“Chinese can’t innovate” (Harvard Business Review, 2014), they are dumb copycats, and “China is a threat to world peace”, they want to rule the world — a tenacious trope in the West since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
In fact, the Chinese have been masters of trade for over 3,000 years, highly inventive and creative, and so anti-war that General Sun Zu, in his famous treatise “The Art of War,” warns that force should only be used as a last resort and that the highest art is to “subdue enemies without fighting.”
And unlike the Americans, the Chinese lack the sense of mission and proselytizing zeal that drives the imperialist global aspirations of the United States, as they adhere to the millennia-old concept of “Tianxia”, which seeks harmony for all, as explained here.
Read my related articles that deal with Western stereotypes of China:
“China’s economy is now a staggering 22% bigger than America’s, but for differing reasons, neither nation wants to acknowledge this fact. And why the Europeans don’t (want to) get a bigger slice of the growing cake”
The only reason China has endured and thrived throughout the ages is because of its unique moral leadership system, which even had a significant influence on the European Enlightenment.
Confucius promoted a meritocracy more than 2,500 years ago, in which leaders were chosen purely on the basis of their moral character and ability, independent of their social standing and ancestry. His Greek counterpart Plato, who lived 150 years later, also advocated a meritocracy with capable, intelligent, and knowledgeable people at the top, but in which descent still played an important role. However, Confucius spoke out against hereditary offices because he had observed that hereditary aristocracies suffered from the same “generational curse” as family businesses, as we would call this phenomenon today.
He also knew that strong individuals would usurp the throne to establish new dynasties, but whether they were capable or not, their offspring felt entitled, taxed the populace to support their opulent lifestyles, and paid less attention to wise and just governance. The oppressive administration was overthrown as a result of social unrest, and the cycle was restarted. Confucius proposed education-based meritocracy as the answer, but he clarified that his ideas were only a call to return to the high ideals and morals of China’s “Ancient Ways” (The Analects, 7:1).
The Three Sovereigns, a group of ancient God-kings whose rule was people-centered, practical, and charitable, marked the beginning of the “Ancient Ways.” By imparting fundamental knowledge and abilities, they enhanced people’s lives. Inspired by them, Confucius wrote in the Analects (5:16) that rulers, thanks to their competence, benevolence, sincerity, and practical ingenuity, should be “generous in caring for ordinary people and just in exacting service from the people“, thereby satisfying people’s needs. This pragmatism is still relevant in today’s China.
Even while the foundation of Confucian society was social harmony and proper relationships—everyone knew their place and respected it—commoners might hold positions of authority through education and virtue. Confucius stated that “there should be no distinction of classes” in instruction (The Analects, 15.39).
China’s Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE) systematized meritocracy in the Confucian sense by introducing the thorough imperial examination system called Keju, a concept in which bureaucrats were selected solely based on merit rather than birth.
It was indeed a true meritocracy, as evidenced by a recent peer-reviewed study that found having an influential father or belonging to a well-known clan had no discernible effect on test results. The researchers also found that men’s social mobility in China at the time was comparable to that of America in the 1960s (when social opportunities for Americans were much higher than they are today).
Findings from the study are based on an examination of male elites’ unearthed tomb epitaphs. These comprehensive epitaphs provide a plethora of details regarding the officials’ ancestry, family history, and vocations.
Successive dynasties carried on the Keju system, which is fundamentally still in use in China today, although the main test is now called Gaokao.
China’s examination system proved to be so successful that the British government imported it to its Indian colony in 1832 and introduced a civil service examination in the United Kingdom in 1846. By breaking the British nobility’s stranglehold on lucrative government posts, it angered the aristocracy.
Remarkably, it was Wu Zetian, the legendary empress, who first introduced the Keju system! This means that women were already capable of being successful then. Nevertheless, they were unlikely to work in the Chinese bureaucracy at the time and few of them would have completed the Keju. This is not the case in modern China, where women are encouraged to pursue professions within and outside the Chinese state.
Foreigners could also climb the social ladder if they had the right education and morals, just like Chinese nationals. Khương Công Phụ (730–805), a native of Thanh Hoa, Vietnam, was one of several Vietnamese who pursued a career in the Chinese administration. He even rose to the highest official position—prime minister, one of the three highest posts in the Tang Dynasty.
Another notable foreigner was Choe Chiwon. He was a Korean philosopher and poet who had passed the Tang Imperial Examination. He held high office before returning to Silla (Korea), where he was inspired by the Tang administration and tried in vain to reform and save the declining political system of the Silla state.
France was the first nation in the West to abolish aristocratic rights, although it didn’t happen until after 1789. It’s significant to note that during that time, enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire were greatly influenced by China. Voltaire was one of the first people to praise the East for its reason and benevolence. He released a book on the classics of Chinese literature in 1727. The Sinophile translated works of Chinese literature and plays to expose authoritarianism and theological dogmatism. Confucian philosophy impressed not just the French but also the Americans. That explains also why there is a statue of Confucius at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Confucius also emphasized that the will of the people, a sufficient army, and enough food are the three most important prerequisites for good government. If anything had to be sacrificed, the army should come first, followed by food and then trust, as no government can exist without the trust of its citizens. Confucius cautioned further that no government could demand trust; instead, it had to earn it by making sure the needs of the populace were addressed. Therefore, the two most important things in China today are the prosperity of the people and their education.
And while the Chinese Confucian state strives for harmony and stability and its leaders try to avoid confrontation, the United States stands for the opposite.
While it spends hundreds of billions on its military and its numerous overt and covert wars around the globe, there is no program in the United States to feed the 17 million children who go to bed hungry every night, nor is there relief for the $1.7 trillion in student debt or a $15 an hour minimum wage to overcome more than four decades of wage stagnation.
And “More children die by gunfire in a year than on-duty police officers and active military members,” as the Scientific American explains. It would be inconceivable that the government in Confucian China would not make a real effort to remedy such an appalling state of affairs.
The official Chinese news agency explains here that: “Unlike Western models, China’s selection of officials is focused on ability and merit. This is in line with the Confucian tradition of meritocracy, which is deeply entrenched in Chinese political culture. (…) After all, China was the first country to invent a civil service examination system, known as the ‘Keju’”. — The charts below show what requirements are placed on civil servants and how they are selected.
And the Wall Street Journal is quoting Xi Jinping: “We must regard science and technology as our primary productive force.” The newspaper expresses surprise that China favors science and technology experts (rather than lawyers and financial “engineers” as in the United States).
Western prophets of doom spoke on all channels about China’s economic decline, citing the Chinese real estate crisis and wanting the Chinese government to prop up the sector. But instead of investing in real estate, which is a zombie economy, China is now investing in the future. Lending for real estate is in sharp decline, as can be seen in this chart.
In fact, the real estate crisis has been used by China as an opportunity to destroy the old economy and replace it with a more sustainable, future-oriented economy. Bloomberg News confirmed this when they reported on January 8, 2024 about “China’s shift to high value-added manufacturing” (to which the West would once again respond with an intensified trade war).
When the Chinese government regulated and restricted the exuberant private education sector in the recent past, this was criticized as a step backwards in the West.
The last time the Confucian state was in serious trouble was when its leadership discovered how easy it was for the CIA and other hostile Western intelligence agencies to bribe officials and recruit spies and political activists to work for them, as I explained here.
Chinese President Xi Jinping then realized that both the legitimacy of the ruling party and national security were at risk, so he launched a vigorous campaign against corruption and criminality. While the West maliciously spoke of political purges and tried to make him look like a Chinese Stalin, Chinese citizens rejoiced at the positive outcome of the campaign.
And while China wants to hold on to the meritocracy, the trend in the West is going in the opposite direction: more and more power is being concentrated in the hands of a few plutocrats and their favored politicians, while ordinary people have less and less to say and are no longer even listened to in their hollowed-out “democracy”. At the same time, the middle class is disappearing and the media no longer represent a critical counterweight to the powerful, but are turning into an echo chamber for the small, self-centered elite and “cancelling” dissenting opinions.
This shows that meritocracy has also become an imperative for the West if it wants to survive, let alone thrive. The future is at risk as long as ethically questionable and incompetent politicians, funded by wealthy interest groups, remain in power. Clientelism, bribery, and populist warmongering are the foundations of a system on the verge of collapse; we see it every day.