Comparing the Bureaucratic Art of Non-Action and the Classical Chinese Concept of Wuwei (無為)

In this post, I would like to explore the bureaucratic art of non-action with the classical Chinese concept of 無為 wuwei (often translated as non-action). As this is an informal, yet exploratory post, I will write this in a light-hearted and enjoyable manner.

The Art of Bureaucratic Non-Action

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with a leading neuro-scientist from Japan who works closely with the Japanese government. He mentioned an interesting oddity about the Japanese state bureaucracy:

“Whenever a disaster or major problem arises in Japan, the state bureaucracy will study the issue, and almost all the time, their conclusion will be: DO NOTHING. Simply because these issues can resolve on their own. Very rarely will you find actual action coming from the bureaucracy. But in those rare moments where the state bureaucracy sees it necessary to act, they will act swiftly and resolve the issue quickly.”

(As a disclaimer on Fukushima, he added: The situation was in a mess because politicians decided to do something when the bureaucracy’s recommended action was to do nothing. In which case, they made things worse.)

Well, apparently doing nothing is a feature that is not unique to Japan’s bureaucracy. In fact, bureaucratic non-action seems to be a universal art practised by bureaucrats all over the world. Of course, some state bureaucracies do it genuinely because they realise the best solution is non-action, while others simply avoid taking responsibility thus leading to inaction. We should discern the differences between the two and not lump them both together.

But is non-action ever a good bureaucratic decision?

From the perspective of the general public it doesn’t always seem that way. When the state appears to be doing nothing, it is hard for the general public to discern if it is genuine non-action (a decision to not act as the best approach to the matter after heavily investigating the problem), or simply inaction due to corruption or inefficiency. Of course, if the decision is for non-action, the bureaucrats are sometimes caught in a difficult position. Who would believe you if you were to appear before the media and declare that the best solution is to do nothing?

“Yes, we have studied the problem and we have decided that we will do absolutely nothing! We recognise that there is a problem. Everyone, including myself, is affected. But we will do nothing because there is no better solution in this situation than to not do anything. If we did something, we’d only make it worse. So trust us when we say: we’re not going to do anything, it’s the best course of action. We aren’t excusing ourselves for being lazy. Really!”

Would you buy such an honest statement (if it were genuinely the case)?

There would be a great drop in public confidence.

So often, the approach taken by many bureaucrats would either be to stay silent or to generate a lot of noise.

[Interestingly, I was told that in Singapore, the state bureaucracy must always act. It’s an official policy. Whenever a crisis or major complain arises, the bureaucracy must show to its people that it is doing something. However, I realised upon further reflection that this isn’t necessarily true. Sometimes, though there is an official response both in words and actions, but they’re mostly symbolic and aren’t meant to actually treat the issue. If anything, it is what we Singaporeans refer to as “wayang”. “Wayang” comes from the Malay word referring to a theatre performance. But in this context, it means more like putting on a show, a pretense. If anything, it is a much needed pretense that symbolically shows that the bureaucracy is aware of the problem and isn’t just sitting on it with inaction. So while everyone is distracted with the symbolic action or “wayang”, the bureaucracy is able to allow non-action to resolve the issue. Personally, I think that’s a brilliant move.]

But back to the question: is non-action ever a good bureaucratic decision?

I’ve explored this issue before in a different context (see Some Thoughts on the Classical Chinese Concept of “Wuwei” (Non-Action) and the Concept of Emergent Self-Order in Complexity Science). But I’ll re-frame it here for greater relevance:

Sometimes non-action is required because either the time isn’t right to act, and/or the appropriate means to act is lacking, and most importantly, proceeding forward would bring about more harm than good. In which case, one can only wait for the right time, or to wait until the right resources are available.

Other times, non-action is required because certain problems can be resolved on their own when left alone. After all, not every problem requires a helping hand from the government. At times, it is best to leave it to other parties to resolve it themselves. At times, self-order can emerge from the chaos, and people, through their interactions with one another, will eventually resolve the matter on their own as the situation develops. In such cases, it is important to recognise the times where state intervention could prevent the solution from resolving on its own.

But of course, there is the worry: what if things don’t resolve on their own as hoped? What if the people do not behave as expected and the situation worsens? Wouldn’t it then be too late to act?

I do think that these questions are very unfair and problematic. Sure, anyone who is concerned will be inclined to ask questions like this for assurance. But that’s the problem, these questions are seeking assurance and demanding certainty where certainty is lacking. You could pose similar unfair questions towards any positive course of action, and fail to yield a satisfying answer anyway, for example: What if the selected course of action doesn’t work? What if people will not follow according to the plan, thus worsening the situation? Or what if even if they follow it, they make the situation worse?

Anyone coming up with a positive course of action would be just as incapable of answering these questions satisfyingly as the questions of concerned posed earlier. So yes, they’re unfair questions and aren’t constructive in the discourse.


The Classical Chinese Concept of Wuwei (Non-Action) and its Relation to Bureaucratic Non-Action

Wuwei (無為) is often translated as “non-action.” It is also translated as “non-deliberate action” and “effortless action.” I prefer to use “non-action” because it keeps the aspect of “doing nothing,” yet is vague enough to incorporate both “non-deliberate action” and “effortless action.”

It is interesting to note that wuwei is often presented as the ideal course of action in classical Chinese thought. Wuwei appears for the first time, not in Daoist texts, but in the Analects of Confucius (15.5), where Confucius describes the ancient sage-king, Shun, who governed efficiently with wuwei. Shun did nothing but simply occupied his royal seat, reverently facing South (the ritual position that emperors had to face).

In the Forbidden City in China, there are two words written on top of the Qing Emperor's royal seat: wuwei. (Original image taken from: )
In the Forbidden City in China, there are two words written on top of the Qing Emperor’s royal seat: wuwei.
(Original image taken from: )

Wuwei is always better than its opposite, youwei (actual action, positive action), because wuwei is the least expensive option, not just in terms of state resources and manpower, but also mentally and physically on the level of the individual. It is precisely because you spend the least amount of resources dealing with a problem that you thus have more than sufficient resources to recover and dedicate it to other matters. In doing so, you are never busy fighting with fire, but always at an advantageous position.

There are various ways to understand wuwei (in relation to bureaucratic action): (1) wuwei as effortless action (or at least minimal expenditure of effort), and (2) wuwei as truly meaning non-action, not doing anything at all.

Before I proceed, I should add that with the exception of Hanfeizi, the early thinkers did not discuss wuwei with regards to a bureaucracy. Whatever I present below are extrapolations of wuwei into the area of bureaucratic action/non-action based on my understanding of the concept.

1. Wuwei as Effortless Action (or Minimal Expenditure of Effort)

One way of understanding wuwei is simply as nipping the problem in the bud before it blossoms. Before a potential problem grows bigger, it is better to stop it there and then. Don’t wait before it grows into a mammoth problem, in which case it would be far too difficult and expensive to resolve the matter.

Sunzi, in his Art of War, says that the best battles are won without fighting. Resolve the matter while it is still small and easy to resolve. In doing so, there are no losses, no one dies, no resources are wasted. The state is preserved and there is no need to waste any resources to rebuild one’s army or state. War should only be the last resort when conflict is inevitable. Yet even in war, Sunzi advocates an wuwei approach to fighting: spend the least effort, minimise expenditure of resources and minimise losses. To do that, one must study both natural patterns and social patterns, see how processes – naturally, social and psychological – unfold over the course of time, so that one can ride on those processes (e.g. exploit certain natural processes, or exploit/manipulate the psychology/sociology of the enemy and his army) to attain victory with the least expense

Hanfeizi’s understanding of wuwei flows along the same line of thought. In order to rule with wuwei, and prevent problems from growing into unsolvable monsters, one must establish a well-grounded system of rules and policies, a system of rewards and punishments, and appoint reliable competent people whom you can trust. When such a system is in place, problems can be resolved almost automatically by the appointed people. People will be motivated to act in certain ways (that don’t cause trouble), and deterred from acting in problematic ways. Thus, the ruler lets the institutions and the appointed people run the show like clockwork, thereby ruling with minimal effort.

In the cases above, the minimal effort is enjoyed over a long term only after a decent amount of effort is invested at the beginning.

In the context of bureaucracies, wuwei would not be one that is visible to the general public, as a lot of the early nipping-in-the-bud efforts would be done early on, behind the scenes, before it has attracted the attention of anybody. By the time any problem becomes a major crisis to the general public, it would (usually) mean that the bureaucracy has failed to wuwei, and has allowed the problem to fester to a point that it has become visible to the general public. In which case, much effort must now be wasted to resolve it. Such occasions would highlight the failure of the bureaucracy to wuwei properly.

There is yet another aspect of wuwei as effortless action. In the Lao-Zhuang interpretation of the Daodejing (the interpretation is based on treating the Daodejing and Zhuangzi as coherent, related texts), the concept of wuwei is paired with the concept 自然 ziran (spontaneity). There are certain actions that are spontaneous to us, either because they are natural inclinations, or they are skills/habits that we have cultivated to the extent that they have become second nature to us.

This can be seen most clearly in the example of a highly skilled violinist. She is able to perform beautifully and smoothly, and almost effortlessly. There is no deliberation. She picks up the violin, and her fingers and hands begin to move automatically as if her body were possessed by the melody itself. In contrast, a beginner of the violin will struggle with great effort. There is no smoothness, no spontaneity in his performance. It is jagged. He is constantly aware of his fingers, joints, elbows, posture. Sometimes he hesitates before playing a note as he thinks too much, and tries too much to control his body to perform as he wishes. But with enough time and constant practice, the beginner will soon acquire the habits and skills. Eventually, playing the violin would be second nature to him, and he would achieve that spontaneity in his performance, and it would look as if his performance were effortless.

Indeed, to wuwei with spontaneity requires a great deal of cultivation. In the context of a bureaucracy, there are two aspects. First, would be the aspect of the bureaucracy acting spontaneously to situations and circumstances. To cultivate such spontaneity in an organisation requires exercises, drills, and even clearly defined operating procedures by which its members are trained. With sufficient cultivation, the members are capable of handling their roles in the bureaucracy smoothly and almost effortlessly. However, this only focuses on allowing the bureaucracy to achieve wuwei (minimal effort) in dealing with day-to-day issues. Perhaps, a well-cultivated disaster/crisis response team could deal with issues beyond the ordinary, but I’d like to push the second point, which I think will be a little more interesting.

For a bureaucracy to truly wuwei in response to extraordinary situations like a disaster, the spontaneity to cope and resolve should be cultivated within the people. There should be a kind of culture of crisis handling/management in that society itself, promulgated through the education system, through campaigns, until it becomes woven into the fabric of that society’s culture itself. So that when a problem arises, the bureaucracy doesn’t need to do very much because it can trust its people to do the bulk of the work, resolving a wide variety problems on their own, or at the very least, simply play a supplementary role to aid where the people are lacking.

Going back to the example of Japan, there is a culture of crisis handling, perhaps strongly inculcated due to the regularity of earthquakes in the region. According to the same Japanese scientist whom I quoted earlier, when a crisis occurs, parents will spontaneously run to cover their children. It is ingrained into their culture. And for that matter, the strong culture of etiquette and propriety contributes greatly to assisting in times of crisis, as people are still capable of behaving in an orderly way. This is a sharp contrast to many other parts of the world where in the event of a crisis, people become chaotic. Looting, robbing, fighting and rioting become the norm. It’s a culture of “every man for himself.” In such cultures, the bureaucracy cannot rely on the people to help resolve the problem, and instead, the bureaucracy will have to spend more resources to maintain order, repair damages, and handle the problem itself.

Perhaps true bureaucratic non-action is only possible when a culture of self-resolution or crisis handling is established in that society. That way, the bureaucracy can always trust and rely on its people to do what needs to be done.

2. Wuwei as non-action

The Daodejing famously proclaims: “The Dao constantly does nothing and yet there is nothing it does not accomplish.” (道常無為而無不為。Daodejing, 37)

It would be a gross misunderstanding to simply interpret this as meaning “do absolutely nothing.” This is wrong. As I mentioned earlier, there is a difference between non-action and inaction, and we cannot simply lump the two together.

I would say that there are two models of non-action, one presented by the Daodejing, and the other presented by the Analects.

In the Daodejing, non-action is achieved through careful discernment of the patterns and processes of nature and people. To act by non-action would be to ride on those processes to achieve the goal. One way this is done is to be discerning about certain problems that arise: can the issue resolve of its own accord? If not, can we tap on existing processes or developments to resolve the problem, without having to spend effort on our part? I think this has a lot to do with observation and reliance on emerging self-order in complex systems, and I’ve discussed this very thoroughly in an earlier post. (For more information, please see Some Thoughts on the Classical Chinese Concept of “Wuwei” (Non-Action) and the Concept of Emergent Self-Order in Complexity Science)

But I think the most interesting and exciting way in which a bureaucracy exercises non-action to resolve issues can be found in the Analects. Going back to the sole passage where wuwei appears in the Analects, we are told that the legendary sage king ruled with wuwei simply by sitting on his royal seat, facing South, the ritual direction which the emperor is supposed to face (Analects 15.5).

To understand how this works, we need to look at the broader system of philosophy at work. We can think of a society as a dance performance. Each individual in society is like a performer in the dance, with certain prescribed roles. In a dance, performers take cues from one another. Most importantly, all performers take their cue from the lead dancer. Based on the actions, cues and signals from the lead dancer, the other performers will dance accordingly. If the lead dancer signals wrongly, or signals at the wrong time, the performers would become confused. “Shouldn’t he be doing that instead? Why is he doing this now?” In such a case, the choreography begins to break down. Occasionally, other performers may confuse their fellow performers with their own errors. The synchronicity between the dancers break down. If the leader is not watchful, he may unconsciously allow the confusion to spread.

Regardless of the circumstance, a good dance leader will know how to recover the entire performance subtly through certain signals and cues. Thus bringing people back into step, back in sync with one another.

In the same way, in any society, people learn how to interact with one another, to work with one another. We call them social etiquette or norms, or professionally, protocols. We learn many of them throughout our childhood from our parents and teachers, and we learn new ones as we enter different stages of our lives, into different settings such as work. These actions are cues and signals that we use to interact and to signal to one another about our intentions, emotions, and it helps us to arrange and order ourselves.

When the Daodejing’s approach (mentioned earlier) isn’t available, if the natural or societal patterns/processes are simply not conducive for wuwei self-resolution, then the bureaucracy can be the very catalyst for self-resolution. In times of confusion, esp. in times of crisis, or even in normal times, a bureaucracy can be like the sage-king. Either through certain spokespersons (like a politician), or from a non-personal institutional level, the bureaucracy governs by wuwei by being that symbolic figure of unity, to galvanise the people to action by showing its support, thus creating a climate where self-order can finally emerge. The bureaucracy will only need to carry out very symbolic acts, but these acts are highly effective and meaningful, for they show a bureaucracy that is aware of the problem, and is giving its approval/support of certain actions that should be carried out, or simply a support of the people or groups. Like the lead dancer, the bureaucracy will only need provide certain cues and signals to lead people away from the confusion, and back to a certain order.


Concluding Thoughts

Classical Chinese ideas on wuwei certainly help to inform and enrich the idea of bureaucratic non-action. Bureaucratic non-action is most certainly an art. It is the art of anticipating problems and treating them early before they grow into huge problems that are visible to the public eye. Unfortunately, this means that in a well-functioning bureaucracy that acts with wuwei, much of their efforts will often go unnoticed. And if any, problems that are visible to the public are testament of the failure of a bureaucracy to anticipate these issues early enough.

But of course, a bureaucracy is not god. There will always be oversights. In which case, the backup for a bureaucracy to rely on is its people. By cultivating a culture of values and spontaneous actions beneficial to resolving crises on the ground, the bureaucracy can trust that the people have the power and ability to resolve the remaining problems, providing assistance only in areas where the people are lacking.

The bureaucracy can truly practice non-action when it has the insight to determine which problems can be resolved on their own. The more the bureaucracy does at the beginning to create conditions for self-resolution in society, the more it is capable of non-action. But of course there are times when the bureaucracy must show itself as a symbol of leadership and unity, but only insofar as to galvanise the people to act.

If any bureaucracy is capable of creating these conditions and acting in this way, then it has truly mastered the art of non-action.