The fruits and poisons of China’s meritocracy


What should we make of China's political meritocracy? The basic idea of political meritocracy in China is that high-level officials should be selected and promoted based on ability and virtue. Meritocracy in China is a tradition dating back millennia. Meritocracy was institutionalized in imperial China by means of an elaborate examination system that dates to the Sui dynasty in the sixth and seventh centuries. Today in China, aspiring government officials normally must pass public service examinations and they must perform well at lower levels of government, with more rigorous evaluations at every step to move up the chain of command.

Top leaders must also accumulate decades of diverse administration experience, with only a few reaching the commanding heights of government. In this tradition, the state is expected to select, recruit and groom talented, Confucian-educated, and civic-minded citizens to take up the responsibility of governing. In this reading summary/critique, I want to explore the features, virtues and drawbacks of China’s meritocratic processes.

I want to explore if China’s meritocratic features is one of the reasons for the countries strong economic performance and political institutions. China’s meritocratic system has helped bequeath a modern state with a centralized and uniform system of bureaucratic administration based on impersonal, merit-based bureaucratic recruitment. These meritocratic mechanisms create the ideal conditions for a strong state that can govern a huge population and territory under a uniform set of rules.

China has developed strong political institutions – and public administration has become more rule based. This begs the question: Is China’s meritocracy more desirable than meritocracy in the west? Perhaps not quite.

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