.
Other scholars have made similar observations. In his 2013 book, Tim Summers of the Chinese University of Hong Kong explained that before the central government officially positioned Yunnan as the country’s “bridgehead” to South and Southeast Asia, the province’s government had already proposed ideas and policies to drive that goal. Recent studies on Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s signature foreign economic policy – the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – underscore the importance of provincial governments. In their 2019 paper, Lee Jones of Queen Mary University of London and Zeng Jinghan of Lancaster University argue that the BRI is a loose policy envelop, “whose parameters and implementation are shaped by internal struggles for power and resources.” In an article the same year, Zeng focuses on Jiangsu to illustrate how provincial and local governments influence the formation of the central government’s BRI guidelines. Given these theoretical frameworks and empirical analyses, it is necessary to look into provincial governments’ actions on RCEP implementation as these provided important references for China’s central government in the drafting of the national guideline.
Among the RCEP implementation plans published are ones release by seven provinces and municipalities: Shandong, Tianjin, Yunnan, Fujian, Zhejiang, Jilin and Guangxi. Henan and Shaanxi have announced strategies but these have not been made available to the public. Guangdong has announced only what it aims to do in agriculture. The rest of provinces, while they have not issued RCEP roadmaps, have mentioned some of their ideas. A review of both written and oral statements by various Chinese provincial governments indicates several common features.
First, merchandise trade, especially goods in agriculture and electronics, are highlighted by different provincial governments. For instance, Guangdong announced 10 actions to align with RCEP opportunities in agriculture, including the cultivation of fresh talent and the building up of more platforms such as a dedicated international purchasing and trading center, a pilot zone for Guangdong’s foreign cooperation, a conference on development, and expanded supporting public services.