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

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2 Responses to China: A Meritocracy of Mediocrity?

  1. Will says:

    The Party-state’s system is based on patron-client relations and family networks among the Party elite. It is hardly a so-called meritocracy. If the Party were to allow the populace to vote for the nation’s top leaders like every other country in the G-20 except for Saudi Arabia and China, then I might start taking this loose talk about meritocracy more seriously.

  2. [...] Weiwei that the current system for appointing and promoting officials in China is meritocratic.  China Digital Times has a nice summary of the debate, with links to various pieces.  Bell, Zhang and others have invoked the examination system in imperial China as a precedent for [...]