Minxin Pei on the Myth of China’s Meritocracy

by Reihan Salam

I have a short article in the latest issue of NR arguing that China is an awful economic model for the United States, drawing on the work of Michael Pettis and Yasheng Huang, two of my favorite China-watchers. I also cited “China’s Century?” by Michael Beckley, one of the most provocative yet also one of the most carefully argued IR articles I’ve read in years. I wasn’t able to name-check Victor Shih and Minxin Pei, though I have learned tremendously from both of them. 

But I did want to make note of an eye-opening new article by Pei on “The Myth of China’s Meritocracy”:

Contrary to the prevailing perception in the West (especially among business leaders), the current Chinese government is riddled with clever apparatchiks like Bo [Xilai] 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.

Pei then goes on to discuss other examples of how corruption shapes perceptions of China’s rise. I strongly recommend giving Pei’s article a close read.