“Making Meritocracy: Lessons from China and India, from Antiquity to the Present” edited by Tarun Khanna and Michael Szonyi


The pursuit of meritocracy has proven a sort of holy grail for many policymakers and social-planners, perhaps nowhere more so than in Asia, where it can be explicitly invoked as the way to catch up with and even leapfrog the West. The cleverly-entitled Making Meritocracy is a collection of scholarly essays investigating the past and present of meritocracy in, primarily, China and India.

Whether due to a pair of strong hands on the editorial tiller from Tarun Khanna and Michael Szonyi, or that the contributions derive from a lengthy process of workshops and discussion, the volume almost entirely avoids the gaps and repetition that can plague this particular sub-genre: the contributions inform and complement each other.


Making Meritocracy: Lessons from China and India, from Antiquity to the Present, Tarun Khanna (ed.), Michael Szonyi (ed.) (Oxford University Press, October 2022)
Making Meritocracy: Lessons from China and India, from Antiquity to the Present, Tarun Khanna (ed.), Michael Szonyi (ed.) (Oxford University Press, October 2022)

With the exception of a single paper on Singapore, Making Meritocracy restricts itself to China and India, which on the basis of economic and demographic weight are where the future of Asia most likely lies. The essays themselves span discussion of China’s imperial examinations to contemporary affirmative action policies in India. If there is a throughline, it is that centuries of often well-intentioned policies have not always had the desired effect, with some policies, indeed, sowing the seeds of their own decreasing effectiveness. Nor do editors and contributors shy away from the underlying problem of the very difficulty of defining meritocracy in the first place.

For those who have considered this question, the book may contain few surprises: it is not unexpected that family background should have a significant effect on results in both the Chinese imperial examinations and the more modern gaokao, or that university admissions tend to track wealth and status. Caste comes across as intractable an issue in India as ever, with affirmative action—while helping a large number of individuals—nevertheless reinforcing the existence of the distinctions.

The book also confirms the suspicion that in this, like much else, India and China are really rather different. The papers on China focus on examinations and the professional bureaucracy, both of which go back many centuries, and on the development of Chinese institutions of higher learning. There are two papers on the latter, one by James Z Lee, Bamboo Yunzhu Ren, and Chen Liang covering the first half of the 20th century, with a second by William Kirby which brings the subject up to the present (a topic he covered in more detail in his recent book Empires of Ideas). The papers on India, on the other hand, focus on caste and affirmative action. Only one paper by Sudev Sheth and Lawrence LC Zhang discusses both countries, and this is more two shorter essays on Qing China and Mughal India back-to-back; together they emphasize difference rather than similarity.

The one non-China, non-India paper on Singapore by Vincent Chua, Randall Morck, and Bernard Yeung is in some ways the most illuminating. Singapore has several characteristics that make it a good laboratory: it is relatively small in population and compact in size; it has been relatively open and transparent in its policy objectives; it has been obsessed with measuring social and economic development. While Singapore’s progress over almost any time period and metric is for the most part undeniable, the authors point out the very same policies that engendered this progress have, despite periodic rethinking and revisions, led to increasing inequality, social stratification and ossification. Yet however one balances the pros and cons of Singapore’s policy focus, the lessons it holds for larger and more socially and geographically diverse countries and societies are probably limited. One here feels the lack of coverage of Japan and Korea, two arguably successful societies larger than Singapore, also actively “making meritocracy”.


The contributors and editors are not cheerleaders for meritocracy; most indeed display considerable skepticism—methodological, practical and sometimes ethical—about the entire concept. The editors ask in the introduction:


How can we create a society that maximizes the opportunity of all people to develop and use their talents and to be rewarded accordingly? Is it even possible to construct a social system in which opportunities, resources, rewards, and positions of leadership are allocated on the basis of merit?


These questions contain the underlying problem: what does it mean to be “rewarded accordingly” and how is this decided? What exactly is the “merit” on which these positions of leadership are to be awarded? Not only are the editors well aware of this conundrum, it is fundamental to the way they frame the issue. They discuss it in considerable detail as do a number of the contributors.

Yet the subject can’t be avoided: “debates about meritocracy are,” the editors note, “on a long rolling boil”:


Few public policy issues generate as much analysis or rouse as much emotion as the question of how to make society more meritocratic.


Harvard, the institution whence the editors hail, is currently embroiled in a case before the US Supreme Court as on precisely this subject.

A thought-provoking and well-argued collection, Making Meritocracy asks many questions, but answers rather fewer—which is perhaps as it should be. While I personally find meritocracy to be a flawed framing for the issues it purports to address, the debate isn’t going anywhere, and those in leadership positions of almost any kind are likely to find it coming knocking, if it hasn’t already. So it is with some regret that I note that of the 20-odd contributors, only two (by my count) are women. It is hard not to see this as an example of a meritocratic process throwing up just the kind of less-than-optimal result that several contributors note in their papers.

Whatever one thinks of meritocracy, it is best a tool, not an end in itself.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.