Are America and China secret twins? The similarities are striking, but we don’t see them.

Summary:  An oddity of articles about China’s problems is that changing the names often makes them quite applicable to the US.  It’s a weird parallelism between two such different nations.  Even more interesting, China’s critics in America seem unaware of this parallelism (perhaps lost in American self-congratulatory fog), even as they obliviously write about weaknesses America shares with China (magnitudes differ, of course).  Here we see some examples.

Let’s begin with a well-written if conventional critique of China:  “The Myth of Chinese Meritocracy“, Minxin Pei (Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College), Project Syndicate, 14 May 2012 — Opening:

Political scandals sometimes perform a valuable function in cleansing governments. They destroy the political careers of individuals of dubious character. More importantly, they can debunk political myths central to the legitimacy of some regimes.

That appears to be the case with the Bo Xilai affair in China. One enduring political myth that went down with Bo, the former Communist Party boss of Chongqing municipality, is the notion that the Party’s rule is based on meritocracy.

In many ways, Bo personified the Chinese concept of “meritocracy” – well-educated, intelligent, sophisticated, and charming (mainly to Western executives). But, after his fall, a very different picture emerged. Aside from his alleged involvement in assorted crimes, Bo was said to be a ruthless apparatchik, endowed with an outsize ego but no real talent. His record as a local administrator was mediocre.

Bo’s rise to power owed much to his pedigree (his father was a vice premier), his political patrons, and his manipulation of the rules of the game. For example, visitors to Chongqing marvel at the soaring skyscrapers and modern infrastructure built during Bo’s tenure there. But do they know that Bo’s administration borrowed the equivalent of more than 50% of local GDP to finance the construction binge, and that a large portion of the debt will go unpaid?

Unfortunately, Bo’s case is not the exception in China, but the rule. Contrary to the prevailing perception in the West (especially among business leaders), the current Chinese government is riddled with clever apparatchiks like Bo who have acquired their positions through cheating, corruption, patronage, and manipulation. …

Compare Minxin Pei’s account with these three articles about America.


(1) It’s time to embrace American royalty“, Glenn Greenwald, Salon, 30 August 2009 — “Jenna Bush as the new NBC reporter is a perfect expression of our political culture.” Excerpt:

We’re obviously hungry to live with royal and aristocratic families so we should really just go ahead and formally declare it: Bush daughter Jenna Hager becomes ‘Today’ reporter.

… They should convene a panel for the next Meet the Press with Jenna Bush Hager, Luke Russert, Liz Cheney, Megan McCain and Jonah Goldberg, and they should have Chris Wallace moderate it.  They can all bash affirmative action and talk about how vitally important it is that the U.S. remain a Great Meritocracy because it’s really unfair for anything other than merit to determine position and employment.

They can interview Lisa Murkowski, Evan Bayh, Jeb Bush, Bob Casey, Mark Pryor, Jay Rockefeller, Dan Lipinksi, and Harold Ford, Jr. about personal responsibility and the virtues of self-sufficiency.  Bill Kristol, Tucker Carlson and John Podhoretz can provide moving commentary on how America is so special because all that matters is merit, not who you know or where you come from.  There’s a virtually endless list of politically well-placed guests equally qualified to talk on such matters.

(2) A web of privilege supports this so-called meritocracy“, Gary Younge, op-ed in The Guardian, 6 May 2012 — “On both sides of the Atlantic, the social ties that bind our political, legal and corporate forces lie exposed.”  Excerpt:

Shortly after Mitt Romney’s failed 2008 campaign for the Republican nomination his son Tagg set up a private equity fund with the campaign’s top fundraiser. One of the first donors was his mum, Anne. Next came several of his dad’s financial backers. Tagg had no experience in the world of finance, but after two years in the middle of a deep recession the company had netted $244m from just 64 investors.

Tagg insists that neither his name nor the fact that his father had made it clear he would run for the presidency again had anything to do with his success. “The reason people invested in us is that they liked our strategies,” he told the New York Times.

Class privilege, and the power it confers, is often conveniently misunderstood by its beneficiaries as the product of their own genius rather than generations of advantage, stoutly defended and faithfully bequeathed. Evidence of such advantages is not freely available. It is not in the powerful’s interest for the rest of us to know how their influence is attained or exercised. But every now and then a dam bursts and the facts come flooding forth.

… The first is the lie it gives to the insistence on meritocracy at a time of acute economic crisis when benefits are slashed, the poor hammered. Cameron and his cabinet insist others pull themselves up by their bootstraps even as they themselves swan around in their parents’ expensive pairs of loafers. … The issue here is not class envy but class entrenchment. The fact that they were born rich is irrelevant. They had no choice in the matter. But the fact that they appear to want to give even more to those who already have a great deal while denying much to those who have little is unforgiveable.

Rocked in the cradle of power from birth so that its rhythms become second nature, these people imbibe their sense of entitlement with their mother’s milk. But the personal tutors, private schools, the most expensive universities do not, somehow, suffice. As though the benefits of wealth were not enough, they apparently feel the need to game the very system they already control.

Which brings us to the manner in which these interactions mock the very notion of democracy on which the nation’s illusions are based. For the meetings, lunches and visits showcase a parallel, unaccountable universe where actual decisions are made and deals are done.

(3) Failing Up With Citigroup’s Dick Parsons” Mark Amex, The Daily Banger, 11 May 2012 — This is too long to excerpt, but it’s very much worth reading, an amazing tale of a dark knight plundering America for his liege lord.  Nice work if you can get it.  Excerpt:

Last month, shareholders finally rebelled against Citigroup, the worst of the Too Big To Fail bailout disasters, by filing a lawsuit against outgoing chairman Dick Parsons and handful of executives for stuffing their pockets while running the bank into the ground.

Anyone familiar with Dick Parsons’ past could have told you his term as Citigroup’s chairman would end like this: Shareholder lawsuits, executive pay scandals, and corporate failure on a colossal scale. It’s the Dick Parsons Management Style. In each of the three companies Parsons was appointed to lead, they all failed spectacularly, and somehow Parsons and a handful of top executives always walked away from the yellow-tape crime scenes unscathed.

For more information see these posts about China

  1. Power shifts from West to East: the end of the post-WWII regime in the news, 20 December 2007
  2. A different perspective on the US and China, seen by an American living in Russia, 23 March 2009
  3. China – the mysterious other pole of the world economy, 22 July 2009
  4. Another big step for China on its road to becoming a great power, 27 July 2009
  5. Will China collapse?, 5 August 2009
  6. A revolution is not a dinner party. Thoughts about the future of China, 19 August 2009
  7. Update about China: a new center of the world, 13 December 2009
  8. Fertilizer overuse destroying Chinese soil, 18 February 2010
  9. Rare earths – a hidden but strategic battleground between the US and China, 5 May 2010
  10. How China builds its commercial empire, 12 July 2010
  11. Why China will again rise to the top, and their most important advantage over America, 11 November 2010
  12. Will China become a superpower?, 9 September 2011
  13. Every day the new world emerges, yet we see it not. Like today, as Europe begs China for loans, 15 September 2011
  14. What China Wants Us to Understand about China’s Rise, 12 March 2012

16 thoughts on “Are America and China secret twins? The similarities are striking, but we don’t see them.”

  1. But the people refuse to see or accept the similarities, just as they continue tobuy into the lie that boting against their own best interests is the patriotic thing to do.

  2. Nepotism has existed throughout human history. What kind of political system could exist that can do much about it? Brave New World? Certainly it should not be considered a qualification for political office, but those born with the advantages are going to use them to gain power.

    1. “What kind of political system could exist that can do much about it?”

      I don’t understand these replies, implying social factors are constants — not variables.. Everything is about magnitudes. Would you say “Crime exists in every society, always. What kind of political system could exist that can do much about it?” Let’s get rid of police.

      Nepotism can be reduced by a wide range of social institutions, which is why social mobility (and related variables) varies.

  3. Thanks for the great post, Fabius! I wish more Americans would recognize their commonalities with the rest of the world. It might give us ideas on how to deal with our problems.

    As to the question of “meritocracy”, I must confess I am not a fan of the idea. At my job, of course, I am forced to consider “merit” because I wish to be useful (“to have merit”) to my employers. I also sometimes feel frustration with others who, in my eyes, lack merit. But what you often find is that the most apparently untalented (“meritless”) people can be useful to the company if they will just accept a position fitted to them. Whereas the most talented people can be useless or even damaging if they fail to accept their own limitations or those of the system that employs them.

    I am not a Taoist, but I think they had the right idea here:

    Not to honor men of worth will keep the people from contention; not to value goods which are hard to come by will keep them from theft; not to display what is desirable will keep them from being unsettled of mind.
    — Quote from the Tao Te Ching, Book 1, Section 3.

    Do people with merit really need to be recognized by the system? Why? If merit is not its own inherent reward, then is it actually all its cracked up to be?

    1. Your theoretical critique of merit is cute but IMO not relevant to our situation. Our choice is between relying on merit (allowing social mobility) OR class (parental wealth and influence). Do you really prefer that US society shift even more from the former to the latter? DO you prefer low and falling social mobility AND rising inequality?

      These cute little quotes from Asian philosophy are from strongly hierarchical and authoratarian societies, and are components of indoctrination and control mechanisms that maintain them.

    2. Another note about Dellutri’s comment — We’ll see more such views in the coming years. Our evolution from citizens to subjects will force an equally large change in our psychology, as we adapt to increased social stratification and growing inequality of income, wealth, and power (no longer equal before the law, in either civil or criminal bar).

      How did the Romans respond to the death of the Repbulic? With philosohies of passivity and acceptance: irony, detachment, or resignation. The philosophically inclined adopted Stoicism, Epicureanism, or Hedonism. The relibiously inclinded adopted one of the mystery religions (esp popular in the Army), or something different like Christianity or Judaism.

      Dellutri advises that merit should be content with “its own inherent reward”, so that worldly rewards go to those with the right parents (or extraordinary skill in sucking up to them). The rich themselves give more direct justifications, as Andy Kroll explains at TomDispatch, 17 May 2012:

      Today Edward Conard, a friend and former colleague of Mitt Romney’s at the private equity firm Bain Capital, has offered a new mantra for the 1%, a cri de coeur for the Gekkos of the twenty-first century: Inequality is good.

      In his new book Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong, Conard argues that gaping income inequality is an indication of a healthy economy, not a sick one. The more unequal we are, Conard told the New York Times Magazine, the better off we all will be. Why? Because economies grow and thrive when smart people devise solutions to our thorniest problems by inventing or perfecting goods and services. Conard singled out a group of twentysomethings sitting at a Manhattan coffee shop one afternoon, deriding them as lazy “art-history majors.” Those people should be out creating businesses and taking risks, he insisted, because that’s how societies prosper. And the way to encourage that risk-taking is the promise of obscene wealth for those who succeed (and, implicitly, dismal poverty for those who don’t).

      How obscene should that wealth be? In 2008, the top 1% commanded 21% of all income in America. Conard says our society would improve if only that figure were doubled.

    3. Most of the reviewers, including quite a few people who normally pander to the 1% have slammed Conard’s book. It gives me some hope for the human race.

  4. FM offers: “Another note about Dellutri’s comment — We’ll see more such views in the coming years. Our evolution from citizens to subjects will force an equally large change in our psychology…” (Already accelerating)

    Good summaries. And this read on Dick Parsons: “Failing Up With Citigroup’s Dick Parsons” Mark Amex, The Daily Banger, 11 May 2012. Man, oh man, what a story. Chump evolves to Champ! Fascinating in all its madness.


      1. No apologies needed nor required, in my view.
        Credit where credit is due is a guiding signpost.

        (I would not want the FM job! You do quite well, so there.)


  5. Zemtar’s nihilistic whine of despairing futility exemplifies a peculiar attitude now becoming prevalent among American voters: learned helplessness.

    Wikipedia defined learned helplessness as

    “…a technical term in animal psychology and related human psychology, means a condition of a human person or an animal in which it has learned to behave helplessly, even when the opportunity is restored for it to help itself by avoiding an unpleasant or harmful circumstance to which it has been subjected.”

    Learned helplessness manifests itself in people or animals which have been abused for long periods of time. The cure of learned helplessness is to get off your ass and take charge and do something. This is why it’s so important to get out and do something, politically speaking, even if it’s a small thing. Volunteer to go door-to-door for a candidate you admire. Or help register new voters. Or something else tangible and involved in the real world of politics, as opposed to sitting around typing on a computer or reading political rants or watching Fox News or CNN.

    As long as the electorate remains passive, learned helplessness will become increasingly common. The opposite of passive is direct personal activity in the political sphere. This can take many forms, from getting on the phone to help with fundraising for a candidate of whose policies you approve to gathering signatures for petitions in the state where you live for some ballot measure you support, but direct personal involvement is crucial.

    1. In the words of my idol, the great Buckaroo Banzi: “Don’t be cruel.” Even if accurate.

      That’s an important rule in these comments. It’s easy to violate. I do it too often. As the Romans said, who moderates the moderators?

    2. Don’t worry. No offense taken. I only take it when the great FM trashes me. I am actually asking the question though. What structures do you put in place to prevent nepotism? In public employment it is possible. Government employment generally has civil service regulations that provide for testing and that attempt to limit nepotis and insulate the non-political government employees from political reprisals and spoils.

      What do you suggest to implement in the private sector? For example on Romney’s son, what would you institute to keep him from using his dad’s connections to start his hedge fund, and why should such a system even be put into place? If the rich want to risk their money with Romeny’s son, what can or should be done about it?

      In the private sector, I am not sure that anything should be done about it. 100% estate tax? Closing gift and family trust loopholes? Shouldn’t people be allowed to work towards providing every advantage to their children?

      While merit should be the general rule, I am not sure it can or should be a completely “level” playing field.

      I think the question is stickier when you look towards elected officials. I think it is obvious that G.W.B. would never have been president without the power and connection of GHWB. However, what should be put into place to prevent GWB from having access to his father’s connections?

      Don’t take my comment to mean that I am somehow against class mobility. I am not. I just wonder what your specific suggestions are for leveling the playing field. Surely under any circumstance if you are born at the bottom rung you will need to be much more resourceful to make it to the top rung than someone who was born there and just needs to stay there.

      I also think that China is a tough comparison. I have extensive experience in dealing with, or at least knowing about, day to day Chinese life. For example, in China to become even a public school teacher you need to make a massive bribe to the right people. To get an operation you need to bribe the doctor. To get into college you need to submit a big bribe. There, connections (guanxi) and the power of money to open doors (zuo hou men, literally “using the back door”), are the rule for pretty much everything. THey also have a “closed” political system. Of course nepotism is far more entrenched there than it is here. I have never bribed anyone for anything in this country and was born poor, yet have been quite successful.

      I would make a couple concrete suggestions to increase social mobility:

      1. State funding colleges being free. Obviously, those born with more responsible parents with more money will probably end up with better test scores and have that advantage, but I don’t know that you can control for everything.

      2. Return of more progressive taxation to decrease wealth stratification.

      3. A return of the estate tax to a reasonable level and the closing of certain loopholes.

      4. Other government programs to help raise people up.

      5. Should there be a cap on corporate executive pay?

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