The author is Yasheng Huang of MIT and the subtitle is Examination, Autocracy, Stability, and Technology in Chinese History and Today. Forthcoming from Yale University Press in 2023. Excerpt:
For many years, I struggled to come up with a coherent explanation for the power, the reach, and the policy discretion of the Chinese state. There is coercion, ideological indoctrination, and probably a fair amount of societal consent as well.
Keju [the civil service exam system] had a deep penetration both cross-sectionally in society and across time in history. It was all encompassing, laying claims to time, efforts and cognitive investments of a significant swath of Chinese population. It was incubatory of values, norms, and cognitions, therefore impacting ideology and epistemology of Chinese minds. It was a state institution designed to augment the power and the capabilities of the state. Directly, the state monopolized the very best human capital; indirectly, the state deprived society access to talent and preempted organized religion, commerce, and intelligentsia. The Chinese state in history and today is an imprinted version of this Keju system.
Chinese state is strong because it reigns without a society.
Among the other interesting features of this book, including many, are:
There is a very useful discussion of Sui Wendi, the man who reunified China (and is barely known in the West).
Just how much the exam system expanded in the 17th century, to support a larger and growing Chinese state.
Why Chinese bureaucrats in the provinces tend to be generalists and the ministerial officials tend to be specialists.
Oliver Williamson is applied and cited throughout.
“A state without society is a vertically integrated organization…Keju’s powerful platform effect crowded and stymied alternative mobility channels…the Keju was an anti-mobility mobility channel.”
“In the 1890s, China’s population literacy was only 18 percent, way below 95 percent of England and the Netherlands.”
Exam competition takes up so much of individual mind space. Furthermore the competition atomizes society and makes it harder to form the kinds of collective movements that might lead to democracy.
The author sees the 1980s as the truly revolutionary time in Chinese history.
“Throughout Chinese history very few emperors were toppled by their generals or senior functionaries, a sharp contrast with the Roman Empire.”
I could say much more. This is by far the best book on Chinese bureaucracy I have read, and probably one of the best books on China period. I am sure many of the claims will be contested, but the author tries in a very serious way to be explanatory and to actually answer the questions about China you care about. So few books even attempt that!
Addendum: Note that the author also wrote Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics, another of my favorite books about China.