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  • China Leadership Monitor

CLM Insights Interview with Yasheng Huang

Yasheng Huang. The Rise and Fall of the EAST: How Exams, Autocracy, Stability, and Technology Brought China Success, and Why They Might Lead to Its Decline. Yale University Press. 2023. 440 pp.

Yasheng Huang CLM Issue 78 December 2023
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Yasheng Huang. The Rise and Fall of the EAST: How Exams, Autocracy, Stability, and Technology Brought China Success, and Why They Might Lead to Its Decline. Yale University Press. 2023.

Insights Interview

You devote a lot of space to the role of Keju in China’s development of political institutions, state-society relations, and capacity for innovation. Can you briefly explain why Keju was so vital in maintaining China’s autocratic system and how it stifled the capacity for innovation?

Keju refers to the imperial civil service exam, instituted in the late 6th century. Think of it as a massive, standardized test, except that it was singularly focused on one subject matter—classical Confucian texts. As a standardized test, it was incredibly advanced. The identity of the examiners and examinees was anonymized to ensure impartiality in assessment. By historical standards, it was quite open. Theoretically, Keju was open to all male subjects. Of course, in implementation, there were various obstacles standing in the way of the designed universality, but the imperial regimes invested heavily to make it as open as possible by, for example, establishing a nationwide preparatory school system that was paid for by the government.

An important effect in terms of autocracy is that Keju enjoyed widespread legitimacy and enlisted broad participation from the male population. Its impact was broad and deep, not only affecting those who eventually made it all the way to the imperial bureaucracy but also those who participated and failed in the process. The deepest effect on the Chinese population is cognitive. Keju trained generations and generations in the idea of autocratic deference and in a mental habit of not asking probing questions about the doctrines imparted by Keju. The other effect of Keju is that it enabled the imperial regimes to monopolize the best of human capital, thus crowding out society, such as independent commerce and intelligentsia. The strongest autocracy is one that does not have to contend with an independent society, and Chinese autocracy became that autocracy. Keju stifled innovation exactly in the same way it boosted autocracy—by stifling new ideas, the mental proclivity to question authority, and, above all, curiosity. It also diverted human talents away from science and technology and directed all human energy to Confucian ideology.

In addition to Keju, what other factors underpinned the longevity and stability of autocratic rule in China? How do they differ or resemble the factors behind the persistence of one-party rule in spite of the transformative socioeconomic changes in the post-Mao era?

In my book, I argue that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) adapted, extended, and improved upon the Keju system. I am not just referring to gaokao and the CCP’s civil service examination, which many scholars think of as legacy institutions of Keju. It is far more than that, referring to the entire system of performance evaluation and assessment based on concrete and partially objective metrics, such as GDP during the reform era.

First, this autocratic cognition has persisted to this day and has been amplified by the educational apparatus that the CCP has created. (This is the closest to the effect of Keju.) Centuries of intellectual investments in the idea of the supremacy of state do not go away easily and, unlike during the Nationalist period (1911–1949), the CCP has completely insulated the Chinese mindset from Western alternate and competing ideas. This difference explains why the Nationalist regime in Taiwan gradually democratized, whereas China under the CCP has retained many of the essential features of autocracy from its imperial history. In other words, unlike in China, the autocratic effect was diluted in Taiwan.

This dilution and its absence are the best way to explain the persistence of autocracy in China despite the impressive socioeconomic changes during the post-Mao era. Modernization theory holds that countries democratize as their economies develop and reach a certain level. Many have used China as counter-evidence of this theory. I do not think modernization theory is wrong, but I do think economic modernization produces such a democratization effect only when and until you have a diluted autocracy. In the last chapter of my book, I show that Taiwan and South Korea not only had economic development but also an independent church and social actors, elements of an independent society that are completely absent from today’s China.

From this I reasoned that China of the 1980s’ vintage was far more amenable to gradual democratization than China of the Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and—of course—Xi Jinping eras. China in the 1980s undertook gradual political reforms and gave some space to society, and it had incredible economic growth as well. Had these features of China persisted beyond 1989, I would have probably written a different book.

You acknowledge China’s “scale” or “size” advantage, but you also flag its lack of “scope” as a critical weakness, particularly in innovation. Can you briefly explain this argument, as many in the West seem to believe that China’s size advantage is impossible to match?

By scale I mean homogeneity; by scope I mean heterogeneity or diversity. I agree that China’s size advantage is substantial, and it is difficult for the West to match China’s size advantage (with a caveat that I will return to later). The problem with this focus on the size advantage is that this is not how innovations have occurred. Innovations happen when a country has both scale and scope. During the reform era, which I define as the period from 1978 to 2018, China had both. (I argue that the end of the constitutional term limits in 2018 mark the end of the reform era.) It had the well-known size—government support, a large number of skilled personnel, and market, etc.—but it also opened its economy, business, and universities to the West. High-tech companies, such as Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent, received venture capital from foreign investment funds, and they used and adapted Western business models. Chinese scientists and technologists worked with foreign research and business organizations. This is how Chinese science and technology took off—by combining the advantage of size with the diversity that came from globalization and opening-up.

The final part of your book deals with the future. Why do you think that it is unlikely that Xi Jinping will achieve his goal of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”?

This is related to my answer to the previous question. A country develops its economy because of its size and its ability to create scope conditions. Chinese science and technology developed under this combination of scope and scale and so did the Chinese economy. Under Xi, only the size advantage remains, for now. Xi’s many policies have in effect demolished the diversity elements of China’s successful formula and we will soon find out about the deleterious effect of that course of policy actions.

It is also possible that China’s size advantage may dissipate over time. The size advantage and the scope advantage are complementary with each other. Because China opened up and globalized, its economy grew rapidly. That rapid economic growth provided the resources for the state to invest in science and technology, but Xi’s policies have also undermined the growth engine of the Chinese economy, which over time will produce a drag on China’s size advantage.

In ancient times, “the great rejuvenation” was about conquering territories and establishing empires and prolonging the durability of the imperial regimes. In our modern times, these feats are either unimportant or unnecessary for a rejuvenated nation. It is the economy, stupid. To rejuvenate the Chinese nation, you need economic growth, and the lessons from Chinese history about this are very straightforward: You have economic growth only when you open up the system to the rest of the world and you allow some dilution of your power. I personally do not know what Xi means by his “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” but by the policies that he has put in place, I do not think he meant economic growth and development. The Chinese economy is now experiencing many sharp downward pressures due to a combination of factors. Not all of these are due to Xi’s policies, but his policies of cracking down on the private sector, accentuating geopolitical tensions, and cultivating closer ties to countries that economically mean very little to China (such as Russia) are detrimental to the Chinese economy and inflict additional damage on top of the structural problems in the Chinese economy that have been there for decades.

China has excellent economic and business fundamentals but its political fundamentals are deeply problematic. A true rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will require once again getting those political fundamentals right.


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