An argued attempt at overturning conventional wisdom.

China’s Overrated Technocrats

Beijing is famous for putting engineers and scientists in charge. But that doesn’t make for better leaders.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Illustration by Joan Wong for Foreign Policy/Photo by Stephane Cardinale/Corbis/Getty images

Many Western parliaments are dominated by people with law degrees, but China’s leaders are mostly trained as engineers and scientists—or so goes conventional wisdom. Advocates for this supposed Chinese approach, such as the entrepreneur Elon Musk, argue that it produces leaders who adopt a pragmatic and technocratic framework to solving problems. And those scientist-politicians, the theory goes, are more likely to govern efficiently, in part because they are unburdened by ideology.

But advocates for China’s supposed technocracy are not only wrong about the background of Beijing’s current leadership. They are also fundamentally mistaken about how their training shapes policymaking. China’s leaders today—including President Xi Jinping himself—have been molded less by their education and more by the need to consolidate control and prevail in the brutal internal power struggles of the Chinese Communist Party.

It’s true that a generation of engineer-leaders once dominated the Communist Party. But they’re now mostly retired, dead, or in prison. The current crop of leaders is distinctly lacking in engineers; Xi is the only member of the party’s seven-person standing committee with an engineering or science degree. That is in line with a steady trend: Among high-ranking officials born before 1948, who made up the majority of the leadership before this current generation, around one-third had engineering degrees. But for those born after 1948, including China’s so-called “fifth generation” of leadership, only 1 in 7 were trained as engineers. The ratio continues to fall; legal or economic training has become far more common.

China is not like the West, where a rigorous degree in law or economics often leads to a career that in turn becomes a path to politics.

Education matters less than most observers think. China is not like the West, where a rigorous degree in law or economics often leads to a career that in turn becomes a path to politics, such as former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s days teaching law or London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s human rights work. For some Chinese officials, their schooling was cursory at best—and very rarely translated into actual work experience. As the Carnegie Mellon University professor Vivek Wadhwa and others have demonstrated, the quality of engineering education in China, especially before 2010, was well below international standards. Many engineering degrees would barely qualify as technical certificates in the United States.

Although Xi nominally graduated with a degree in chemical engineering from the prestigious Tsinghua University in 1979, his curriculum contained an outsized number of classes on Marxism rather than mechanics, as was common at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution. And Xi never worked as an engineer. As the son of Xi Zhongxun, one of the founders of the People’s Republic of China, his first job out of college was as a personal secretary to a high-ranking government official, his father’s friend Geng Biao. Like many other so-called princelings, Xi was fast-tracked to power, and his career was entirely contained within, and shaped by, officialdom.

A similar trajectory holds true for four other members of the standing committee, each of whom worked as official functionaries or party chiefs since virtually the moment they left their undergraduate studies in politics or economics. The two exceptions are Li Keqiang, a noted economist and theoretically China’s second in command, and the ideological strategist and law professor Wang Huning.

The idea that China is governed by a class of educated mandarins goes back to an 18th-century fascination with Qing-dynasty China. The virtues of the examination system, which supposedly promoted the wise and learned, were held up by figures such as Voltaire looking for a stick to beat their own societies with. While the examination model certainly had its merits, a majority of official appointments in that era, as recent research has shown, were a result of political patronage or bribery.

The determination among outsiders to see apolitical or meritocratic technocracy in the Chinese leadership reveals more about Western fantasies about China than it does about politics in Beijing.

The determination among outsiders to see apolitical or meritocratic technocracy in the Chinese leadership—based largely on decades-old degrees—reveals more about Western fantasies about China than it does about politics in Beijing. In fact, the struggle for power inside the Communist Party is cutthroat and intense, as the number of suicides and life sentences resulting from Xi’s purges and the rampant corruption of figures such as the fallen leader Bo Xilai have shown. And that’s just the small part outsiders can glimpse: When the windows open up even a little, the blood spills out.

Chinese leaders still do everything they can to promote the facade of a meritocracy. On paper, they remain a highly educated group: Xi got a doctorate in law from Tsinghua in 2002, while Chen Quanguo, the architect of Xinjiang’s detention camps, received a doctorate in management from Wuhan University of Technology in 2004. But the lofty degrees are less impressive in reality. Apart from Li and Wang, the advanced degrees of each of the top leaders were obtained while working full time as officials—an almost impossible time commitment, which calls into question exactly who did the work.

In the rare instances when reporters have been able to get ahold of leaders’ dissertations, they’ve found widespread plagiarism. In some cases, the writing of these theses was farmed out to other students at first-rank Beijing universities in exchange for a fee. It might seem strange that these degrees are faked rather than awarded as honorary titles, but there’s an ideological impetus behind the pretense that China’s leaders are scholars. The notion that science is important carries a special weight in Chinese culture thanks in part to the conviction of early 20th-century reformers that science was the way out of the country’s backwardness. To be scientific (kexue) in the 1920s was to be modern, advanced, and precise.

The status of science grew further with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Scientific communism—the belief that Marxism was a discipline as precise and objective as mathematics—was one of the cornerstones of party ideology.

Although the generation of leaders before Xi had far more practical technical experience and often held actual jobs as engineers before becoming officials, those qualifications didn’t guarantee the kind of clean, technocratic leadership that Westerners assume. Zhou Yongkang, one of the highest-level victims of Xi’s purges, not only worked as a geologist but kept a foot in the field throughout his time as an official, leading field teams as late as the 1990s. But instead of being a neutral technocrat, he was one of the most fiercely ideological leaders of the 2000s and early 2010s, tightening social controls through his role as domestic security czar at the same time as he used his power to accumulate enormous amounts of wealth and a few dozen mistresses.

Engineers raised with a strong ideology, whether Islamism or communism, can be among the most rigid of thinkers.

Even for the more upstanding members of China’s leadership, an engineering background hasn’t necessarily brought pragmatism. As the sociologists Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog examined in their research on the backgrounds of suicide bombers, engineers raised with a strong ideology, whether Islamism or communism, can be among the most rigid of thinkers. Engineering is “more attractive to individuals seeking cognitive ‘closure’ and clear-cut answers as opposed to more open-ended sciences,” Gambetta and Hertog wrote. And that training seems to encourage the idea of a toolbox that can be applied to any problem, such as the application of Marxist ideas to society, producing the rigid cruelties of the Maoist era and the crushing of dissidents under Xi in the 2010s.

The current generation of Chinese leaders also believes in the wide applicability of engineering; Beijing’s vast dam and rail projects demonstrate this in a literal sense. But the leadership also practices social engineering—a mixture of fear and propaganda to tighten its control over society.

The true legacy of China’s devotion to science is the Great Firewall, a vast technical project that blocks access to the free internet and is designed to keep a social and political stranglehold on the public. If Xi is an engineer, he is what Joseph Stalin said poets should be: an engineer of the human soul.

This story appears in the Summer 2019 print issue.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer