“The Rise and Fall of the EAST: How Exams, Autocracy, Stability, and Technology brought China success, and why they might lead to its decline”, by Yasheng Huang, ISBN 978-0-300-26636-8, 420 pages (2023).
In its best parts, this book is enlightening and intriguing. Unfortunately, the Chinese-born author was corrupted by Harvard and MIT, and the book is published by the now sadly-politicized Yale University Press. Consequently, it is marinated in Political Correctness. Let’s try to look past the author’s elite-status prejudices and focus on the interesting parts – mainly the history.
The author aims to grapple with two big questions. One is the reasons for the historically-unusual staying power of China’s political system. The other is the “Needham Question” – why did historical China’s technological lead over the rest of the world collapse?
Much of the interesting material in this mixed book focuses on the Keju examination system, which in the author’s assessment was the key to the Imperial system’s stability by monopolizing human talent. This inhibited the rise of any alternatives to autocratic rule, but eventually crippled the development of technology in China by depriving it of the necessary human resources.
The examination system selected individuals for government service which (rather as in today’s West) provided stable well-compensated employment. While Chinese use of examinations to select individuals for government service goes back to about 1000 BC, the Keju system really rose to prominence in the Sui dynasty around 600 AD. Originally, the examinations covered fairly-broad topics, but over time they came to focus solely on knowledge of classic Confucian texts.
Keju aimed to be merit-based and open to all Chinese, thus aiding the emperor by limiting the power of the nobility to advance their own offspring. It developed into a triennial schedule with three tournament tiers. The first two competitions were anonymized, which required an army of government scribes to rewrite each contestant’s answers to prevent examiners from recognizing individuals by their handwritten scripts. The third tier to select the roughly 200 finest scholars was held in the capital under the direct control of the emperor, thus giving him the opportunity to, for example, select outsiders or favored (but capable) aristocratic offspring. Millions of Chinese citizens of all ages entered the examination system. Those who passed the first and second levels would get local appointments, while the few who passed the third level would become the governing mandarins. The Keju system was not finally abandoned until 1905.
Clearly, this examination-based meritocratic system of staffing the controlling bureaucracy did not focus on military skill – in contrast to the Roman Empire where rulers emerged from the army. That may explain why the Chinese Empire was conquered and ruled for centuries by outsiders, Mongols and Jurchens, who quickly adopted the Keju system.
One of the problems with any bureaucracy is the tendency for it to form a self-interested Deep State, as has been seen in British history and in the studied failure of US bureaucrats to implement the policies of elected President Trump. China has faced this problem too – and dealt with it in its own way. The founder of the Ming dynasty in the early 1300s AD handled the issue by executing over 100,000 of his officials and their associates. There was a similar purge in the Qing dynasty in the 1600s AD. It has been said that Mao’s bloody Cultural Revolution of the 1960s was similarly a clash between Mao and his Communist bureaucrats – a clash where Mao lost, the bureaucracy won, and the Red Guards paid the price.
The body count has been lower during President Xi’s rule, but the author notes that some 4 million (!) officials have been purged under the guise of anti-corruption drives, including 392 top-level officials at or above ministerial and provincial levels. The contest for political leaders to control their supposedly obedient civil servants continues.
Turning to technology, the author deserves credit for developing a clever proxy for very broadly-defined innovation, based on the records of thousands of Chinese historical figures. This database shows that the most innovative period in Chinese history was the Warring-States period, the quarter of a millennium between 475 BC & 221 BC. The author states “The overwhelming consensus among scholars is that the Warring-States period was one of the freest periods in Chinese history”. This is the heart of his argument that freedom (or perhaps political disarray?) is conducive to open thinking and technological advances. There is an obvious comparison with the Renaissance in highly-divided squabbling Europe.
With that as background, the author details & praises the post-Mao open policies implemented by Deng Xiaoping and others in the 1980s & 1990s – and condemns the subsequent more restrictive rule of President Xi. This reader wonders if that criticism might miss the mark.
By the time Xi rose to power in 2012, China had done the impossible – it had built itself into the workshop of the world, thereby lifting hundreds of millions of citizens out of poverty; rehoused a nation; filled the cities with skyscrapers; built state-of-the-art mass transit systems in most major cities; built capacious modern airports and a vast gleaming high speed rail network to join those cities; created the world’s largest technological education system; and built an orderly society. Arguably, the mountain had been climbed. The “Century of Humiliation” was behind them. It was time to take stock and choose the next direction – and no ruler with his nation’s interests at heart would ever choose to follow the downwards path of the obviously-declining “democratic” West.
The author suspects that increasing centralized control under President Xi is already limiting China’s economic growth. In this, he may be correct – but is economic growth the only factor that matters to a nation? More significantly, he argues that President Xi’s extended personal rule is setting the stage for a succession crisis when Xi eventually exits, potentially storing up future political chaos. As always, time will tell.