Columns

Meritocracy vs. Idiocracy: Why China Is Winning

Yao Dawei/Xinhua via AP

Some of my conservative friends worry that China is trying to impose its political system on the rest of the world. Ask the Chinese about this, and they look at you as if you’re crazy: There’s no way you barbarians could reproduce our system, even if you wanted to, they explain. You can’t accept failure.

The key to China’s system is the willingness of its people to accept failure. The ticket to middle-class success in China is a university education, and 10 million Chinese high-school students take the entrance exam (Gaokao) every year. They study prodigiously, and the average Chinese family spends a year’s income on tutoring. They have to: the Gaokao is flabbergastingly difficult (see some sample questions here). But only half will pass. Some of each year’s losers re-take the exam; most will go to trade or technical schools. The top scorers go to prestigious universities like Peking or Tsinghua. The one thing Xi Jinping can’t do is to send his kid to Peking University. It’s all done by exam score.

China’s Communist Party has 93 million members. It co-opts the high achievers and gives them privileges. But because the system rests on pure, brutal, merciless meritocracy, the Chinese people accept that the top achievers will get the rewards.

The Chinese have been around for 5,000 years and shrug their shoulders at the extinction of cultures. Two hundred local dialects still are spoken in China (whose national language is a system of written ideograms rather than a spoken language), preserved as if in amber from China’s ancient past. Minorities that don’t integrate, for example the Turkic Muslim Uyghurs, will be suppressed and, if expedient, be exterminated.

We Americans are horriifed by failure. We are horrified that only a third of African-American women marry today (compared to 90% in the 1960s), that barely a third of African-American men admitted to US universities graduate, that 73% of African-American children are born to unmarried mothers, and blacks comprise just 13% of the U.S. population but 34% of the male prison population. We are so horrified that we redefine failure, to the point of insisting that there are no right and wrong answers to math problems. If no-one succeeds, then no-one can fail.

China thrives on failure. Yet China graduates six times as many STEM students as we do. A third of undergrads major in engineering vs 5%-6% in the U.S. China’s educational system, to be sure, favors the grind who memorizes exam answers over the maverick who asks deep questions. As we turn our schools into ideological indoctrination centers, though, what kind of creative minds will survive them?

We can’t fill the few slots we have for engineering students because our K-through-12 math instruction is too shoddy, and we are eliminating advance-track programs because they supposedly promote inequality.

Meritocracy will win, because it always does, and all the more so in a high-tech, winner-take-all world. If you’re curious what the fate of black people will be like in a China-dominated world, go to Youtube and type in the search term “China washing machine commercial.” Instead of a democratic meritocracy that rewards achievement while honoring the rights of the individual, we will have a merciless meritocracy that treats the losers like so much detritus.