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China’s Anti-Corruption Campaign and the Challenges of Political Meritocracy

In China, corruption is the mother of political evils. For Confucians, the best life involves serving the community qua public official, and conversely, the worst life involves misuse of public funds for private purposes. Such ideas influence history. Why did the Ming dynasty collapse? Why did the Qing dynasty collapse? There are many reasons, but the explosive growth of corruption had an important role to play in undermining the legitimacy of these long-lasting dynasties. And why did the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) defeat the Kuomintang in China’s civil war? It wasn’t due to superior weaponry. One important reason is that the CCP succeeded in winning the people’s support. And the CCP won the people’s support mainly because it was viewed as less corrupt and more willing to serve the people. Of course, these sweeping claims about Chinese history need to be qualified. Historians can debate complexities. For CCP leaders, however, such facts, or interpretations of facts, influence what they say and do.

In the first three decades of CCP rule, corruption was not the main problem. Millions of people perished in man-made famines and cruel persecution of perceived class enemies, while political leaders, including Chairman Mao himself, seemed drunk on power rather than hungry for money. Starting in the late 1970s, however, market-based economic reforms enriched the country, and public officials eagerly sought a cut. Still, the country moved forward and hundreds of millions were lifted out of poverty. Only around the turn of the millennium did corruption begin to get out of hand. Poll after poll showed that corruption was viewed as an important problem by the Chinese public. It was often necessary to pay bribes to get into good schools or access decent health care. The system was viewed as particularly unfair by the majority who lacked wealth and political connections. That’s not to say the whole system was viewed as irredeemably corrupt. There were “islands of probity” that could be used as the basis for improvement of the rest of the system. Most notably, the national examination system (gaokao), whatever its flaws, was viewed as a relatively fair and corruption-free way of deciding who gets into which university. And mid- to high-level public officials were viewed as more capable and less corrupt than lower-level public officials. Whatever the reality, lower-level corruption was more “in your face” and thus a direct target of the people’s ire.

China’s leaders openly recognized that corruption inflamed public attitudes to the point of endangering the legitimacy of the political system. Former president Hu Jintao warned that corruption “could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state,” and his predecessor Jiang Zemin said that “corruption is the cancer in the body of the party and the state. If we let it be, our party, our political power and our socialist modernization cause will be doomed.” In response, they launched half-hearted anti-corruption campaigns, but things only seemed to get worse.

When Xi Jinping assumed the presidency in 2012, corruption had reached a tipping point, and Xi made combating corruption the government’s top priority. The government launched what has turned out to be the longest and most systematic anti-corruption campaign in Communist Party history. As of 2018, more than one million officials have been punished for corruption, including a dozen high-ranking military officers, several senior executives of state-owned companies, and five national leaders. Cynical observers claim that the whole thing is a means of going after political enemies, but what distinguishes this anti-corruption drive from previous ones is that it has also created many political enemies, which seems irrational from the point of view of political self-preservation.

Whatever the motivation, the effect is clear: the anti-corruption drive has worked. Anybody who has dealt with public officials has noticed the changes. Corrupt practices are now almost universally frowned upon. The profits of companies are up because there’s no longer a need to pay extra to public officials. Ordinary citizens perceive the system as less unfair because it’s now possible to access public services without paying bribes and gifts to bureaucrats. Most surprising, the anti-corruption drive has been successful without the mechanisms designed to limit abuses of power in liberal democracies: competitive elections, a free press, and independent anti-corruption agencies. China’s Leninist-inspired political system discourages such mechanisms and allows for abuses such as indefinite detention without trial.

The Promises and Excesses of Legalism

But Leninism isn’t the whole story. The means employed owe much to China’s own “Legalist” tradition. In conversation with public officials, including high-ranking leaders, the language of Legalism is frequently invoked to justify the anti-corruption drive. Legalism—meaning rule by law rather than rule of law—is China’s alternative to “Confucian compassion”: when faced with serious threats to their power or China’s social order, rulers in Beijing have often relied on Legalist methods that justify heavy-handed state power and harsh punishments to achieve their ends.

It has worked, at least in the short term. Inspired by Legalism, the self-proclaimed first Emperor of Qin united China in the late third century BC. But the Qin empire lasted for only fifteen years—the shortest-lived major dynasty in Chinese history—and Emperor Qin went down in history as a cruel dictator. The downsides of what we might term “Leninist Legalism” are equally evident in today’s anti-corruption drive. It’s not just that public officials think twice before engaging in corrupt practices. They think almost all the time about what can go wrong, to the point that decision-making has become virtually paralyzed. The procedures for using public funds have become bafflingly complex and punitive, and it’s safer not to spend money. The costs are huge and growing. China’s success over the past four decades is partly explained by the fact that government officials were encouraged to experiment and innovate, thus helping to propel China’s reforms. But ultracautious behavior from the government means that innovative officials won’t get promoted and problems won’t get fixed.

The coronavirus crisis shows that paralyzing public officials can literally be deadly. Untold numbers of lives were lost because public officials failed to react swiftly to the crisis. Instead, local officials muzzled whistleblowers who warned about a mysterious SARS-like virus in late December 2019, most famously Dr. Li Wenliang, who later succumbed to the deadly virus at the age of thirty-four. Dr. Li’s death led to an outpouring of anger on social media. If the corrupt official was the bane of the Chinese public before the anti-corruption campaign, today it’s the do-nothing official who blindly sticks to the rules and cares for nothing more than pleasing the higher-ups.

Equally serious, the anti-corruption drive has created huge numbers of political enemies who may be cheering for the downfall of the leaders, if not the whole political system. For every high-level public official brought down by the anti-corruption drive, there may be dozens of allies and subordinates who lose their prospects of mobility in an ultracompetitive, decades-long race to the apex of political power. The “losers” in the anti-corruption drive blame China’s rulers for their predicament. These real enemies make the leaders even more paranoid than usual and lead the government to ramp up censorship and further curb civil and political rights. So it isn’t just the political outcasts who feel estranged from the system but also intellectuals and artists, who object to curbs on what they do, as well as businesspeople who worry about political stability and flee abroad with their assets.

With yet more social dissatisfaction among elites, leaders further clamp down on real and potential dissent. Knowing that their enemies are waiting to pounce, the current leaders are even less likely to give up power (elderly leaders may not worry so much about their own fate because they will soon “visit Karl Marx,” but they worry about children and family members). So it’s a vicious circle of Legalist means and political repression. Ironically, the most efficient and effective drive to limit abuses of power in recent Chinese history (in the form of the anti-corruption campaign) may also have led the leaders of the campaign to remove the most important constraint on their own power (in the form of term and age limits).

After the “Good Old Corrupt Days”

Public officials today commonly joke, or half joke, that they miss the “good old corrupt days.” In the past, for example, mid-level cadres often had chauffeurs and fancy cars, all at public expense. The “public” cars, clearly identified by their license plates, could break all the rules of civility on the road without fear of punishment (to the great ire of ordinary drivers). Bureaucrats and businessmen made deals over the course of lavish meals accompanied by exclusive “white liquor,” followed by karaoke with beautiful hostesses. That is no longer possible. Of course, nobody openly argues for going back to the “good old corrupt days.” From a public perspective, everyone recognizes the necessity of the anti-corruption drive.

Still, the anti-corruption drive has been a source of serious complaints. Notwithstanding official rhetoric about the need for less “bureaucratic formalism,” the rules governing everyday life became more rigid. In public settings, the sizes of offices had to be carefully limited by rank, and public officials, even university administrators, had to move out of their large offices. And hosting meals became a challenge. The cost of meals was carefully limited to prevent the appearance of extravagance, and each dish had to be listed on the bill in order to get reimbursed. Public officials could no longer order alcohol at public expense. Mealtime became a boring bureaucratic chore, almost the opposite of what it had been in the fun-filled corrupt days.

Worse, the politically paranoid atmosphere affected work in different domains. It’s not just that bureaucrats became more conservative and risk averse. In academia, more and more subjects were treated as politically sensitive, and the space for pure research narrowed. Journalists were forced to study “Marxism” and had to stay clear of such topics as local public contestation. Art with political content was almost entirely banned, in a far cry from the more freewheeling past when painters and sculptors could make fun of Maoist extremes.

In retrospect, it may have been a mistake to rely almost exclusively on Legalist means to combat corruption. Legalism can bring short-term political success, but it can also lead to long-term doom, similar to the fate of the Qin dynasty. Chinese history does point to other possibilities, including amnesties for corrupt officials. As the current anti-corruption drive was getting under way, reformers argued that a general amnesty be granted to all corrupt officials, with serious policing of the boundaries between private and public, and resources provided to allow them to start afresh. To deal with the mai guan (buying of government posts) problem, public posts could have been distributed by lot once officials pass a certain level of qualification, as was done under Emperor Wanli. But it’s too late to start over.

What can be done is to wind down the anti-corruption drive. The next stage cannot rely first and foremost on fear of punishment. It must rely on measures that reduce the incentive for corruption, including higher salaries for public officials and more clear separation of economic and political power. It also matters what officials do when nobody is looking. Moral education in the Confucian classics can help to change mindsets in the long term. The central authorities should put more trust in talented public officials with good track records of serving the public. Any political system must balance the need to constrain government officials from doing bad and empowering them to do good, and the balance in China needs to swing back to the latter. There may be too few constraints on the power of top leaders, but there are too many constraints on the others.

China’s leaders appear to recognize that Leninist Legalism is not sustainable for the long term. Vice President Wang Qishan, who led the anti-corruption drive, said that the campaign will need to move to the point where the idea of acting corruptly wouldn’t even occur to officials going about their business. Notwithstanding the Wuhan debacle, there are glimmers of light over the past year. It’s no longer necessary to write down the names of every dish ordered to claim public reimbursement. To the great relief of public officials from Shandong Province (which has the highest per capita alcohol consumption in China), the constraints on alcohol at mealtime have been relaxed. Of course, Covid-19 put an end to most social engagements, but (as of mid-April 2020) there are positive signs that life is returning to normal in most Chinese cities, including heavy traffic, polluted skies, and not-so-young ladies dancing and exercising in public.

In the country as a whole, fewer officials have been punished for corruption in the past year. Salaries for public officials increased. There is more emphasis on moral education for public officials, including teaching Confucian-style values at Communist schools for cadres. With more reliance on moral self-regulation to curb corruption, China’s leaders will face fewer political enemies, and they can relax a bit and do what they are supposed to do—namely, serve the people.

From Legalism to Confucian Meritocracy

The Legalist tradition certainly has its uses for dealing with immediate threats to social order and political stability. The latest manifestation of the Legalist tradition is the massive, top-down mobilization of state power to contain the coronavirus epidemic. Of course, the local government in Wuhan should have acted sooner rather than blocking information on the new disease. But once the central government gave clear directives to deal with the disease in late January, the whole country was put under full or semi-quarantine, with every level of government strictly following orders to prioritize fighting the disease. Such strong measures helped to contain the spread of the virus in China within a few weeks. But Legalist-inspired, draconian methods alone cannot explain China’s success. Dutiful citizens largely complied with the constraints on privacy and freedom because they had Confucian-style faith that the government was acting in people’s best interests. Nor would citizens have complied if they thought totalitarian controls on everyday life were supposed to be permanent. The assumption was that people were eventually expected to resume their ordinary lives and responsibilities, with lots of room for self-improvement and time for family duties.

In the same vein, Confucian-style political meritocracy is the only way to consolidate the anti-corruption drive in the long term. Legalists aim to select officials with the ability to carry out strong and effective execution and the willingness to solve problems for the ruler. But Legalists are not overly concerned with the question of whether the aim itself is just or moral. Confucians set the aim of politics as “Rule for All” (tianxia weigong). Confucians favor the selection and promotion of public officials who could grasp the moral way (Dao), implement benevolent policies that benefit the people, and protect civilians from cruel policies. The Chinese term for political meritocracy—the selection and promotion of public officials with superior (Confucian-style) virtue and (Legalist-style) ability (xianneng zhengzhi)—nicely captures the ideal of the public official with an ability to grasp practical issues with the aim of efficiently implementing the principle of “Rule for All.” It is not an exaggeration to say that political meritocracy has served as the main standard to judge politics in China for well over two thousand years.

It might seem strange to argue that a political ideal dating from the time of Confucius still informs Chinese politics today. In China, however, the past weighs heavily on the present. In everyday conversation, Chinese intellectuals draw on history not to show off their erudition but to make normative points about how society should be run now. So it should not be surprising that Confucian political meritocracy has also inspired political reform in China over the last four decades or so. A typical trope in the Western media is that there has been substantial economic reform in China, but no political reform. That’s because electoral democracy at the top is viewed by Westerners as the only standard for what counts as political reform. If we set aside this dogma, it’s obvious that the Chinese political system has undergone substantial political reform over the last few decades, and the main difference is that there has been a serious effort to (re-)establish political meritocracy. The country was primed for rule at the top by meritocratically selected officials following a disastrous experience with radical populism and arbitrary dictatorship in the Cultural Revolution. Without much controversy, China’s leaders were able to reestablish elements of its meritocratic tradition, such as the selection of leaders by examination and promotion based on performance evaluations at lower levels of government. The changes implemented almost the same system, in form (but not content), that shaped the political system for much of Chinese imperial history. Since then, political meritocracy has inspired political reform at higher levels of government and encouraged more emphasis on education, examinations, and political experience at lower levels of government. There remains a large gap between ideal and practice, but the underlying motivation for political reform is still the ideal of political meritocracy.

From a normative perspective, the ideal of political meritocracy is most compelling at higher levels of government in large-scale political communities. The reason is that it is much more difficult to rule and manage huge and incredibly diverse countries such as China. Moreover, at higher levels of governments of large countries, problems are complex and often impact many sectors of society, the rest of the world, and future generations. In large countries, political success is more likely with leaders that have political experience at lower levels of government and a good record of performance. Electoral democracy may be appropriate for small countries or at lower levels of government of large countries. In those contexts, even if things go wrong—say, too much populism and small-minded navel-gazing without long-term planning—it’s not the end of the world. But it may well be the end of the world if things go drastically wrong at the top of big and powerful countries. The policies of leaders at the top of huge political communities shape the lives of hundreds of millions people, including future generations and the rest of the world. Hence, the ideal of political meritocracy is more appropriate for assessing the higher levels of political systems of large countries like China.

Of course, the ideal of political meritocracy would be a nonstarter in political communities where there is widespread aversion to the idea that it is important to select and promote public officials with superior ability and virtue. In such communities, the best (or least bad) option might be to seek to improve the decision-making of elected politicians, whatever the theoretical and practical challenges. In China, however, survey results consistently show widespread support for the ideal of political meritocracy (also known as “guardianship discourse”). The ideal is widely shared, much more so than the ideal of selecting leaders by means of elections. And the idea of political meritocracy is also widely used to evaluate the political system. Corruption became such a big issue in the popular mind because of the expectation that meritocratically selected leaders are supposed to have superior virtue.

In short, the ideal of political meritocracy is an appropriate standard for assessing political progress and regress at higher levels of government in China because the ideal has been central to Chinese political culture. It has inspired political reform over the last few decades, and it is endorsed by the vast majority of the people. But political meritocracy, even in ideal form, is not sufficient to legitimize the whole political system in contemporary China. The value of some elements of democracy is widely advocated by both the Chinese government and its critics, and nobody argues for establishing a purely meritocratic political community today. It would be hard to persuade people that they should be totally excluded from political power. Plato himself recognized in his Republic the need to propagate a “Noble Lie” that the Guardians deserve absolute power because they have gold in their souls, unlike everybody else. Regimes like North Korea can propagate such myths about the quasi-divine status of their rulers because they are closed to the rest of the world, but no modern, open society can get away with it. As China modernizes, there will be more demands for political participation by the people. In short, it’s hard to imagine a modern government today that could be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the people if it wholly lacked any form of democracy. So the question is how to inject an element of democracy into the political system. In the Chinese context, the special challenge is how to legitimize a hierarchical political system informed by the principle of political meritocracy to the majority of people who are formally excluded from political power. With ninety million members, the Chinese Communist Party is one of the world’s largest political organizations, but it’s still only a small fraction of China’s 1.4 billion people.

In principle, political meritocracy can be compatible with most democratic values and practices, unlike, say, fascism or communist totalitarianism. Political meritocracy can and should be complemented by such democratic practices as sortition, referenda, and elections, consultation and deliberation, as well as freedom of speech. That’s not to say all political goods go together. Political meritocracy is not compatible with competitive elections at the top because electoral democracy for top leaders would undermine the advantages of a system that aims to select and promote leaders with experience, ability, and virtue. An elected leader without any political experience (such as Donald Trump) could rise to the top and make many beginner’s mistakes; an elected leader would have to spend valuable time raising funds and giving the same speech over and over again instead of thinking about policy; and an elected leader would be more constrained by short-term electoral considerations at the cost of long-term planning for the good of the political community and the rest of the world.

An ideal political system in China would combine political meritocracy at the top with democracy at the bottom (and lots of experimentation in between). Even with more participation and deliberation at lower levels of government, however, it will be a challenge to legitimize the political system to those outside the power structure. Citizens who seek to make a positive difference in Chinese society might be frustrated by the need to go through the official selection and promotion process for political leaders. Competitive elections at the top can give all citizens the hope (or illusion) that they can participate in political power, but this option is not open to a political system informed by the ideal of political meritocracy. So what can we done to expand the sense of social and political value for the vast majority of citizens? The Confucian tradition, it should be recognized, may not have much to offer in this respect. Confucians argue for the need to select and promote public officials with above average ability and virtue, but say hardly anything about empowering the rest.

It’s the Daoism, Stupid

Perhaps the deepest problem with the Confucian tradition is the assumption that the best form of life involves serving the political community. In societies with a Confucian heritage, it seems likely that political leaders will continue to have the highest social status. It also helps to explain why academics in China place such value on “administrative” posts which involve serving members of the university (in contrast, many academics in Western universities dread the thought of serving as head of department or dean, which leaves less time for academic work). The downside, however, is that those without political power may not feel a sense of (equal) social worth. So there is a need to affirm the social value of “nonpolitical” ways of life.

Here we can turn to the Daoist critique of political meritocracy in the pre-imperial period for inspiration. Laozi, the originator of Daoist thought, bluntly put forward the idea of not valuing or employing the virtuous: “Not to value and employ men of superior ability is the way to keep the people from rivalry among themselves; not to prize articles which are difficult to procure is the way to keep them from becoming thieves; not to show them what is likely to excite their desires is the way to keep their minds from disorder.” The basic idea is that any sort of competitive society—including a society that encourages competition according to a conception of political merit—will make people, especially the “losers,” envious and miserable, so it’s best to discourage any form of competition and desire for a better life. Hence “the sage, in the exercise of government . . . constantly tries to keep people without knowledge and without desire, and where there are those who have knowledge, to keep them from presuming to act on it.” The ruler should limit politics driven by competitive feelings and ambition, which means not employing the wise and the virtuous.

While the Daoist tradition may seem extreme in its anti-intellectualism, it does remind us of the need to distrust those who arrogantly claim access to the whole truth and confidently assert their political effectiveness. The solution is not to abandon the idea that some perspectives are better than others, nor is the solution to abandon the political aim of selecting and promoting those with above average talent and virtue. What must be done is to employ officials with diverse talents and different perspectives to help correct for the necessary limitations of any one person’s perspective. The ruler should be aware of his limitations and make comprehensive use of public officials with diverse backgrounds and talents. Daoists would counsel against a cult of personality that portrays the ruler as all-wise and benevolent. Other things being equal, a system of collective leadership is best to ensure that diverse perspectives can inform the policymaking process at the very top.

In a large country such as China, collective leadership at the top would also need to be supported by an extensive bureaucracy at different levels of government staffed with a wide range of public officials from diverse backgrounds with diverse talents. But even this kind of system would not fully alleviate Daoist worries about the downside of political meritocracy. In the modern world, even a well-functioning political meritocracy that selects and promotes public officials with diverse talents and backgrounds would need to be supported by an ultracompetitive educational system that aims to identify and educate those with above-average ability and talent, and the dominant competitive ethos of that society will lead to endless striving for success that causes misery for the “losers” and hence sows the seeds of social disorder. These Daoist worries would be further exacerbated in a capitalist economic system that rewards entrepreneurs and companies who successfully invent new needs and desires for consumers who are never supposed to be satisfied with the status quo.

So what can be done to soften the deleterious societal effects of political meritocracy in the modern age? Perhaps the best way is to emphasize that the role of the professional public official is not the only way to lead a meaningful life. This means attributing more social (and material) value to “nonpolitical” ways of life that contribute to the social good, such as the work of farmers, family caretakers, and manual workers. It also means allowing for mechanisms that cast doubt on the meritocratic system, but without really threatening the whole system. Perhaps the most fascinating social development in contemporary China has been the rapid spread of what we can term a “culture of cuteness”: a public affirmation of cute animals, robots, and emojis that inform everyday social interaction. The trend started in Japan in the 1970s—when Japan was largely ruled by a meritocratically selected bureaucracy drawn from an ultracompetitive educational system. It was led by teenage girls and eventually spread to other sectors of society. Over the past decade or so, the culture of cuteness has spread to China almost like wildfire. The streets of Chinese cities are populated with ridiculously cute dogs and cats, and the use of cute emojis is the norm for communication on social media, even in official settings such as exchanges between university administrators. In my WeChat exchanges with colleagues, we try to outdo one another with cute emojis that express our emotions, a trend that has only accelerated since working at home during the virus scare (I once asked an American university friend about practices there, and he said it’s inconceivable that professors would exchange “cute” messages with university administrators at his university).

It’s worth asking why the culture of cuteness has planted social roots so quickly and so deeply in China. One explanation is that it’s helpful for meritocratic competition: viewing cute images promotes careful behavior and narrows attentional focus, with potential benefits for learning and office work. But the deeper reason may be both disturbing and encouraging for defenders of political meritocracy. On the one hand, the culture of cuteness represents a kind of rebellion against the whole system: instead of affirming the value of boring and hardworking (largely male) bureaucrats who serve the public good, it affirms the value of playful and somewhat self-indulgent ways of life. On the other hand, the culture of cuteness reduces the desire to join the race to the top, which helps to placate the “losers” in the political meritocracy and hence stabilizes the meritocratic system.

In a modern society that values equal social worth and political participation, the task of legitimizing hierarchical political meritocracy is not an easy one. It is imperative to expand political opportunities at lower levels of government and to legitimize alternative avenues for socially valued ways of life—as in the culture of cuteness that gives meaning to the lives of those left out of political hierarchies. At the end of the day, however, we are left with several ironies. In China, the problem of corruption starkly exposes the gap between the ideal and the reality of political meritocracy. Legalist-style harsh punishments, ruthlessly applied, may have been necessary to attack out-of-control corruption. But too much Legalism threatens to undermine the whole system because it makes public officials overly conservative, and leaders need to worry about backlash from their growing list of enemies.

Confucian-style moral education and self-regulation is necessary to consolidate clean government in the long term. But too much Confucianism also threatens to undermine the whole system because it devalues political participation by ordinary people and nonpolitical forms of life. Commitment to Confucian-style political meritocracy must be combined with democratic participation at lower levels of government and leavened by Daoist-style skepticism about the importance of public life to ensure that those without political power feel that they can also make meaningful contributions to the community. (It should be obvious, for example, that my social contribution qua bureaucrat is minor compared to, say, the heroic doctors and nurses in Wuhan.) But too much Daoism threatens to undermine the ideal of political meritocracy: if citizens really come to believe that serving the public does not matter much, and people of talent and virtue no longer seek to go into government, China’s ruling organization will become a mediocrity. Chinese-style political meritocracy will have to rely on a judicious mixture of Legalism, Confucianism, and Daoism—not just to deal with the corruption problem, but to legitimize itself to a population that doesn’t have the right to select its top political leaders. With my back-row seat, I can only observe whether the Chinese Communist Party can navigate these treacherous political waters.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume IV, Number 2 (Summer 2020): 198–211.