A chap called Zhang, a Fudan University professor, has an op-ed in the NYT on China’s wonderful system of government, and the China bit of my twitterfeed goes nuts, especially about the assertion that China is a meritocracy. This always seems to bug people, which is slightly puzzling because if there’s one thing that is indisputably true about China, it’s that it is a meritocracy as envisioned by the man who invented the term (though not, perhaps, by Professor Zhang). Any of these sound applicable?
The new class has the means at hand, and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself. In the new social environment, the rich and the powerful have been doing mighty well for themselves.
So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves.
As a result, general inequality has been becoming more grievous with every year that passes, and without a bleat from the leaders of the party who once spoke up so trenchantly and characteristically for greater equality.
In Young’s conception, junior meritocrats are identified by a gaokao style combination of intensive schooling and constant examination.
What Young got wrong, I think, was his belief that a meritocracy simply goes on reproducing itself until it is overthrown or becomes a kind of endless dictatorship of merit. In fact it has an inherent tendency to decay, as demonstrated by the career of the wretch who Michael Young was unfortunate enough to father. The sort of people who want to rise to the top don’t deny the opportunity to do that through their contacts. They don’t do it in order to give their kids an equal start in life with everyone else, or cheerfully pay taxes to the government to fund really good schools for all. More widely, the social atmosphere of meritocarcy creates a climate which rewards naked ambition, rather than mere talent. In short, a meritocracy is an oligarchy in formation, and China is about the nearest thing we have to a perfection of meritocracy, one that doesn’t need to get rid of the limits placed on overclass ambition by democratic practice. As prof Zhang's title says, in the last analysis it's meritocracy versus democracy.