Is China Modernizing Meritocracy for Public Governance?
Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Photo: Bloomberg)
By Bing Wang and Alfred M. Wu

Is China Modernizing Meritocracy for Public Governance?

Apr. 12, 2019  |     |  0 comments

Although China has enjoyed spectacular economic growth and steady improvement in living standards over the past five decades, a large number of Chinese people felt demoralized because of rampant corruption, social injustice, and moral degradation not only among government officials but also ordinary people in the other sectors. In recent years, President Xi Jinping, amid controversy about his domestic and foreign policies, has raised some expectations among the general public about the positive future of the country. After the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 2012 when Xi took the Party leadership, as he claimed, the party and nation will be fundamentally regenerated. Particularly, after the 19th National Congress of the CPC in late 2017, Xi will expectedly govern the CPC and China for the next years, and probably continue to dominate the country’s politics for decades.

Moreover, a great strategy has been raised by Xi; a so-called fresh, brand-new mode of public governance has been experimented, and a new world order is emerging. It is argued that those who will be alive around 2050 will witness the rise of China to an unprecedented level. More fundamentally, Xi emphasizes meritocracy and would like to apply it to every corner of public governance in China. A question arises naturally: whether meritocracy, which the Chinese views as a tradition and may be regenerated by the Xi regime, can enlighten public governance in China and beyond?

Does Meritocracy Work in China?

According to Daniel Bell at Harvard University, meritocracy could also trace its root in Western political tradition back to ancient Greek philosopher Plato and Aristotle, who shared the similar idea with their contemporary oriental counterpart Confucius. However, the subtle linkage between Plato’s philosopher king and totalitarianism, autocracy and paternalism has gained meritocracy a derogatory reputation relative to democracy in Western mainstream political theories. In fact, the US politics is the balance between meritocracy and democracy, while the former is a failure because of the entrenched dysfunctions of the elites, and the latter is decaying for “vetocracy, a situation in which it was easier to stop government from doing things than it was to use government to promote the common good”, according to Francis Fukuyama. Ultimately, the anti-intellectualism, anti-elitism, and populism are rising, and America may need to reform “elites the Confucian way”, argued by Professor James Hankins from History Department at Harvard University.

On the contrary, China has a much stronger tradition of meritocracy than the US. It had launched the imperial examination since the 7th century during the Sui Dynasty, and ever since, most officials in the governments were mainly evaluated and promoted by their merit order. The CPC and every levels of the Chinese government principally follow this mechanism, making the Chinese regime much different from totalitarianism, autocracy and authoritarianism in their classic meanings.

Elites could corrupt, and China’s meritocracy could decay as well. The prominent difference of Xi Jinping from his two predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, is his determination on anti-corruption. After taking power since 2012, he has done one thing that was thought remarkable and significant, that was, anti-corruption and purifying the CPC again. Consequently, a number of top officials, such as Zhou Yongkang, a former member of Politiburo Standing Committee, Bo Xilai, Sun Zhengcai, two members of Politiburo, and Xu Caihou, Guo Boxiong, two former vice Chairmen of the Military Central Committee, and more than one million senior and junior officials, had been disciplined. Some were arrested and prosecuted. Some speculations, criticisms and even rumors remain, such as seeing Xi’s anti-corruption campaign as faction and purging, cult, and Xitocracy, but failing to recognize his determination in fighting corruption would cost people to misunderstand his policy and its fundamental practical implications.

Self-Discipline and Self-Purification

Self-discipline and self-purification are claimed to be an advantage of the CPC. Amid the debate surrounding one important CPC’s norm and consensus, the retirement requirement for preventing older cadres from controlling the power — “seven-up, eight-down” rule, the appointment of Wang Qishan, anti-corruption tsar, as a vice president of China has indicated that under the Xi regime, anti-corruption and self-purification are far more important than anything else.

Meritocracy, which has been practiced for centuries in China amid many controversies and difficulties, can enlighten public governance and corruption reduction in today’s China.

“Seven-up, eight-down” rule was introduced in 2002 at the 16th Party Congress, meaning those who are 67 years old or younger are eligible for re-selection to the Politburo Standing Committee, while those who are 68 years old or older must step down. According to this rule, Wang, the head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) and the most important aide of Xi on the anti-corruption campaign, born in 1948 and 69 years old in 2017, stepped down from the Politburo Standing Committee. Interestingly, Wang was elected to be vice-president in March 2018. It indicates the recognition of the achievements of anti-corruption led by Wang in the past. In the meantime, Wang might serve as an advisor to Xi on anti-corruption and self-purification matters.

Through reducing corruption, the Chinese government aims to restore meritocracy in the country. Latterly the CPC has been infusing self-discipline and self-purification to itself again, which has been recognized as the guarantee of its vitality, legality and legitimacy by the public. Under the so called Xitocracy, not only the bottom and middle levels of the CPC members but the top Central Committee with about 200 members, Politburo with about 25 members, and its Standing Committee with 7 members, should all be even more strictly disciplined and law-abiding than ordinary people.

This is a coincident with the Western tradition “With great power comes great responsibility”, as well as Confucius’ enlightenment, “To govern means to rectify. If you lead the people with correctness, who will dare not to be correct?” Following this logic, Xi and the CPC stress that the key of governing China just rests upon strictly disciplining the CPC leadership and members, particularly those top leaders in the Central Committee, the Politburo, and its Standing Committee. The Comprehensively and Strictly Disciplining on the CPC (quanmian congyan zhidang) has been launched as a clean-up movement by the CPC itself. Of course, how effective and sustainable this movement could be is an open question.

Although China does not have a Western style general election and is implicitly following meritocracy, the CPC promotes strict criteria and competition wherein CPC leaders are carefully selected, trained, and evaluated. Many members in the Politburo and its Standing Committee, though they are political elites, are born into ordinary families, earned their higher education, promoted through careful screening and fierce competition, trained and nurtured in one, two, or even more provinces as local top leaders, cumulated abundant experiences in governing constituents, and then are finally selected as national political leaders. As political entrepreneurs, they need to try their best to push economic development, particularly aiming at GDP in the past but have more diversified goals now with green growth and poverty reduction included in their terms. Even many of those corrupt officials, indeed, have made great efforts in promoting economic development in their political lives.

Through nurturing political elites and purifying ruling party members, the CPC has contributed to the modern version of meritocracy. Meritocracy, which has been practiced for centuries in China amid many controversies and difficulties, can enlighten public governance and promote corruption reduction in today’s China. The Chinese experience, especially the CPC regime, can speak to and shed light on other developing countries’ public governance, which is a global concern with many developing countries struck by poor governance. Meritocracy, through carefully promoting and disciplining political elites and Xi style public policy with a great emphasis on anti-corruption and poverty reduction, should be understood thoroughly, which will eventually contribute to human wellbeing.

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