For a while I have been arguing that China is much more of a meritocracy than many outsiders (or for that matter insiders) believe. You have to distinguish type I from type II error; the princelings do unjustly well but smart people from rural areas are elevated at fairly high rates. Most important jobs are filled by very smart people. Therefore I am happy to see this new paper by Margaret Boittin, Gregory Distelhorst, and Francis Fukuyama:
How should the quality of government be measured across disparate national contexts? This study develops a new approach using an original survey of Chinese civil servants and a comparison to the United States. We surveyed over 2,500 Chinese municipal officials on three organizational features of their bureaucracies: meritocracy, individual autonomy, and morale. They report greater meritocracy than U.S. federal employees in almost all American agencies. China’s edge is smaller in autonomy and markedly smaller in morale. Differences between the U.S. and China lessen, but do not disappear, after adjusting for respondent demographics and excluding respondents most likely to be influenced by social desirability biases. Our findings contrast with numerous indices of good government that rank the U.S. far above China. They suggest that incorporating the opinions of political insiders into quality of government indices may challenge the foundations of a large body of cross-national governance research.
That is based on questionnaires, but the basic comparative results hold up when you consider only those Chinese officials who are willing to make negative remarks about their own government elsewhere on the questionnaire. Still, to some extent the American and Chinese respondents simply may be understanding the scales in different terms.
There are other interesting results in the body of the paper. The only U.S. federal agencies with higher meritocratic self-assessment than the Chinese mean are the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the SEC, the OPM, and Education. Homeland Security, Agriculture, and HUD do the worst, with the performance of the branches of the military being poor as well (see Figure 3, p.32). For the participation variable, NASA and the SEC do best of the U.S. agencies, Homeland Security again doing the worst and the military again not doing well (Figure 4, p.33). It’s a pretty consistent picture for the variable of morale, with NASA, the NRC, Education, SEC, and OPM at the top, in that order, and guess again which agency comes in at the very bottom? (Figure 5, p.34)
You will note that Chinese civil service jobs are highly coveted, and on average there are fifty applicants for each slot, making those jobs more exclusive than Ivy League universities.