MICHAEL TAN examines the Chinese civil service system and why it can potentially produce more effective leadership than democratic systems.

Would a TV-celebrity and real-estate mogul with no political experience whatsoever ever be able to achieve the presidency in China? Such a feat, while possible in the United States, has next to no chance of happening in China, for reasons that lie in the extremely rigorous selection process that the Communist Party of China has for senior government officials. Although this process is decidedly less democratic, there are many reasons to think that it may be more meritocratic. In short, the Chinese political system produces more competent government officials than does the American system.

The current Chinese civil service system has deep cultural and historical roots. During China’s millennia-long dynastic period, public service was open to most through the famous imperial civil service examinations, which were in use from as early as the Han Dynasty in the 2nd century and lasted until the 20th century. Ancient exams focused on mastery of Confucian texts, military strategy, civil law, finance, agriculture, geography, and more. Taking the exams would take three full days, with cheating being punishable by death. Historians regard these exams as the first standardized tests based on merit and many credit the longevity and prosperity of Chinese dynasties in part to this system.

The modern civil service exam takes after its ancient counterpart. It is a grueling, highly competitive, holistic assessment looking find the qualified people for Chinese government jobs. To take the test, one needs a college diploma at minimum. In 2016, CNN published an insightful report on the civil service examination for the year:

“Imagine taking a five-hour exam just to get a job interview. That’s what nearly one million people did in China Sunday, taking the country’s grueling civil service entrance exam, or Guokao. Test-takers had two hours to answer 135 multiple-choice questions on topics covering language, mathematics, logic, politics, law and culture. That was followed by 3 hours of essay questions. The exam is only held once a year, so for those taking part, it’s do or die. They are competing for 27,000 jobs. The odds of getting one – after the exam and a subsequent interview – are about 36 to 1.”

The CNN article also includes some sample questions, which are fairly difficult – for those who are curious, here’s a few:

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To reiterate, in 2016 China had 1,000,000 people competing for 27,000 jobs. And that’s just to get to the entry level. So to begin with, most government officials all have passed through a highly rigorous and competitive examination process. They are all in the top 3% of test takers. Now we’re at the entry level. The next step is to climb the ladder against all their fellow top 3% test takers.

The civil service itself has 27 different ranks. Within each rank officials are graded based on performance and seniority. Within the top 3 ranks are the Politburo, Premier, and President of China. It can take a lifetime of public service to ascend up those 27 ranks. That ladder climbing process is monitored by possibly the most powerful and vast HR apparatus in the word, the Organization Department of the Communist Party. Performance is measured meticulously, and everything is recorded. By the time you get to those top few ranks, you’ll have to have had experience managing provinces that have the populations and GDP of a country like Britain. And you’ll have managed them better than all the other provincial heads in the country.

To see this better, let’s look at the example of the current President of China, Xi Jinping. Xi was the son of an original Chinese Communist revolutionary, but he was purged to the rural villages during the Cultural Revolution. He would officially join the Communist Party in 1974, finally being accepted after having his application rejected 10 times. Xi rose through the ranks quickly, serving in four provinces and eventually becoming Governor of Fujian Province (population: 39 million) and then Party Chief of Zhejiang (population: 54 million). He would be recognized for running Zhejiang exceptionally well, outperforming his fellow provincial officials. Under his tenure, GDP grew at a whopping 14% per year and R&D investment quadrupled. He soon was appointed a member of the Politburo Standing Committee in 2007. After 33 years into his time with the party, Xi finally ascended to the coveted top 3 ranks. He would have to wait another 5 years before becoming President of China. This is just one example of how the Chinese political system optimizes and checks for competence in management and governance to ensure that the best governors eventually govern the country.

Contrast this with a more democratic system. For instance, many public servants in a country like the United States are elected, not appointed. This means that the American political system in some ways optimizes for who can get the most votes, which is not the same as competence in governance. A great campaigner or politician and a competent public servant oftentimes are not the same thing. In contrast, the Chinese political system keys in on the most relevant factor to being a good public servant — competence, not vote-getting.

Becoming a senior government official (or any government official for that matter) in China is no easy task. The civil service system ensures that only tried and true officials can rise. The intensely competitive and meritocratic system ensures that competence is rewarded and that the people at the top are indeed competent. And with President Xi’s recent crackdown on corruption, this system is becoming even more airtight. Only those with real track records of exceptional performance can ever hope to get to the highest levels of the Chinese government. There are no TV personalities running the show in China.

Michael Tan can be contacted at michael.tan@duke.edu.