How should societies identify and promote merit? Enabling all people to fulfill their full potential and ensuring that competent and capable leaders are selected to govern are central challenges for any society. Failure to meet these challenges can have enormous costs, for individuals and for societies as a whole. The richness of China’s historical experience and its distinctive current practices offer useful tools for reflection and comparative analysis. Does the case of China offer any lessons – positive or negative – for India to consider?
The Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute and the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University, have been jointly researching how talent is allocated in a society, how meritocracy has been conceptualized in both India and China, and how its definition has changed over time. Michael Szonyi, Frank Wen-Hsiung Memorial Professor of Chinese History and Director of the Fairbank Center, gave a lecture on ‘Meritocracy in China: Past and Present’ in Delhi on November 27, 2018, as a part of the larger project.
He illuminated two types of meritocracy in China. The first type includes social, occupational or educational meritocracy, through which every individual is presumed to be able to fulfill their full potential by gaining access to education and opportunities for professional advancement. How can the structure of the educational system ensure equality of opportunity? Szonyi described the second type as a ‘political’ meritocracy, where, in a political system, leaders are selected on the basis of their competency. This system is focused on the evaluation of ability. Szonyi talked about how states tend to use some form of meritocracy to select and promote bureaucrats.
He discussed the various debates regarding meritocracy, especially in light of China’s growth in the last 40 years and the perception that the West is faltering. With India touted to be the third largest economy by 2030 and China leading the world economy in the coming years, both countries can teach each other how to better manage and operationalize meritocracy and meritocratic systems in an effective way.
Tarun Khanna, Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor, Harvard Business School, and Director, The Mittal Institute, then summarized the key points of Szonyi’s lecture, and opened the floor to audience questions. Szonyi’s public lecture was followed by a workshop the next day on ‘Meritocracy in India and China’, which included eminent scholars of India and China.