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China’s Corrupt Meritocracy

Analysts of China's political economy tend to fall into two camps, with one side describing it as a genuine meritocracy, and the other arguing that the regime is corrupt to the core. In fact, neither view is correct: in a land of paradoxes, cronyism and strong economic performance go hand in hand.

ANN ARBOR – Since Chinese President Xi Jinping launched his sweeping anti-corruption campaign in 2012, more than 1.5 million officials, including some of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) top leaders, have been disciplined. Among them is Ji Jianye, the former leader of Nanjing and Yangzhou, in Jiangsu Province. Disgraced, Ji is now remembered only for his bribes and scandals. Yet, prior to his downfall, he was famous for his iron-fisted competence. “In Yangzhou,” reads one local media report in Southern Weekend, “most people agree that Ji is the leader who has made the greatest contributions to the city since 1949.”

Portrayals of China’s political system are sharply divided. One camp describes China as a Confucian-style meritocracy where officials are selected, as Daniel A. Bell of Shandong University puts it, “in accordance with ability and virtue” through a top-down process, rather than by elections. According to Bell, meritocracy presents an alternative – even a challenge – to democracy. He recommends that the Chinese government export this model abroad.

The second camp comprises naysayers such as Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College and author Gordon G. Chang, who have insisted for decades that the CPC is decaying from corruption and will soon collapse. In dire terms, Pei describes the regime as filled with “looting, debauchery, and utter lawlessness.”

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