China: A Meritocracy of Mediocrity?

With the recent handover of power to a new Politburo Standing Committee, a debate has broken out between China watchers over what to term the method through which China chooses its new leaders. In the corner arguing for “meritocracy” are Daniel Bell and Zhang Weiwei, who have recently written and spoken about how the current government has drawn on its Confucian heritage to advance only the most qualified individuals for positions of power. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Zhang, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, wrote:

Meritocratic governance is deeply-rooted in China’s Confucian political tradition, which among other things allowed the country to develop and sustain for well over a millennium the Keju system, the world’s first public exam process for selecting officials.

Consistent with this tradition, Beijing practices — not always successfully — meritocracy across the whole political stratum. Criteria such as performance in poverty eradication, job creation, local economic and social development, and, increasingly, cleaner environment are key factors in the promotion of local officials. China’s dramatic rise over the past three decades is inseparable from this meritocratic system.

Sensational scandals of official corruption and other social woes aside, China’s governance, like the Chinese economy, remains resilient and robust.

Other observers believe that “official corruption and other social woes” are enough to discredit the argument that China is a meritocracy, especially with this year’s scandal involving disgraced Chongqing Party Chief Bo Xilai. The Economist argues that people who laud China’s meritocracy are missing the point:

…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.

Regardless of what term is used, it is clear from looking at the line-up of the new Standing Committee that the members drew on deep-seated networks of family and professional ties to advance up the rings of power. Just before the Standing Committee was announced, Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times about the newfound power of China’s “princeling” class, or the sons and daughters of China’s revolutionary leaders:

Despite rising controversy over their prominent role in government and business — highlighted by recent corruption cases, as well as the fall of Bo Xilai, whose wife was found guilty of murder — China’s princelings, who number in the hundreds, are emerging as an aristocratic class with an increasingly important say in ruling the country.

While they feud and fight among themselves, many have already made their mark in the established order, playing important roles in businesses, especially state-owned enterprises. Others are heavily involved in finance or lobbying, where personal connections are important.

“Many countries have powerful families, but in China, they are becoming the dominant force in politics and business,” said Lü Xiaobo, a political science professor at Columbia University. “In this system, they have good bloodlines.”

And another article from the New York Times from this weekend examines the wider networks of ties that helped launch and develop the current crop of leaders, resulting only in the “meritocracy of mediocrity”:

The seven men on the Politburo Standing Committee have forged close relations to previous party leaders, either through their families or institutional networks. They have exhibited little in the way of vision or initiative during their careers. And most have been allies or protégés of Jiang Zemin, the octogenarian former party chief.

The Communist Party and its acolytes like to brag that the party promotion system is a meritocracy, producing leaders better suited to run a country than those who emerge from the cacophony of elections and partisan bickering in full-blown democracies. But critics, including a number of party insiders, say that China’s secretive selection process, rooted in personal networks, has actually created a meritocracy of mediocrity.

Those who do less in the way of bold policy during their political rise — and expend their energies instead hobnobbing with senior officials over rice wine at banquets or wooing them with vanity-stroking projects — appear to have a greater chance of reaching the ranks of the top 400 or so party officials, the ones with seats on the Central Committee, the Politburo or its standing committee. Instead of pure talent, political patronage and family connections are the critical factors in ascending to the top, according to recent academic studies and analyses of the backgrounds of the leaders.

There are growing doubts, even among party elites, over whether such a system brings out those best equipped to deal with the challenges facing this nation of 1.3 billion people, with its slowing economic growth, environmental degradation and rising social instability. A series of recent scandals and revelations that the families of top officials can hold billions of dollars’ worth of investments have also led to greater scrutiny over the role of patronage.

Read more on the debate over meritocracy in China:

Getting Ahead in the Communist Party: Explaining the Advancement of Central Committee Members in China, by Victor Shih, Christopher Adolph, and Mingxing Liu in American Political Science Review (PDF)
The unintended consequence of the “China-as-meritocracy” debates, from Peking Duck
Economic Observer podcast: China: A Meritocracy? with Daniel Bell
The Real China Model, by Mark Elliot in the New York Times