Theses Doctoral

Upward Mobility and Authoritarian Stability: Merit-Based Elite Recruitment in China

Liu, Hanzhang

Why does merit-based elite recruitment exist under authoritarianism, notwithstanding its adverse impact on elites' private interests? In my dissertation, I develop an argument that centers on the role of upward mobility in authoritarian regime dynamics. I argue that merit-based elite recruitment provides individuals from non-elite background an opportunity to move into the ruling class by effort; it enhances their perception of upward mobility and thus reduces their discontent with the status quo. An authoritarian ruler, therefore, may deliberately adopt and institutionalize meritocracy in elite recruitment to engineer limited but sustained upward mobility, which co-opts large numbers of non-elites and helps stabilize the regime.
Focusing on the case of China and its national civil service examination (NCSE), I draw on qualitative, quantitative, and experimental evidence to triangulate the complex dynamic between the CCP leadership, local officials, and ordinary citizens in merit-based elite recruitment. I employ two survey experiments to demonstrate that, by imposing institutional constraints on local officials, the CCP leadership can make its commitment to merit-based recruitment credible and enforceable. Analyzing data from two national representative surveys, I find that the institutionalization of NCSE forges a widespread and persistent perception of upward mobility among citizens eligible for the exam and weakens their pressure on the regime for income redistribution; it also strengthens public support for local government and contributes to the legitimacy of the CCP regime. These findings contribute to our understanding of the effects of meritocracy under authoritarianism and highlight the importance of upward mobility in relation to regime resilience.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Nathan, Andrew J.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 8, 2019