Riffing on the E.A.S.T

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.


Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy (source)

In any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people:

First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisors in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.

Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself. Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.

The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization.


There is another law that Dr. Pournelle and Dr. Possony thought about when they were working on The Strategy of Progress


When Possony and I were working on The Strategy of Progress, which was to be Dr. Possony’s master career work, we came to the conclusion that the most important trend in history was the diversion of more and more of the output of society into structure. Coupled with the Iron Law of Bureaucracy The Iron Law of Bureaucracy this explained much of both Western and Chinese history. The difference between Asian and European history was not so much inventions – technological inventions appeared in both cultures – but in the attitudes of the ruling regulators towards it: Europe was less hostile and more willing to give it a try. The result was some periods of productivity growth that leaped far ahead of the ability of the bureaucracy to regulate and control them. This happened briefly during the Viking Warm period, then again with the Discovery of the New World; then the various Industrial Revolutions, and finally, the Compute Revolution. In each case the increases in productivity were larger than before, but the time it took for the bureaucracy to react and regain control was shorter, until the Computer revolution begun in Silicon Valley, despite its enormous increases in human productivity , didn’t last more than a couple of generations before the regulators regained control.

In Strategy of Technology we showed that most progress goes in S-curves (although for much of it it will appear to be exponential). The Computer Revolution looked to make enormous progress in human productivity, as much as the agricultural revolution which transformed the US from an agricultural to a manufacturing nation and moved most of the population from farms to urban areas. The question was, what would happen as the Iron Law took over and the regulators began to fight back.

Alas, Possony’s stroke ended much of our work on this. I have tried to incorporate some of this view into stories and columns, but I have not managed to write a work like The Strategy of Technology based on this theory, and it remains unfinished. I am convinced that it contains much solid truth.

I think the observation “diversion of more and more of the output of society into structure.” has obvious relevance to China.


Prof Charles Handy has written several books around the idea of the “Sigmoid Curve” – the progress of almost any organization can be represented by a curve showing a struggling investment phase, a happy growth phase, followed by stagnation, and then decline.

Often, this seems to be driven by generational change – the people brought up during the growth phase refuse to understand that their unwillingness to change (and begin a new struggling investment phase) results in ending the good times.


While one thinks of competitive examinations as a way to promote meritocracy, perhaps it has the unintended consequence (or perhaps intended—millennia-old empires aren’t big on “disruption”) of diverting talented and ambitious young people into junior posts in a large bureaucracy where their ability and incentives to innovate and start new ventures is stifled and diverted into climbing the ranks unto retirement.

In the 1990s, I spoke with a German computer science professor who attributed part of Europe’s lag in formation of high technology companies to European universities pushing their best engineering students onto a Ph.D. path where they spend what are the most creative and productive years of their peers in the U.S. working on projects for aged professors, then taking a job in a large company where a doctorate puts them on a management track.

It is interesting that Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook all had principal founders who were college drop-outs.


There is an interesting interplay between nature vs nurture + regression to the mean.

The “For Whom the Bell Curve Tolls” working paper has been aneantized, to paraphrase Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel (which I’ve found to be the most endearing of his usual grim productions from the last 15+ years).


Another example is healthcare:

Interestingly enough, the centralization of healthcare and lack of a proper market – is being tackled with even more centralization - of labor err talent.