Political scandals sometimes perform a valuable function in cleansing governments: They destroy the political careers of individuals of dubious character. More importantly, they can debunk political myths central to the legitimacy of some regimes.
That appears to be the case with the Bo Xilai (薄熙來) affair in China. One enduring political myth that went down with Bo, the former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) boss of the Chongqing municipality, is the notion that the CCP’s rule is based on meritocracy.
In many ways, Bo personified the Chinese concept of “meritocracy” — well-educated, intelligent, sophisticated and charming (mainly to Western executives). However, after his fall, a very different picture emerged. Aside from his alleged involvement in assorted crimes, Bo was said to be a ruthless apparatchik, endowed with an outsize ego, but no real talent. His record as a local administrator was mediocre.
Bo’s rise to power owed much to his pedigree (his father was a Chinese vice premier), his political patrons and his manipulation of the rules of the game. For example, visitors to Chongqing marvel at the soaring skyscrapers and modern infrastructure built during Bo’s tenure there, but do they know that Bo’s administration borrowed the equivalent of more than 50 percent of local GDP to finance the construction binge and that a large portion of the debt will go unpaid?
Unfortunately, Bo’s case is not the exception in China, but the rule. Contrary to the prevailing perception in the West (especially among business leaders), the Chinese government is riddled with clever apparatchiks like Bo who have acquired their positions through cheating, corruption, patronage and manipulation.
One of the most obvious signs of systemic cheating is that many Chinese officials use fake or dubiously acquired academic credentials to burnish their resumes. Because educational attainment is considered a measure of merit, officials scramble to obtain advanced degrees to gain an advantage in the competition for power.
The overwhelming majority of these officials end up receiving doctorates (a master’s degree will not do anymore in this political arms race) granted through part-time programs or in the CCP’s training schools. Of the 250 members of provincial CCP standing committees, an elite group including party chiefs and governors, 60 claim to have earned doctorates.
Tellingly, only 10 of them completed their doctoral studies before becoming government officials. The rest received their doctorates (mostly in economics, management, law and industrial engineering) through part-time programs, while performing their duties as busy government officials. One managed to complete his degree in a mere 21 months, an improbable feat, given that course work alone, without the dissertation, normally requires at least two years in most countries’ doctoral programs. If so many senior Chinese officials openly flaunt fraudulent or dubious academic degrees without consequences, one can imagine how widespread other forms of corruption must be.
Another common measure used to judge a Chinese official’s “merit” is his ability to deliver economic growth. On the surface, this may appear to be an objective yardstick. In reality, GDP growth is as malleable as an official’s academic credentials.
Inflating local growth numbers is so endemic that reported provincial GDP growth data, when added up, are always higher than the national growth data, a mathematical impossibility. And, even when they do not doctor the numbers, local officials can game the system in another way.