About corruption, meritocracy, and "fairness" in Chinese life

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A recent "Red-diaper perspective" on Chinese schooling and the nationwide "gaokao" admissions tests said that distortions in Chinese education were related to the nervousness of a Chinese elite that was not sure it could pass its advantages on to its children. Here, from another Chinese reader, is a dissent. Climax of the argument below; full text after the jump.

The anonymous reader blamed that China gaokao system is brutal.  I got news for him:  The reality in China is brutal.  A population of 1.4 Billion makes any resource and opportunity extremely scarce.  This is why a fair system is so important: if you deny the poor the educational opportunity to climb the social ladder by reserving the precious slots in elite school for those who have, the next thing will be that the poor overthrow the elite class physically, as it happened several times in Chinese history.

_____

Full letter:

Your latest post on gaokao is quite unsettling.  I had seen such view before: the corruption of Chinese governing class is rooted in the system that the elite class cannot safely and stably transfer its wealth and advantage to its next generation, so that the elites must take advantage of their current status and become corrupt to maximize their wealth.  However, I would argue that the reader who sent that comment had made big mistakes there.

No system can rule out corruption.  The whole corruption topic merits another long debate.  But blaming Chinese gaokao system for corruption is absurd at its best. Meritocracy examination system such as Gaokao has no even the remote relevance with problem of corruption.  When there were no meritocracy examination system in Chinese history (Wei,Jin), the corruption problems were as huge as any other time in history.  Why did meritocracy examination system become dominant in China?  It is because the governing class chosen based on their family ties and social status were so incompetent that they could not even defend their countries against foreign intruders.  After that, almost every Chinese dynasty adopted Keju or examination system to select the officials lasted more than about 100 years, until they encountered the modern science in 19th century.

Let's put history aside.  In today's world, the reasons that anyone would go aboard to pursue a foreign degree is probably because foreign education has some advantage in quality than the domestic education.  This is especially true in Asia: Japan also has the similar gaokao exam system, but relatively fewer Japanese students than Chinese studied for a foreign degree because the educational quality gap between Japan and US is certainly much narrower than the gap between US and China.   It is obvious in Taiwan: In 1960s and 1970s, there were higher growth rate of Taiwan students going to study in US than today.  One major reason is that the education gap now is narrower than 40 years ago.  The college entry system did not change that much in Japan and Taiwan during all these years.

I am not against that the rich reserve their wealth and transfer to their next generation.  If I had children now, I would send them to oversea for an advanced degree as well.  Mostly it is because Chinese high education still lags behind the western education in quality.  The modern high education in China has its huge problem, not on the meritocracy examination system, but on another front: demand and supply.  Demand is always high.  They already did something to increase quantity of supply with many more college students now.  Next logical step should be improving the quality of supply: reform the contents taught in college and university, update the class materials to the latest development in the academic field, and use modern technology to make the most out of the existing superior teaching/researching resources only enjoyed by the elite schools.  

The anonymous reader blamed that China gaokao system is brutal.  I got news for him:  The reality in China is brutal.  A population of 1.4 Billion makes any resource and opportunity extremely scarce.  This is why a fair system is so important: if you deny the poor the education opportunity to climb the social ladder by reserving the precious slots in elite school for those who have, the next thing will be that the poor overthrow the elite class physically, as it happened several times in Chinese history.  Also that anonymous reader implied that the privileged had moral superiority over the underprivileged, and he claimed that "I am devoted to rule of law, parliamentary democracy, and so forth. Such is the reality of Chinese life.", you wonder why they are unsuccessful? 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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