The Duck of Minerva

Cheap talk and credentials


16 May 2012

In fairness, fake dissertations are
probably more fun to read than
the Little Red Book.

Minxin Pei surveys the extent to which China’s leaders have faked their credentials.

Pei suggests that a number of China’s leaders, hailed in the West by presumably credulous journalists, have in fact attained their educational credentials at what amount to diploma mills.

The more interesting point Pei makes about this is that many indicators of Chinese “success,” including local GDP calculations, may in fact be fraudulent. This is nothing new in China (or anywhere else, for that matter); one immediately thinks  of the disastrous local Party reports that hailed the success of the Great Leap Forward even as peasants starved, but China is hardly unique even among authoritarian countries in its reliance on easily faked indicators to gauge the implementation of policies and the reliability of personnel.

The problem, in fact, is endemic to all bureaucratic systems. And we shouldn’t be too quick to judge the Chinese political system when Western systems do a bad job at this too.

 There is a real and enduring need for valid measurements of competence when it cannot be assessed directly (that is, by seeing how well you actually do in a job) or at least by reputation (when others vouch for you in a costly fashion). Baseball players don’t have to be credentialed; we can watch them play. But there’s no corresponding tests for new or newly hired white-collar workers. (If only there were a minor league of academia!)*

Yet the signal cannot be too costly, which means that there will be both a demand and a supply of counterfeit credentials–even when that counterfeiting is no more sophisticated than the listing of a degree on your resume. That, after all, is what scuppered the career of former Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson. Plagiarism is more costly and harder to detect (as in the case of former Hungarian president Pal Schmitt or, allegedly, Russian president-for-life Vladimir Putin)

The real question here is why anyone seriously believes CVs–or why firms don’t invest in monitoring. (In Thompson’s case, presumably at least one executive search firm badly dropped the ball.) If something isn’t worth checking out, at least once in a while, why is it worth listing?

So we shouldn’t particularly care if China’s ruling class feels the need to claim doctorates any more than we should wonder at why American generals sport an ever-growing number of ever-less-impressive medals on their chest. We should, instead, think hard about what actually explains their selection and promotion. The secret, of course, is likely that it’s all a factional game, as a team of political scientists (Victor Shih, Christopher Adolph, and Mingxing Liu) have demonstrated.

What this suggests, then, is that China is not a hypocritical meritocracy, in which everyone lies about their CV because credentials are presumed to be important, or a practical one, in which results matter. What this means about the stability and competence of the Chinese Communist Party in the long run is another matter entirely.

* Or, even better, a Premier League, with relegation.