How Does China Evaluate and Choose its Leaders? Understanding China’s University System

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Many Westerners have at least a dim awareness of China’s Gaokao, the system of annual university entrance examinations, taken by about 10 million students each year. This set of examinations is quite stiff and perhaps even harsh, covering many subjects and occupying three days. The tests require broad understanding, deep knowledge and high intelligence, if one is to do well. These examinations are entirely merit-based and favoritism is impossible. Students who produce the highest grades in these examinations are in the top 1% of a pool of 1.5 billion people.

Few Westerners are aware that China also has a system of bar examinations which every graduate lawyer must pass in order to practice law in China. These are even more severe, requiring not only high intelligence but deep knowledge of the laws and a broad understanding of all matters legal, these exams being so difficult that many refuse to even attempt them. Of about 250,000 graduate lawyers who sit the exam, only about 20,000 will pass and obtain qualifications to actually practice law in China. If you meet a Chinese lawyer, you can be assured you are dealing with someone from top 1% of that same pool of 1.5 billion people.

I mention these two items only to introduce a third – the Civil Service Examinations.

The Imperial civil service examinations were designed many centuries ago to select the best administrative officials for the state’s bureaucracy. They lasted as long as 72 hours, and required a great depth and breadth of knowledge to pass. It was an eminently fair system in that the exam itself had no qualifications. Almost anyone, even from the least educated family in the poorest town, could sit the exam and, if that person did well enough, he or she could join the civil service and potentially rise to the top. The modern civil service examination system evolved from the imperial one, and today millions of graduates write these each year. They are extremely difficult. Of perhaps two million candidates only about 10,000 will get a pass. And that pass doesn’t get you a job; all it gets you is an interview.

When you meet some who has entered the civil service in China’s central government, you can rest assured you are speaking to a person who is not only exceptionally well educated and astonishingly knowledgeable on a broad range of national issues, but is in the top 0.1% of a pool of 1.5 billion people. China’s government officials are all highly-educated and trained engineers, economists, sociologists, scientists, often at a Ph.D. level. We should here consider that the Chinese generally score about 10% higher on standard IQ tests than do Caucasian Westerners. When we couple this with the Chinese process of weeding out all but the top 0.1% from consideration, and add further the prospect of doing the weeding from a pool of 1.5 billion people, you might expect the individuals in China’s Central Government to be rather better qualified than those of most other countries. And they are.

And the examination is only the beginning of 30 to 40 years of an accumulation of the knowledge and experience necessary to become a member of China’s Central Government, the top 1% of this tiny group then forming the Politburo and one of these few becoming China’s President. These people who have passed the civil service examinations and will become the senior officials and civil servants in China’s national government, have entered a lifelong career in a formidable meritocracy where promotion and responsibility can be obtained only by demonstrated ability.

There are some who will tell you that family connections in China can produce a government job for some favored son, a claim that may be true for minor positions at a local level, though extremely difficult beyond that and impossible at the national level. No amount of connections will move anyone into senior positions or to the top of decision-making power, those places reserved for persons of deep experience and proven ability. It is also noteworthy that family wealth and influence plays no part in these appointments. Of China’s highest ruling body, the 25-member Politburo, only seven came from any background of wealth or power. The remainder, including China’s President and Prime Minister, came from backgrounds that offered no special advantages and rose to the top based on merit alone.

In contradistinction to the West, China’s system cannot produce incompetence at the top because in a population of 1.5 billion people there are too many available candidates with stunningly impressive credentials, and who are evaluated on the basis of real results rather than public popularity or TV charisma. These candidates are selected not only on intelligence and demonstrated proficiency but evaluated on their ability to unify the various social factions that exist in every nation, and to create a consensus on a realisable vision for the country. They must further develop an expansive knowledge and understanding of the economy, of the nation, of foreign affairs, of China’s society and its problems, and of the best methods for achieving stability and rapid social and economic progress.

Contrast this with the Western system where politicians most often have no useful education and no relevant training or experience, and in fact political leadership of any Western nation has no credential requirements whatever, certainly not in education, experience or intelligence.

One of Canada’s recent Prime Ministers, Stephen Harper, had only a minor undergraduate degree and his only job was working in a corporate mail room when he joined the rump of a political party, became the party leader and eventually the Prime Minister. His successor, Justin Trudeau, was a school teacher whose father had been Canada’s Prime Minister many years prior, and whose only credential appeared to be a talent for working the political system. In Canada’s province of Alberta, a recent Premier was a former television news reporter, renowned more for being an habitual drunk than for intelligence or governing ability. US President George Bush was renowned for boasting that he never read any books, being nearly as painfully unintelligent as Ronald Reagan whose only credential was having been a C-class movie actor.

None of these men had a CV sufficient to qualify as a manager of a 7-11 and none demonstrated signs of either intelligence or governing ability, yet a ludicrous and absurd political system permitted them to become the CEO of nations and provinces. The disparity between the quality of elected politicians in Western countries and the analogous officials in China’s government, especially at the national level in the Central Government, is a discrepancy so vast that comparisons are largely meaningless. Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, praised China’s President Xi Jinping as “a man of great breadth” and put him in “the Nelson Mandela class of persons”, saying “that man has iron in his soul”, and Xi has been widely praised (except in the US) as a man who “will become the first truly global leader”. These are not compliments we see being paid to Western politicians.

An examination of the backgrounds and credentials of politicians in any Western nation will reveal mostly a collection of politically-ambitious misfits strikingly lacking in redeeming qualities. It is not a surprise that Western politicians are ranked lower than prostitutes, used-car salesmen and snakes in terms of both morality and trustworthiness. In one recent US public poll, the politicians of both houses of the entire US Congress were rated as less popular than cockroaches and lice. (1) It is accepted as a truism that all Western politicians will, after being elected, freely abandon the commitments made to the people immediately prior to being elected, political duplicity and cunning accepted as normal in all Western societies. This is so true that one US commentator recently remarked that “Of course, all politicians need to lie, but the Clintons do it with such ease that it’s troubling”. Such a thing is unheard of in China. Outright lying to the people would be fatal, but in the West dishonesty in politicians is accepted without a murmur.

There is another factor to consider, that of education and training. In the West, senior government officials – the politicians – are seldom renowned for competence and almost never have any useful experience. Moreover, for these Western politicians who exercise the decision power to shape a country, not only are there no credential requirements but there is in fact no governing education or training available. It is all a kind of ‘earn while you learn’ system. But in China, entry is impossible without extreme credentials and, once in the system, the education and training are never-ending.

The World’s Number One University

It is not widely known in China, and not at all in the West, that hidden in Beijing is the top university in the world, one unlike any other, and whose qualities in conception and execution put all Western universities to shame. This University, sometimes called “the most mysterious school in China”, is the Central Party University, with a slate of both students and faculty that are an order of magnitude above colleges like Harvard, Cambridge or the Sorbonne. To say that entrance qualifications are extreme, would be an understatement. This is not a place like Harvard where a $5 million donation to an endowment fund will obtain admission for your dim-witted son or daughter.

Originally founded in 1933, the University’s purpose is to educate and mature those individuals having passed the civil service examinations and to prepare them both in their career development and in the responsibilities of governing the world’s most populous nation. It is the training ground for future leaders of the country, and whose headmaster is usually the President of China. (3) To date, this university has trained perhaps 100,000 government leaders and high officials. The school is not normally open to the general public, but in the past few decades this university has offered some very high-level postgraduate and doctoral programs for about 500 non-official students, focusing on philosophy, economics, law, politics and history.

The 100-hectare leafy campus is extremely quiet and here, unlike all other universities in China, we see no bicycles but instead the roads outside school buildings are lined with black Audis. The gates are under armed guard 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the security necessary for those who study there – provincial governors and ministers, young and middle-aged officials, their guest speakers and sometimes the country’s top leaders.

Not only are the admitted students the best and brightest of the top 0.1%, but the professors and lecturers at this Central Party University are unique in the world, a far cry from the adjutant part-time lecturers at most American universities. The professors here are the most competent in the nation. Guest lecturers sometimes include high-level Chinese officials and, in important topics of debate, the school has no hesitation in bringing in the world’s most renowned experts from any country on everything from economics and international finance to social policy, foreign policy, industrial policy and even military matters. Further, these guest lecturers are often national leaders of other countries and other high-level foreign dignitaries, this to give Chinese officials not only a firm grounding in the knowledge and skills necessary to govern China, but also a wider horizon and better understanding of different cultures, values and political systems.

The cornerstone of the school’s educational policy is that everything is on the table. There are no forbidden topics, and even reactionary, revolutionary or just plain whacky positions are discussed, analysed and debated to resolution. All manner of planning, problems, solutions, alternatives, will be discussed, examined, debated, explained, with any number of prominent experts available as reference material. When these sessions are completed, all students will have an MBA-level or better appreciation of the entire subject. And this is only one subject of many they will encounter.

When you consider that these officials entered the government with an already high level of education, and with an already demonstrated broad level of understanding and exceptional intelligence, these additional layers of training and education cannot help but produce an impressive level of overall knowledge and ability throughout the government. Nothing like this system exists in the West, which is why senior civil servants in most Western countries often look on their politician-leaders with a mixture of disdain and contempt for their lack of knowledge and ability.

The general process is that at various intervals the most promising young and middle-aged officials attend this university for up to a year at a time, to expand their knowledge and understanding of all issues relating to China and government, usually followed by a promotion. Stints at the Central Party University will alternate with rotating assignments in all manner of government Departments at the local, provincial and national levels, as well as with assignments in various state-owned commercial enterprises. In most cases, these work and experience assignments are alternated with classroom time at this university, the students assimilating what they have learned in their prior assignment and receiving preparation for their next posting.

An individual might potentially rotate through a small local government, a corporate finance department, work as a local health care executive or provincial education head, become the mayor of a small city, the head of another corporate department, the mayor of a larger city, the governor of a province, a senior executive or CEO of a major state corporation, and so on, perhaps each time returning to the university for additional education and training.

At each stage, with each government or corporate posting, the incumbents are evaluated on a vast array of criteria. Those who continue to shine will continue to progress to postings of increased vision and responsibility. Those who appear to have reached their limit will be sidelined. They won’t be removed or fired, but will be given postings commensurate with their abilities, above which level they cannot rise. From all this, China has the only government system in the world that ensures competence at the top.

Consider the mayor of a city in a Western country. After one term in office, who evaluates this person? The general public, who have neither the training nor experience to perform such evaluations. The “public” do not understand the job or its requirements, and haven’t the facts on which to base an intelligent evaluation, resulting in what becomes essentially a popularity contest, superficialities being the deciding factors. In China’s system, this city mayor is evaluated by his seniors, men who were likely mayors of small and large cities before he was born, men who thoroughly understand every aspect of his job and who cannot be duped.

Few Westerners have bothered to learn even the simple basics about the form of China’s government, preferring instead to parrot foolish nonsense about China being a dictatorship or, as one writer recently stated, “a deeply tyrannical regime”. It is of course no such thing, the level of Western ideological blindness and willful ignorance being simply appalling. China has a one-party government, which Western ideologues denounce as heresy, but which manifests enormous advantages. With a one-party government, decision-making is not an unprincipled sport where my team has to win. It is simply a group of people with various viewpoints working together to obtain a consensus for policy and action for the overall good of their nation. Here, there is no forced separation of officials on the basis of political ideology. China’s entire social spectrum is represented in government in the same way as in Chinese or any other society. There is no partisan in-fighting. China’s system looks for consensus whereas Western political systems are based on conflict.

China’s government also has an ‘opposition’, but this body has two major differences from Western governments. First, it does not function to ‘oppose’ but rather to consult, charged with the responsibility to consider not only the government’s directions and policies but also to devise alternatives and make recommendations. And the government must by law consider and respond to all these consultations – which it does. Second, this opposition group is not seen as consisting of the marginalised political losers as in the Western systems but a second tier of extremely competent people who were not selected to the top governing positions. And, rather than lose all this expertise, this secondary group was created to contribute to the development of their country.

The benefits of this system can be seen in its results. China has already far surpassed the undeveloped nations that adopted Western multi-party electoral governments, and certainly has a brighter future than most of them. Many foreign observers are finally admitting openly that China’s form of government exhibits signs of superiority over Western systems, and that it is largely responsible for China’s efficiency, for its rapid development, and for its speed of response. The “Free World” could learn a lot from China’s government system. It works, beautifully. It has transformed the economy and brought hundreds of millions out of poverty. It has put men into space, built the world’s fastest trains, the longest undersea tunnels, the world’s longest bridges, the largest dams. It is rapidly creating the world’s largest genuine middle class. And it’s hardly begun.

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Larry Romanoff is a retired management consultant and businessman. He has held senior executive positions in international consulting firms, and owned an international import-export business. He has been a visiting professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, presenting case studies in international affairs to senior EMBA classes. Mr. Romanoff lives in Shanghai and is currently writing a series of ten books generally related to China and the West. He can be contacted at: [email protected].

Notes

(1) https://www.washingtontimes.com/blog/inside-politics/2013/jan/8/poll-congress-less-popular-root-canal-cockroaches/

(2) By Li Jing and Peng Yining (China Daily); 2011-06-01


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