Passport

David Brooks’ China sounds a lot like home

Writing from Shanghai in the voice of an imagined young Chinese, David Brooks concludes that China has become mired in a “meritocratic paternalism”: You ace the exams and get into Peking University. You treat your professors like gods and know that if you earn good grades you can join the Communist Party. Westerners think the Communist ...

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Writing from Shanghai in the voice of an imagined young Chinese, David Brooks concludes that China has become mired in a “meritocratic paternalism”:

You ace the exams and get into Peking University. You treat your professors like gods and know that if you earn good grades you can join the Communist Party. Westerners think the Communist Party still has something to do with political ideology. You know there is no political philosophy in China except prosperity. The Communist Party is basically a gigantic Skull and Bones. It is one of the social networks its members use to build wealth together…. Imagine the Ivy League taking over the shell of the Communist Party and deciding not to change the name. Imagine the Harvard Alumni Association with an army.”

I like Brooks and often find myself agreeing with him. But his argument here seems wholly unfair.

For starters, the China Brooks describes doesn’t sound much different from the America I see today. Brooks laments that, “In the West, there are tensions between government and business elites.” But, “In China, these elites are part of the same social web, cooperating for mutual enrichment.” One need only spend some time in Gucci Gulch to quickly dispel the notion of a firewall between business and government in the United States. Ever heard of the revolving door? I seem to remember something about Dick Cheney running Halliburton, no?

Brooks also bemoans the fact that the children of Chinese elites enjoy privileged upbringings that grant them access to the China’s best universities and, eventually, cushy jobs in industry and government. True. But this is different from America how? What do George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama all have in common? The “social web” of Harvard and Yale. According to one Yale historian, the CIA’s predecessor organization, the OSS, was once “so heavily populated with Yale graduates that members stationed in remote areas of Asia and Africa during World War II — Yalies and non-Yalies alike — would frequently end ‘a festive occasion’ with a round of the Whiffenpoof Song.” It took a couple generations for the executive ranks of America’s Fortune 100 to open their doors beyond the Ivy League. Even many within America’s information revolution, whom we celebrate as vanguard renegades, hail from exclusive schools. Bill Gates attended Harvard, not Appalachian State (no offense, Mountaineers). Jerry Yang and Sergey Brin went to Stanford. Why should it happen any differently in China?

This is to say nothing of the fact that Brooks drastically underestimates the pragmatism with which, in my experience, most Chinese youth approach the Communist Party and its system of rewards and punishments. When I visited Peking University last year, I had a frank conversation with a group of international affairs students and their professor. The young professor had landed a prestigious job. But he was not a party member and had no desire to become one. In fact, he scoffed at it, which was impressive not least of all because my visit had been arranged through the Foreign Ministry in Beijing and my government-assigned handler was in the room. Many of the students told me they had passed up opportunities to join the Communist Party, despite the fact that, given the focus of their studies, many would eventually want to work in the Foreign Ministry.

Most of the students I met spoke not lovingly about the Communist Party, but of its corruption and dishonesty. Brooks is right to say that China has supplanted a true middle class with a bloated civil bureaucracy. But that bureaucracy is too corrupt and too convoluted to be a real meritocracy. And that’s why there’s hope. Not all of them are selling out. Many of the very people who were reared to become a part of the system seek something better, something freer, and something more fulfilling. Give it time. It’s premature to throw China’s emerging generation out with the Communist bathwater just yet.

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