Political Meritocracy in China? An Empirical Analysis of County Cadre Selection


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date2 Jan 2018


How to find the right leader? This is a question central to the study of politics. Advocates of the notion of political meritocracy promise a system under which political power is distributed to individuals with ability and virtue and it is thus a morally superior and politically feasible alternative to liberal democracy. Over the past four decades, the Chinese Communist Party has made tremendous efforts in promoting the development of political meritocracy in China and is aspired to allocate public office on the basis of virtues and ability of the individuals concerned. Nevertheless, assessment of the actual progress along these directions remains inconclusive. What has been done to facilitate the development of political meritocracy in China? What is the current status of China’s development of political meritocracy? What are the obstacles to China’s development of political meritocracy? And, most importantly, is political meritocracy really a viable option for China’s political system? This study attempts to answer these questions based on an analysis of personnel management at the county level. Three empirical findings are crucial here. It first reveals that the implementation of the cadre selection criteria in terms of “ability” is hardly impressive. Whereas many young and better-educated cadres do receive recognition, a large pool of senior cadres with a wealth of grass-roots work experience or/and more expertise encounter barriers to upward mobility; moreover, guanxi (personal ties) factor still exerts influence on Chinese local cadre selection. Secondly, this study also uncovers a gap between the ideal and reality in regard to the role of virtue in power allocation. Although the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has mobilized its discipline inspection commissions, party schools, and organization departments (ODs) to ensure the virtue of its cadres, the impact is limited. This is mainly a result of the overemphasis on political-ideological standards (whereas marginalizing the morality per se), the lack of mass participation, practical difficulties in measuring virtue, and certain flaws in institutional design. Finally, the study also identifies several obstacles for the development of political meritocracy in China. Her overly-centralized personnel authority and the party’s legitimacy problems are the two major factors hindering the progress. In short, China is still in the infancy of political-meritocracy development and the prospect of its successful implementation depends largely on the results of future reforms. Measures of reconciling political meritocracy with democracy, such as the expansion of democracy in party internal management and the widening of scope for public participation in policy process, are imperative to the success of political meritocracy in China.