What does it mean to be a meritocracy? Ask an ordinary person, and they would likely say it means promoting the best and brightest in today’s society based on merit. But that simple explanation belies many thorny questions. What is merit? How do we measure talent? How does equality come into play? And how do we ensure that meritocracies don’t degenerate into the same old privileged systems they strive to replace?

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.

Earlier this month, US President Joe Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act, a bill purportedly meant to revive U.S. dominance in research and development. “We used to rank number one in the world in research and development; now we rank number nine,” Biden said at the signing ceremony. “China was number eight decades ago; now they are number two.” And a recent study from Japan’s science ministry reported that China now leads the world not just in quantity of scientific research, but in quality too.

Education matters. Obvious, perhaps, but those with great power stakes take it seriously; the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, after all. Yet education, and in particular “the world of universities”, writes William Kirby in the introduction to Empires of Ideas, “is singularly absent from many influential studies of power politics and of the rise and demise of nations.”

America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility, Rajika Bhandari (She Writes Press, September 2021)
America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility, Rajika Bhandari (She Writes Press, September 2021)

Growing up in India, Rajika Bhandari has seen generations of her family look westward, where an American education means status and success. But she resists the lure of America because those who leave never seem to return; they become flies trapped in honey in a land of opportunity. As a young woman, however, she follows her heart and a relationship—and finds herself heading to a US university to study. As she works her way through America’s tangled web of immigration, Bhandari lands in a job that immerses her in the lives of international students from over 200 countries and the universities that attract them.

From being targets of American soft-power, a significant service export and a major financial prop for institutions of higher-learning suffering from uncooperative demographics and withdrawal of government funding, Chinese students in the US have recently come to be seen—in certain quarters, anyway—as vehicles for Chinese government influence. Yingyi Ma’s new study—based on data collected mostly in what were still the halcyon days of 2013-16—does not deal with these issues. But it attempts to explain what Chinese students in the US think about themselves and their journey, and might therefore usefully inform the rising debate.