Is China Still a Meritocracy?
If there’s one principle on which the vast majority of Chinese people agree, it’s meritocracy. People believe that social resources and social status should be allocated according to personal merit and that everyone — regardless of their background — should enjoy equal opportunities, with their ultimate success defined by their abilities, education, and hard work.
Chinese people’s faith in meritocracy is rooted in both our culture and our institutions. The imperial examination allowed talented individuals to rise through the bureaucracy on the basis of their education and abilities. After the market reforms of the 1970s and ’80s brought an end to Maoist egalitarianism, personal ability, educational qualifications, and expertise were all closely intertwined with one’s new economic status.
The embodiment of this trend was the revival of the gaokao college entrance exam. Although fiercely competitive, the degree it promised resulted in a significant increase in salary in the 1980s and ’90s. People who grew up in poverty and made it into university transformed their lives.
But as higher education has become more commonplace, degrees hold less and less value on the job market. Prior to the expansion of higher education in 1998, the percentage of high school students who were accepted into undergraduate programs was only 25.9%; 20 years later, that figure had soared to 54.2%. The ever-growing pool of university graduates has led to cut-throat competition extending beyond the gaokao and into the graduate school entrance exam, civil service exam, and job market.
The depreciation of diplomas has reinforced the influence of factors outside students’ control — such as their place of birth, family background, and social connections — on their educational prospects, and by extension their opportunities later in life. Disillusionment seems to have become so widespread there’s even a set phrase for the phenomenon: “poor familes struggle to produce successful sons.” Meanwhile, mounting pressure on young people has produced a series of cynical online buzzwords over the course of the last 15 years, ranging from pindie (“to rely on family connections”) and “985 losers” (a reference to unsuccessful graduates of China’s elite “Project 985” schools) to tangping (“lying flat”).
Together, these terms reflect a rising frustration in the face of tremendous societal pressure and dwindling social mobility. There’s just one problem: Very few young Chinese actually appear to be lying flat. Given this seeming paradox, I was curious: Do young Chinese university students still believe their country is a meritocracy — that education and hard work can change their fates?
To find the answer, my research team and I analyzed data from the 2018 Panel Study of Chinese University Students, a longitudinal study organized by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The results came as something of a surprise. Our study found that around 70% of current university students still believe that individuals can succeed through hard work, no matter their family background.
This continued faith in meritocratic advancement is a product of their upbringing. Educational advancement in China is dictated by a rigorously standardized exam system. Although flawed, these exams are generally perceived as fair and objective measures of academic performance.
An interesting corollary to this finding, however, is the role exposure to digital media plays in determining students’ faith in the current system. Following the rapid development of information technology and the internet, online media has become a key means through which the public — and, in particular, young people — acquire information. Our research shows that students who view online content related to social injustices more often tend to have less faith in meritocracy, with such reports heightening their cynicism.
Investigating the public’s faith in meritocracy is important because of what it can tell us about society’s faith in itself. Our study indicates that, however widespread, memes about “lying flat” do not necessarily affect the mindsets of most Chinese university students. As a group, they still strongly agree that success is defined by merit.
But it’s just as important to interrogate the assumptions that underlie this faith. Meritocratic principles give people motivation to pursue their goals and faith in their ability to climb the social ladder. A side effect of this is that differences in meritocratic belief can actually reproduce and exacerbate social inequality. For instance, if upper-middle-class children share their parents’ high degree of faith in meritocracy, while those belong to lower social strata believe they no longer have the power to change their fates, then the disparity between the two groups will only become more deeply entrenched.
This isn’t an idle concern. Among university students, the more prestigious a student’s university and the better their grades, the greater their faith in meritocratic advancement.
Among the general population, faith in meritocracy drops to 59%, with people’s degree of faith in the system closely correlated to their class.
Meanwhile, fierce competition within the education system means that kids who don’t make it into prestigious universities, or those whose grades aren’t up to par, face greater challenges establishing themselves after graduation. Their experience of failure can lead them to become more pessimistic or doubtful of the existence of meritocracy. Indeed, we’ve noticed that many students who attended mid-range schools or had mediocre grades choose to “lie flat” after graduation or live off their parents. If our education and employment systems are teaching the majority of the population to lose confidence in their future simply because of one academic setback, that’s nothing short of tragic.
There’s a reason why meritocracy is sometimes criticized as mere window dressing covering up social inequalities. In a healthy society, the criteria for success are diverse, and any system which rewards the strong and eliminates the weak does not really address the broader social factors that lead to inequality.
Translator: Lewis Wright, editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.