Friday, December 07, 2007

Meritocracy in China

Here's the latest partially insightful and also partially completely wrong column by David Brooks, whom I can't stand to read with any regularity (although Bobos in Paradise is a good book).

The point is not that the testing system in China is inordinately based on memorization. (Although learning the written language does require a lot of memorization.) I am pretty sure that success in the testing systems used in northeast asia (including Japan, Korea, Taiwan, etc.) is relatively correlated with IQ and not just rote memorization. The point is that *any* system of mass testing is going to be a flawed predictor. Ideally, societies should allow multiple paths to success so that there isn't any single bottleneck. Entrepreneurism, business creation and risk taking are huge in China, so that creative mavericks who don't test well still have ample opportunity for success there.

Having said this, I do think that Asian countries need to fine-tune their meritocracies, in particular by encouraging more individuality and creativity. A few years ago I visited Beida (Beijing University -- the Harvard of China, as they say) and Tsinghua (usually referred to as the MIT of China, although as a Caltech guy it pains me to type that), with the director of a major institute of theoretical physics and mathematics as my guide. I was quite impressed by the huge, newly constructed buildings for nanotechnology, computer science, molecular biology, etc., but he was very careful to repeat a saying that I've heard many times in Asia: hardware is easy, software is hard. By this, they mean that infrastructure (buildings, roads, machines) is easy, but social organization (markets, rule of law) and encouraging new ways of thinking are not.

NYTimes: Let’s say you were born in China. You’re an only child. You have two parents and four grandparents doting on you. Sometimes they even call you a spoiled little emperor.

They instill in you the legacy of Confucianism, especially the values of hierarchy and hard work. They send you off to school. You learn that it takes phenomenal feats of memorization to learn the Chinese characters. You become shaped by China’s intense human capital policies.

You quickly understand what a visitor understands after dozens of conversations: that today’s China is a society obsessed with talent, and that the Chinese ruling elite recruits talent the way the N.B.A. does — rigorously, ruthless, in a completely elitist manner.

As you rise in school, you see that to get into an elite university, you need to ace the exams given at the end of your senior year. Chinese students have been taking exams like this for more than 1,000 years.

The exams don’t reward all mental skills. They reward the ability to work hard and memorize things. Your adolescence is oriented around those exams — the cram seminars, the hours of preparation.

Roughly nine million students take the tests each year. The top 1 percent will go to the elite universities. Some of the others will go to second-tier schools, at best. These unfortunates will find that, while their career prospects aren’t permanently foreclosed, the odds of great success are diminished. Suicide rates at these schools are high, as students come to feel they have failed their parents.

But you succeed. You ace the exams and get into Peking University. You treat your professors like gods and know that if you earn good grades you can join the Communist Party. Westerners think the Communist Party still has something to do with political ideology. You know there is no political philosophy in China except prosperity. The Communist Party is basically a gigantic Skull and Bones. It is one of the social networks its members use to build wealth together.

You are truly a golden child, because you succeed in university as well. You have a number of opportunities. You could get a job at an American multinational, learn capitalist skills and then come back and become an entrepreneur. But you decide to enter government service, which is less risky and gives you chances to get rich (under the table) and serve the nation.

In one sense, your choice doesn’t matter. Whether you are in business or government, you will be members of the same corpocracy. In the West, there are tensions between government and business elites. In China, these elites are part of the same social web, cooperating for mutual enrichment.

Your life is governed by the rules of the corpocracy. Teamwork is highly valued. There are no real ideological rivalries, but different social networks compete for power and wealth. And the system does reward talent. The wonderfully named Organization Department selects people who have proven their administrative competence. You work hard. You help administer provinces. You serve as an executive at state-owned enterprises in steel and communications. You rise quickly.

When you talk to Americans, you find that they have all these weird notions about Chinese communism. You try to tell them that China isn’t a communist country anymore. It’s got a different system: meritocratic paternalism. You joke: Imagine the Ivy League taking over the shell of the Communist Party and deciding not to change the name. Imagine the Harvard Alumni Association with an army.

This is a government of talents, you tell your American friends. It rules society the way a wise father rules the family. There is some consultation with citizens, but mostly members of the guardian class decide for themselves what will serve the greater good.

The meritocratic corpocracy absorbs rival power bases. Once it seemed that economic growth would create an independent middle class, but now it is clear that the affluent parts of society have been assimilated into the state/enterprise establishment. Once there were students lobbying for democracy, but now they are content with economic freedom and opportunity.

The corpocracy doesn’t stand still. Its members are quick to admit China’s weaknesses and quick to embrace modernizing reforms (so long as the reforms never challenge the political order).

Most of all, you believe, educated paternalism has delivered the goods. China is booming. Hundreds of millions rise out of poverty. There are malls in Shanghai richer than any American counterpart. Office towers shoot up, and the Audis clog the roads.

You feel pride in what the corpocracy has achieved and now expect it to lead China’s next stage of modernization — the transition from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. But in the back of your mind you wonder: Perhaps it’s simply impossible for a top-down memorization-based elite to organize a flexible, innovative information economy, no matter how brilliant its members are.

That’s a thought you don’t like to dwell on in the middle of the night.


Anonymous said...

I don't know how widespread is the misconception that the Chinese written language requires more memorization to master than, say, English. It's certainly fairly easy to learn reading Chinese, as the average kid who is taught it can manage it by the age of 4. This is because reading Chinese requires visual pattern matching, an almost innate skill, whereas reading English requires a mixture of pattern matching and spelling, which is a developed skill.

Now, writing Chinese is a bit harder, because the neural circuits involved are quite different. Essentially, reproduction requires more effort than recognition. This goes for songs, drawings, oddly spelled English words, and Chinese characters.

I think English requires a lot of memorization.

The other point of Brooks is that there is a web-like establishment protecting the rich and the powerful -- this is universal in all stable societies. The key is to, while maximally protecting the elite, also make those at the bottom feel they still have a chance to rise up over one to two generations. It's a social outlet to prevent resentments from fueling revolution and destroying the establishment.

In the US, elections and the so-called American dream act as the pressure valve. In China, it's the examine system and the free-for-all "marketism". No one know whether the Chinese system can achieve nearly the same level of internal stability of the US system. I think they are either grossly under-estimating people's innate need for open dissent and open contest, or they are trying to buy some time thru rapid growth before they ultimately phase in more changes.

Steve Hsu said...


I would say from my own personal experience that learning written Chinese requires more memorization than learning phonetic systems. Perhaps I was going at it the wrong way, but I think most native Chinese speakers/readers would agree with me.

I first learned the bo-po-mo-fo phonetic system (not pinyin, which is more common now) in Chinese school as a kid. When we started with the characters I had long arguments with the teacher and my parents about why this was necessary, given the alphabet we had just mastered :-)

There is definitely more emphasis on rote memorization in Chinese education than in the West. To what extent this is due to or related to the written language itself is open to debate.

Personally I think the Koreans did the right thing.

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