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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.