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?