Friday, May 18, 2012

Princelings, Princelings . . . Whom to Believe?

Bo Xilai

Most of us who keep up with the news have read more than we even want to know about Bo Xilai and China's so-called 'princelings' . . . so let's read some more. Eric X. Li, a venture capitalist in Shanghai who often writes for the Korea Herald, tells us in "The myth of the princelings in China" (May 6, 2012) that there's nothing truly amiss in contemporary China:
The Bo Xilai saga of power, wealth, corruption and murder has brought the issue of China’s princelings (offspring of the Communist Party's former and current senior leaders) to the front and center of the international discourse on contemporary China . . . . Many commentators, including some leading political analysts on China, are framing the princelings as if they are . . . influencing policies in their favor and pushing for promotions of candidates who represent their interests. There is no empirical evidence to support such a conceptual framework . . . . [T]hey are nothing like . . . the oligarchs of post-Soviet Russia . . . . Among the ones who are successful, many have indeed excelled on merit [and some have] moved up the ladder through apparently only hard work and merit . . . . [U]pward mobility, both political and economic, is the underlying force of China's vitality. The current Politburo, the country’s highest ruling body, consists of 25 members. Only five of them come from backgrounds of power. The remaining 20, including the president and the premier, come from completely ordinary families. In the larger Central Committee, those with privileged backgrounds account for a much smaller percentage . . . . In economics, if one goes down the list of China’s richest, a vast majority of them are entrepreneurs who started with nothing . . . . Chinese society in general is rather sanguine about the privileges of princelings and the newly rich alike. Perhaps it is a sign of maturity . . . . A healthy society exercises moderation and tolerance towards privilege as long as mobility is sufficient, which is certainly the case for contemporary China.

Well, that's all good to know, i.e., that Chinese society is largely a meritocracy, the Communist Party, the Politburo, and the Central Committee included. Mr. Li is so persuasive -- and an expert, too, as one who has undoubtedly risen on merit alone as a venture capitalist in Shanghai -- that we probably need not venture beyond his expertise in asking questions . . . but let's do it anyway. Minzin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, tells us in "The myth of Chinese meritocracy" (JoongAng Daily, May 17, 2012) that much is amiss in contemporary China:
Political scandals sometimes perform a valuable function in . . . . debunk[ing] political myths central to the legitimacy of some regimes . . . . One enduring political myth that went down with Bo [Xilai], the former Communist Party boss of Chongqing municipality, is the notion that the Party's rule is based on meritocracy . . . . Bo personified the Chinese concept of "meritocracy" -- well-educated, intelligent, sophisticated and charming (mainly to Western executives). But, after his fall, a very different picture emerged. Aside from his alleged involvement in assorted crimes, Bo was said to be a ruthless apparatchik, endowed with an outsize ego but no real talent. His record as a local administrator was mediocre . . . . Unfortunately, Bo's case is not the exception in China, but the rule. Contrary to the prevailing perception in the West (especially among business leaders), the current Chinese government is riddled with clever apparatchiks like Bo who have acquired their positions through cheating, corruption, patronage and manipulation . . . . [M]any Chinese officials use fake or dubiously acquired academic credentials to burnish their resumes. Because educational attainment is considered a measure of merit, officials scramble to obtain advanced degrees in order to gain an advantage in the competition for power . . . . Of the 250 members of provincial Communist Party standing committees, an elite group including party chiefs and governors, 60 claim to have earned PhDs . . . . [O]nly 10 of them completed their doctoral studies before becoming government officials . . . . If so many senior Chinese officials openly flaunt fraudulent or dubious academic degrees without consequences, one can imagine how widespread other forms of corruption must be . . . . [One] common measure used to judge a Chinese official's "merit" is his ability to deliver economic growth. On the surface, this may appear to be an objective yardstick. In reality, GDP growth is as malleable as an official's academic credentials [and i]nflating local growth numbers is so endemic that reported provincial GDP growth data, when added up, are always higher than the national growth data, a mathematical impossibility . . . . [A]s competition for promotion within the Chinese bureaucracy has escalated, even fake academic credentials and GDP growth records have become insufficient to advance one's career. What increasingly determines an official's prospects for promotion is his guanxi, or connections . . . . [P]atronage, not merit, has become the most critical factor in the appointment process. For those without guanxi, the only recourse is to purchase appointments and promotions through bribes . . . . [a] practice . . . called maiguan, literally "buying office" . . . . Given such systemic debasement of merit, few Chinese citizens believe that they are governed by the best and the brightest. But astonishingly, the myth of a Chinese meritocracy remains very much alive among Westerners who have encountered impressively credentialed officials like Bo. The time has come to bury it.

Whom to believe? Personally, I trust the venture capitalist in Shanghai, Mr. Eric X. Li, who's living, working, and investing in what Alan Greenspan might call China's 'exuberant' economy, rather than some elite fellow like Professor Minxin Pei, who's living, teaching, and writing columns in the United States, a corrupt country where, as Mr. Li notes, "advantages are even institutionalized, such as legacy admission programs at U.S. Ivy League universities"

An easy call . . .

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At 10:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a former resident of China, I trust the opinion of someone living in a country with a Constitutional protection of freedom of speech worth the paper it's printed more than a PRC resident whose livelihood and personal freedom may be jeopardized by making remarks that offend the authorities. Corruption is endemic in China. I saw many examples of it while living there. A former mayor of the city where I lived died mysteriously in prison after being convicted of taking kickbacks for construction deals. His death may owe to his fingering another target, a former CEO of China's dominant oil company Sinopec. Their cases are not unusual. Other government leaders convicted of corruption have died in jail, too, either with no official acknowledgement or a statement that the deceased committed suicide. A longtime resident explained to me that the Chinese government expects powerful citizens and government officials to break the law, providing an Achilles' heel to strike if the person needs to be taken down.


At 11:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think my sarcasm meter just switched back on the second time I read your conclusion.

Eric Li seems to evaluate family background differently from US government researchers, who identify 7 present Politburo members as princelings and forecast that number to rise when new members are chosen this year.f


At 4:37 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Keep your irony meter ticking when you read my posts.

Jeffery Hodges

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