Confucius, competition and modern China’s misuse of meritocracy

Ancient Chinese ideas on merit are being manipulated to block checks on power and venerate authoritarian governance.
A 19th century print of Confucius (c551-479 BC) visiting court. 19th century. Credit: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images
A 19th century print of Confucius (c551-479 BC) visiting court. 19th century. Credit: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

In 1853, a debate in the House of Lords about the urgent need for political reform turned to an unlikely source for inspiration. Public resentment was growing towards the ruling class, seen to be profiting from the new wealth generated from England’s industrial might. The lords feared that the revolutionary fever toppling monarchies across the continent would reach British shores. Thus, the Chinese imperial civil service examination system, or keju, became a model for reformers seeking to root out corrosive nepotism undermining faith in British institutions.

In a speech to the House of Lords in 1853, the Earl of Granville praised the model, saying it ‘enabled persons of the lowest origin to obtain the highest appointments in the Empire.’ Two years later, the British civil service examination system was introduced, the originator of today’s ‘Fast Stream’ system. The change opened the possibility of working in Whitehall to educated men without aristocratic titles, while also professionalising the civil service, helping to consolidate economic gains from the Industrial Revolution and lay the foundation for mobilisation during the two world wars.

But, five decades after Britain introduced the system, the Chinese model that had inspired the reform collapsed. In a desperate attempt to save their disintegrating empire from internal dissent and aggressive colonial powers, the Qing Dynasty ditched the keju in 1905. Reformers said the examination’s emphasis on artistic form – participants had to display their grasp of Confucian classics and mastery of calligraphy and poetic writing – meant officials lacked the scientific knowledge to respond to the foreign colonial armies’ advanced military and transportation technology.  

This ended a system that had governed mandarin recruitment from the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The keju had been premised on the Confucian principle that governors should be chosen by merit rather than social status. Men were recruited into the state bureaucracy through a sprawling three-tiered examination system, first by passing tests at the local and then provincial levels before the final court examination. The keju was very competitive. By the end of the nineteenth century, around three million men a year took the exam, each with only a one percent chance of entering the court. The local exam was open to almost all men, but certain supposedly ‘immoral’ professions were excluded, including butchers, sorcerers, and merchants. Women were barred from participating, as were certain ethnic groups during different periods of China’s imperial past. A system, originally designed to curtail the power of the hereditary aristocracy, gave birth to a new elite: the gentry scholar.

The meritocratic ideal that Granville extolled was never fully realised. The cost of competing in the imperial examination excluded the lower classes. Only the sons of the wealthy, aristocratic, or literati classes could afford the classical training required to pass the test. Regional inequality was also a prohibitive factor: students in prosperous cities such as Beijing and Nanjing, where academic traditions were formed, had access to the latest study guides and trends in calligraphy that would score highly with the proctors.

Nevertheless, the meritocratic ideal underpinning the keju, if not achieved, was Imperial China’s most important intellectual export. It indirectly influenced the British civil service model, but neighbouring countries Korea, Vietnam, and Japan all adopted the examination system directly from the Middle Kingdom.

After the collapse of the Qing Empire in 1911, Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the newly established Republic of China, introduced the Examination Yuan, a modernised version of the imperial model. But it never took root in modern China, with the Warlord era and then the Japanese invasion disrupting reform. The Kuomintang set up the same body in Taiwan when they fled to the island from the mainland in 1949 following defeat to the Communists in the civil war.

A new recruitment method was introduced by Mao Zedong, one that put ideological fealty to Marxist-Leninism at its core. Class origin and political ideology became the dominant modes of official screening. Those from working-class or peasantry backgrounds were favoured, as natural allies of the proletarian cause. The elite leadership was drawn from the generation of revolutionary fighters who joined Mao on the Long March. 

During the Cultural Revolution, Mao amplified the importance of political loyalty to purge dissenting domestic forces. This period brought the introduction of political labelling, those from the working class, poor peasantry and revolutionary backgrounds identified as ‘red’, versus ‘black’ labels assigned to capitalists, landlords, rich peasants, and intellectuals. The latter group were among the tens of millions of people killed, persecuted or exiled by the Red Guards.

Having an education was viewed with suspicion, a signifier of bourgeois politics. Under Mao, the ‘red’ elite controlled the country’s economic resources but lacked the education of the gentry-scholar class that had governed during the imperial dynasties. Universities were forced to close during this tumultuous period, and business owners, doctors, engineers, and scientists were among the educated groups sent to the countryside for hard labour. 

The economy stagnated with China’s educational elite lost to the rectification campaigns. Industrial production fell by 14 per cent in the second year of the Cultural Revolution, after revolutionary committee and People’s Liberation Army members took control of factories and other enterprises. This dark period of history also saw the frenzied purging of Confucius. Mao ordered the destruction of all relics and literature associated with the old sage, prompting the Red Guards to storm and pillage the philosopher’s birthplace village of Qufu.

When Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978, two years after Mao’s death, he set about reforming the cadre management system to stimulate economic growth. (Cadres are civil servants and public officials that hold managerial positions in the party, state, military, and state-owned enterprises.) During a pivotal trip to Japan that same year, Deng witnessed how its advanced manufacturing base had brought the country out of the economic deprivation caused by defeat in the Second World War three decades earlier. He recognised the urgent need for China to cultivate technology and scientific expertise to lift it out of the Mao-era poverty. Institutions of higher learning opened their doors once more, and education was put at the heart of the cadre hiring process.

Deng replaced Mao’s recruitment criteria of political loyalty with the ability to achieve economic development, while doing away with the ‘rightist’ label that had excluded the educated classes. In a speech in 1980, he said, ‘Regardless of position, every [cadre] has to have a certain amount of specialised knowledge and ability in a functional field. Those without such knowledge must study … Those who cannot or are not willing to study must be changed.’ He went on to advance the slogan of making officials ‘better educated, professionally more competent, and younger.’

Mao’s generation of revolutionary cadres was gradually replaced with bureaucratic technocrats, recruited from the hard science programmes of top universities. The political criteria for cadre selection and promotion shifted from an understanding of Marxist-Leninism, what was termed the ‘socialist principle’ of improving the living conditions of the people. A period of hyperinflation in the late 1980s and the Asian financial crisis a decade later gave rise to a policymaking elite who brought knowledge acquired from overseas studies to guide China out of economic ruin. 

Under Deng’s reforms, cadres with promising futures continue to be sent to different provinces and between government ministries to gain the experiences necessary for higher office. The cadre rotation system also prevents provincial leaders from building up local power bases to rival Beijing.  For example, before entering national politics, Jiang Zemin, a former general secretary of the Communist Party, served as mayor and party secretary in Shanghai, former president Hu Jintao held leadership positions in Guizhou and Tibet, as did Xi Jinping in Hebei, Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai.

Deng’s reform to the cadre management system reintroduced an official reverence for expertise, catalysing China’s economic growth during the Reform and Opening-Up era. A nationwide civil service entrance examination system was introduced in the 1990s, putting hopeful cadres under gruelling tests, peer evaluations, and extensive background checks.

But nepotism in the party and the persistent glaring absence of any women or ethnic minorities in the top echelons of its leadership calls into question any claims of meritocracy. Merit, as defined by the CCP, is embodied by the Han Chinese male. By the time Xi took power in 2012, the wide gap between the party’s assertion to represent the working class and the corrupt behaviour of officials was gradually eroding public faith in the party. The People’s Daily published a rare poll at the time showing that over 90 per cent of respondents believed that all of China’s rich families had political backgrounds. Signs of discontent were more evident in localised protests against corrupt officials, most notably during the 2011 Siege of Wukan, which saw violent clashes between the Guangdong police and locals seeking official compensation for land sold to a real estate company.

Xi’s populist anti-corruption campaign did eliminate the most overt egregious corruption, while securing his grip on power by eliminating personal rivals and winning credibility with the public. It was an all-reaching brutal campaign, with over 100,000 officials indicted for corruption, including big names such as Zhou Yongkang, a former Politburo Standing Committee member, and former party secretary of Chongqing, Bo Xilai.

But the purge also unwound the reinforcing dynamic between competence and corruption unique to China. According to Yuen Yuen Ang, author of China’s Guilded Age, the PRC had a growth-friendly model of corruption that incentivised poorly-paid bureaucrats not to steal directly from the state coffers or to ‘grab’ from businesses through extortion. Instead, politicians profited from lavish gifts or cash transfers from businesses given government contracts.

Ang wrote, ‘First, while corruption is never good, not all forms of corruption are equally bad for the economy, nor do they cause the same kind of harm. Second, the rise of capitalism is accompanied not by the eradication of corruption, but rather by the evolution of the quality of corruption from thuggery and theft to influence peddling.’

Wang Huning, the party’s thought leader, rehabilitated Confucius and his teaching on living a moral life back into Chinese political life, seeking to decouple the public’s perception of political power from corruption. Huning, a close advisor to Xi, comes from the neo-Confucian school, which started life explaining why the liberal democratic model was unsuited to China – a large developing country. Today, thinkers such as Tongdong Bai and Daniel Bell go one step further, using the sage’s writing to lambast governance outcomes in liberal democracies.

As China’s economic and political might has grown, so has neo-Confucian scholars’ confidence in the PRC’s governance model. The meritocratic method of selecting and promoting officials under the nomenclature system, they argue, creates leaders better equipped to make decisions that benefit the whole, rather than being ruled by the tyranny of the majority. Such arguments proliferated beyond the academic world during the Covid-19 pandemic, as the state media cast failures by the US and UK to wrest control of the virus at the cost of prioritising individual liberties over the collective good.

During the Spring and Autumn period, Confucius criticised the dominance of the aristocratic class in the imperial court. Today, the sage’s edicts are directed at a new folly: unthinking acceptance of being ruled not by the upper social class but rather by direct participation. But there exists an inherent tension in using the philosopher’s theories to accuse Western countries of fetishising direct participation when his writing on the moral virtue of respecting authority is being harnessed to create a new uncritical ideal: authority for the sake of stability. 

Proponents of political meritocracy focus on how the selection methods for political leaders affect governance outcomes, when the more fundamental question is how to ensure leaders keep working for the public good once in power. A meritocratic system is not an end-state, but rather as Xi has demonstrated, it is a structure that opportunistic leaders can manipulate by eliminating checks on their power – undermining the meritocracy’s claims to fairness.

Confucius has been reincarnated by the Chinese Communist Party foremost to promote veneration for authoritarian governance, dressed up in the appealing language of ‘political meritocracy.’ It falls to representative bodies the world over, from Westminster to Japan’s Diet, to guard against, rather than embrace, this modern formulation of the tenth-century sage.

Eleanor Olcott

Eleanor Olcott is a journalist in Taiwan, writing about politics, technology, and markets. She studied Chinese politics at the University of Cambridge and is a graduate of both the National Taiwan University and Schwarzman College at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. She speaks Mandarin.

Subscribe to Engelsberg Ideas

Receive the Engelsberg Ideas weekly email from our editorial team.

By subscribing, you consent to us contacting you by email. You may unsubscribe at any time, and we’ll keep your personal data safe in accordance with our privacy policy.