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Chinese Kakistocracy


     I learned a new word the other day: "Kakistocracy", from the Greek kakistos, "worst", plus cratia, "rule", meaning government by those least able to do the job. It's the antonym of "aristocracy", also from the Greek, which means government by the most able. Frankly I'm surprised that such a handy word is not used more commonly. One would think that every political pundit in the U.S. would have occasion to use "kakistocracy" almost every day in reference to Congress. And here in China, well....
     The Chinese have a two-thousand-year tradition of using civil service exams to select the best and brightest for government positions. In the later years of the Empire,
exam topics included military strategy, civil law, and revenue and taxation. They also included some other topics which the modern mind would probably not consider particularly relevant for an aspiring bureaucrat, such as music and "rituals". Answers had to be written in a highly stylized, almost poetic format known as the "eight-legged essay" (ba gu wen 八股文).
     The old civil service exams were abolished in 1905 and replaced by a
modernized system. After Liberation (which is how the Chinese rather euphemistically refer to the events of 1949), the Party had to revise the exam topics in light of the Red/Expert problem: Should the civil service exams test for skill in doing the job the candidates are applying for (expertise), or is it more important to test for loyalty to the Party (redness). Not surprisingly, the answer came down in favor of Party loyalty.
     During the Cultural Revolution, the
preference for "redness" was carried to such an extreme that technical ability was seen by some as a detriment, because it might detract from the deference due to "Mao-thought". These days the test system is perhaps a bit more rational, but "redness" is still a very important qualification for anyone with career ambitions in China.
     Being "red", does not mean that one is a true believer in the principles of Communism. It means only that one is able to memorize and spout out the clichés and formalistic platitudes favored by whatever faction of the Party happens to be in control at the time. These platitudes are called "the Party's Eight-Leggers" (党八股) in homage to their spiritual predecessors. As long as civil service candidates can master this skill (along with the associated skill of knowing which faction's platitudes to spout), there's plenty of room in the system for those whose primary loyalty is to personal gain.
    Candidates who pass the civil service exam, if they expect to actually get hired or promoted, must also demonstrate talent in two further areas: schmoozing (including the ability to drink prodigious quantities of alcohol at banquets funded with public money, while still retaining the wit to flatter one's superiors) and back-scratching (choosing whom to do favors for in order to get the maximum personal benefit in return). In the good-old-boys' world that is the Chinese bureaucracy, these skills are often the most important of all.
    Being a first-rate crony does not necessarily mean that one is incompetent at everything else. Indeed, I'm sure that a number of Chinese bureaucrats have admirable administrative skills in addition to being able to schmooze and back-scratch. Hopefully civil servants of this type are the ones who get promoted up through the ranks until ultimately reaching the highest levels. Unfortunately, they leave behind them an ocean of functionaries stuck in mid-level management positions with no evident skills beyond the banquet room.
     This is not an exclusively Chinese problem, of course. Any country governed by a bureaucracy, and every business with more than one employee, has to deal with cronyism and its cousin nepotism to one extent or another. It's rather easier to control the problems in a multi-party political system, though, because those in power have to be wary of criticism from those who aren't. And in business, a strong profit motive is a good check on the desire to hire and promote incompetent sycophants and relatives.
     But in China, one party controls not only the political system, but also all business activity (through licensing and zoning laws, supply-chain manipulation, etc.) You simply cannot get anywhere in China, in or out of government, unless the Party likes you; and the Party won't like you unless you're a card-carrying crony. Cronyism and nepotism are therefore inevitable and endemic, and that, I believe, is how you create a kakistocracy.

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     Take a look at our translation of the newspaper essay indexed as "Women Robbers", the last article on this page. No author is named, meaning that it was likely composed by a Party hack or, even more likely, by a committee of Party hacks. It's a nearly prototypical example of a Party Eight-Legger. The barest germ of a good idea gets slathered with pedantries and platitudes to the point of vacuity. It's painful to read this sort of drivel, and even more painful to translate it, but I do one every now and then to remind myself of what the Chinese people have to put up with.
  


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