The Myth of China’s “Meritocracy”

From the time of Sun Yat-sen, through the turbulent Mao years and now into China’s modern economic boom years, The Economist traces the thoughts of several “admirers” and challenges the meritocratic label that some have placed on its leadership system:

Among the shirt-wearers is a Canadian legal scholar, Daniel Bell of Tsinghua University in Beijing, co-editor of “A Confucian Constitutional Order: How China’s Ancient Past Can Shape Its Political Future”. Mr Bell believes that the party’s emphasis has shifted to “the task of good governance led by able and virtuous political leaders.” The scholar-official, it seems, stands in for the gentleman from Whitehall who thought he knew best. The party recruits the best and the brightest, says Mr Bell, and the vetting process for the promotion of top leaders is impressively objective and rigorous, though he admits scope for improvement, especially through more transparency.

But to believe virtue always floats to the top in a system such as China’s is fantasy. Chinese government and society are shot through with corruption. Even official media report about cadres gaining promotion through connections, not merit, and despite the occasional execution of corrupt officials, the government can do little about it. The Confucian ideal of self-cultivation is admirable, but it neglects the crucial detail known as human nature.

The answer to China’s challenges is not a return to some exclusive cultural wellspring of virtue. It doesn’t exist. The lesson of China’s 19th century was that supposedly meritocratic Confucian government, unchallenged and unchecked, had failed. “Western” systems of government have plenty of flaws too. Families and groups with more money or power perpetuate their influence in society. But the door is always open for talented outsiders to gain power and earn wealth and, more importantly, to lose it. Richard Nixon was undone by a free press and by the institutions of his own government, not, as with the Chinese former Politburo member Bo Xilai, by a lieutenant who turned against him and fled to a foreign consulate. What will create more meritocratic government in China is continued economic development; more education for more people; open competition; moving towards a free press; an independent judicial system; and, in time, a representative political system.

The term “meritocracy” has indeed popped up in a number of recent pieces of analysis on China as it approaches the 18th Party Congress and its once-a-decade leadership transition. In August, author Daniel Bell touted “the advantages of ‘actually-existing’ meritocracy in the Chinese Communist Party”, though he conceded that China’s political system “can and should become more meritocratic in the future”. Journalist and China commentator John Pomfret also mentioned the concept in an interview with CNN’s Kristie Lu Stout, as part of the network’s new “ON CHINA” program which premiered last week:

“It’s not simply a meritocracy. If your parents are Communist Party members and have a certain amount of connections to the center, chances are you are going to be in the party regardless of your… school studies.”

“The party understands now that the people… want to participate, but the party is struggling to give them a voice while at the same time maintaining total control.”

And just as The Economist points out, The Financial Times’ Jamil Anderlini wrote earlier this month that the Bo Xilai scandal exposed to the world that “rot goes right to the top” of China’s political system:

Far from revealing authoritarian China’s meritocracy and ability to self-correct, the Bo Xilai saga underscores how its leaders believe they are above the law and how little accountability there actually is.

The fact is that Mr Bo’s alleged crimes only came to light after his disgruntled chief of police, Wang Lijun, attempted to defect to a US consulate in February carrying a dossier of damaging revelations and proof that Gu had murdered Heywood.

Chinese, British and US officials say privately that without the involvement of foreign governments Heywood’s murder would probably never have been uncovered and Mr Bo would still be a frontrunner for promotion when the party anoints new leaders at a once-a-decade conclave next month.