Tuesday, September 2, 2014
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The Myth of Chinese Meritocracy

CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – Political scandals sometimes perform a valuable function in cleansing governments. They destroy the political careers of individuals of dubious character. More importantly, they can debunk political myths central to the legitimacy of some regimes.

That appears to be the case with the Bo Xilai affair in China. One enduring political myth that went down with Bo, the former Communist Party boss of Chongqing municipality, is the notion that the Party’s rule is based on meritocracy.

In many ways, Bo personified the Chinese concept of “meritocracy” – well-educated, intelligent, sophisticated, and charming (mainly to Western executives). But, after his fall, a very different picture emerged. Aside from his alleged involvement in assorted crimes, Bo was said to be a ruthless apparatchik, endowed with an outsize ego but no real talent. His record as a local administrator was mediocre.

Bo’s rise to power owed much to his pedigree (his father was a vice premier), his political patrons, and his manipulation of the rules of the game. For example, visitors to Chongqing marvel at the soaring skyscrapers and modern infrastructure built during Bo’s tenure there. But do they know that Bo’s administration borrowed the equivalent of more than 50% of local GDP to finance the construction binge, and that a large portion of the debt will go unpaid?

Unfortunately, Bo’s case is not the exception in China, but the rule. Contrary to the prevailing perception in the West (especially among business leaders), the current Chinese government is riddled with clever apparatchiks like Bo who have acquired their positions through cheating, corruption, patronage, and manipulation.

One of the most obvious signs of systemic cheating is that many Chinese officials use fake or dubiously acquired academic credentials to burnish their resumes. Because educational attainment is considered a measure of merit, officials scramble to obtain advanced degrees in order to gain an advantage in the competition for power.

The overwhelming majority of these officials end up receiving doctorates (a master’s degree won’t do anymore in this political arms race) granted through part-time programs or in the Communist Party’s training schools. Of the 250 members of provincial Communist Party standing committees, an elite group including party chiefs and governors, 60 claim to have earned PhDs.

Tellingly, only ten of them completed their doctoral studies before becoming government officials. The rest received their doctorates (mostly in economics, management, law, and industrial engineering) through part-time programs while performing their duties as busy government officials. One managed to complete his degree in a mere 21 months, an improbable feat, given that course work alone, without the dissertation, normally requires at least two years in most countries’ doctoral programs. If so many senior Chinese officials openly flaunt fraudulent or dubious academic degrees without consequences, one can imagine how widespread other forms of corruption must be.

Another common measure used to judge a Chinese official’s “merit” is his ability to deliver economic growth. On the surface, this may appear to be an objective yardstick. In reality, GDP growth is as malleable as an official’s academic credentials.

Inflating local growth numbers is so endemic that reported provincial GDP growth data, when added up, are always higher than the national growth data, a mathematical impossibility. And, even when they do not doctor the numbers, local officials can game the system in another way.

Because of their relatively short tenure in one position before promotion (less than three years, on average, for local mayors), Chinese officials are under enormous pressure to demonstrate their ability to produce economic results quickly. One sure way of doing so is to use financial leverage, typically by selling land or using land as collateral to borrow large sums of money from often-obliging state-owned banks, to finance massive infrastructure projects, as Bo did in Chongqing.

The result is promotion for such officials, because they have delivered quick GDP growth. But the economic and social costs are very high. Local governments are saddled with a mountain of debt and wasted investments, banks accumulate risky loans, and farmers lose their land.

Worse, as competition for promotion within the Chinese bureaucracy has escalated, even fake academic credentials and GDP growth records have become insufficient to advance one’s career. What increasingly determines an official’s prospects for promotion is his guanxi, or connections.

Based on surveys of local officials, patronage, not merit, has become the most critical factor in the appointment process. For those without guanxi, the only recourse is to purchase appointments and promotions through bribes. In the Chinese parlance, the practice is called maiguan, literally “buying office.” The official Chinese press is full of corruption scandals of this type.

Given such systemic debasement of merit, few Chinese citizens believe that they are governed by the best and the brightest. But astonishingly, the myth of a Chinese meritocracy remains very much alive among Westerners who have encountered impressively credentialed officials like Bo. The time has come to bury it.

Read more from our “China’s Scandalous Politics” Focal Point. 

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  1. CommentedTenzin Namdhak

    As far as i am concerned the cases of politicial and social factors influenciing one's position is quite common all over the world and i am not inche moved with the article written by Mr. Pei about Mr. Bo. But i think this cases of political forces mingling with the promotion is quite popular in one party nation like China. We have seen the case of the Presidnet of Russia, Mr. Putin obtaining his Ph.d thesis without actually doing it. So i think these cases are prevalent in Authoritarian nation.

  2. CommentedShiang Peow Foo

    Mr. Pei's comments on many senior Chinese officials use fradulent or dubious academic degrees are his conjecture. Where are his factual evidence to back his statement other than guesswork and speculation based on his observations? I respect freedom of opinion, but there must be limits to such freedom. Also, I am utterly disappointed that, as a FULL Professor in an acclaimed university, he should know better than to provide unsubstantiated written opinion. Worse still, Project Syndicate should have vetted before publishing such sloppy work.

  3. CommentedGabriel Cozmin

    The argument is that the world community is naive and unaware of Chinese corruption and lack of meritocracy. But it is the writer of the article who is naive by implying that China is somehow especially non-meritocratic.
    Reality tells us that there's one more myth to be busted, if we are at this topic. The myth of Western meritocracy or indeed of meritocracy of any kind. Decades of world-wide neoliberalism has lead to a complete erosion of moral standards and integrity in the whole world. Does the case of Japan really differ from that of China? Does South Koreea really excel in integrity and merit when we hear all the corrupt deals that are happening there? How about Britain, where we can see Murdoch's monumental influence in politics and business?

    The argument for Bo's inefficiency are hilarious. If Mr Minxin Pei believes that those are failures, I would like to invite him to take a look at Europe and their incentive-based meritocratic political system. Also take a deep look at the private sector and its meritocratical values, also its spending&borrowing patterns, and then the bailout successes. And the political lobbying. The media in britain, italy and pretty much all europe, the financial sector in britain, iceland, greece.. you name it. Are these countries beams of meritocracy and integrity to compare them with shady China?

    The educational system in China abounds of corruption and apparatchiks. No degree of comparison between this and Europe, where the academia has been left at the expense of the private sector. In these advanced western neoliberal societies academics win an extra buck by supporting neoliberal theories of blissful deregulation, being on the payroll of huge corporations (financial, military corporations, Stratfor) and by having an impeccable conduct when assessing students. Especially in Britain, where the children of the aristocracy - ancient and modern alike - reach all of them at the best of the best universities. Their performance is magnificent and at no way to be equaled by commoners, who have way less chances of ever being admitted to Cambridge, Oxford, LSE, St Andrews than pure-blooded Bullingdon club destined younglings.

    The reality is hidden in what is not discussed in this article. The ideological orientation of Bo Xilai as a hard-line leftist with a strong powerbase is especially interesting. In other words, the Communist Party of China ousted a big chunk of its left wing in an affair that also involves British intelligence. It also launched a huge media campaign in online and print to control the information flow and to assess the feedback of the news.
    But we'll call it a "valauable function in cleansing governments". It is somehow moral, since its some bad chinese communists involved, to consider "cleansing individuals of dubious character" a positive act, rather than one that should be analysed to see if that's all it is.

    The use of Chinese terms for corruption and office buying has a magical force. I have seen it in relations to many countries in the Balkans for example. But corruption is a very bad concept, it almost magically incorporates all a societies' illnesses and unites them in one symbol.

  4. Commentedjames durante

    I wonder if there is a parallel of sorts in the so-called financial industry. Consider the JP MOrgan Chase exec, Ina Drew, who recently stepped down in the $2b trading fiasco. She earned $10m in 2010 despite being on medical leave and 40% more, $14 mil, in 2011. Now we are told that the big loss was a result of sloppiness, obvious miscalculations, and a failure of adequate oversight. She will resign with a generous golden parachute I'm sure.

    Either way, as in China, it's a system that allows for great profit-taking without any real risk. In any large bureaucracies people rise to their level of incompetence. Raking off the value created by labor in the name of party expertise (China) or management expertise (the west), ultimately it's the same thing.

  5. CommentedEdward Campbell

    Shouldn't a professor of history be capable of reflecting upon a culture's history? A nation with a stolid history of stability being the first order of business every morning generally relies on the people they know - rather than the people who just graduated to positions of influence.

    That's neither a positive or negative - though the latter would be the tendency in my eyes.

      CommentedSean Su

      I had no idea that China had a "stolid history of stability" when that history is racked with 4,000 years worth of wars, civil wars, riots, and revolutions. It's all covered in China's various famous historical texts, each half a dozen times thicker than the average Christian Bible.

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