The myth of the Chinese meritocracy

Posted by Florian Pantazi on 10/11/12
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The day after the close of the presidential election in the US has marked the start of the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), whose agenda  is that electing China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, and his new Politburo colleagues.

Incumbent president Hu Jintao leaves behind a country whose GDP has quadrupled under his 10-year tenure, even as CCP intellectuals are fretting about the party’s future. For, today’s China is being led by a power elite who lacks legitimacy.

The triangle of business leaders, army top brass and party officials has a near-total control over the destinies of ordinary Chinese citizens. Huge amounts of money are allocated to an equally large and tentacular security apparatus meant to control dissent, prevent social unrest and perpetuate the monopoly of power held by the sons and daughters of the Maoist revolution.

Before the congress was underway, the Western media (The New York Times, France 2, Deutsche Welle among others) has announced to an astonished international audience that the families of Chinese presidents and prime ministers have become extremely wealthy, in most cases billionaires, and are in control of huge chunks of the national economy, be it state or private enterprises. To give but a few examples, former premier Li Peng of Tiananmen Square fame has become China’s energy mogul and owns one of its biggest coal mines; Wen Jiabao’s son owns a large sportswear company, while other members of his family control 2.5 billion dollars’ worth of shares in telecommunications and insurance companies; former prime minister Zhu Rongji’s son is the CEOof one of China’s largest investment banks; and the list goes on.

Clearly, China’s current leadership has transformed itself from a communist caste into a kleptocratic one. As free elections are totally out of the question for the foreseeable future, many CCP intellectuals are striving to legitimise their leaders in the eyes of ordinary Chinese citizens by claiming that their powerful political positions are obtained on merit and not through connections. In so doing, the experts – or, more appropriately, the spin doctors – wish to imply that the so-called “meritocracy” at the country’s helm is simply carrying forward the Mandarin tradition of the cultivated scholars who occupied ministerial positions in imperial China only after passing extremely difficult exams.

Rhetoric aside, China and the United States have more in common than one would think. Today’s Chinese power elite, for example, closely emulates its counterpart in the United States. Like in America, power is centralised at the top (in the hands of the 350-strong Central Committee and the PLA’s Military Commission). All economic, political and military decisions, like in the States, are the work of an extremely narrow group of people. To be sure, the American power elite’s way of controlling US society is much more sophisticated than the Chinese approach, but the results are largely the same. Between a controlled press via media trustification, like in the US, and a censored press, like in China, the difference lies only in the methods being used to disseminate official propaganda and discourage or quash independent thought. At present, both elites seem highly disturbed by the activity of bloggers, who are blamed for exposing abuses of power, corruption and dysfunctions afflicting the two societies. In both countries, the major beneficiaries of the neoliberal model of economic development over the past 30 years have been…the top 1 % layer of the population, in terms of revenues.

Writing  in the ‘fifties, sociologist Charles W. Mills wrote that

“the top of the American society is more unified than ever and it seems to be the theatre of an organised coordination: at the summit, a power elite has appeared. The middle levels of society are made up of an ensemble of unorganised forces which are mutually blocking each other; the middle class does not connect the base to the top.

The base of this society is fragmented and [...] its power does not cease to diminish.” (C.W. Mills ,L’elite du pouvoir, p.331)

In the same vein, Chinese intellectuals attending a government conference have recently described China as

“unstable at the grass roots, dejected at the middle strata and out of control at the top”. (The Economist, November 2, 2012, p.9)

Unlike the power elite in the United States, which has not as yet gone through a social revolution, today’s Chinese leaders are the product of an egalitarian ideology and revolution. Accordingly, the huge American-style wealth gap which has developed in China over the past 30 years is not sustainable in the long run, neither on political nor on ideological grounds. In an effort to contain the damage to the party, President Hu’s speech at the conference has formally incriminated corruption.

Unfortunately for all those involved, corruption in China does not amount to a few rotten apples growing on an otherwise healthy tree. Corruption is systemic and cannot be controlled through propaganda drives, symbolic arrests or a few highly publicised trials.

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