The Technocratic Trend and Its Implication in China


Since the early 1980’s, the post-Mao China has been governed by three generations of technocratic leadership. As a result of massive elite transformation under new leadership of Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, technocrat emerged at the core leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in China. While the CCP, under Mao’s regime, was largely led by soldiers, peasants, and the worker class, in post-Mao China, they were all replaced by highly educated scientists and engineers.

In the early 1980s, the post-Mao reform launched by Deng aimed at reviving the broken-down economy and full of poverty in the country with the ultimate goal of becoming a modern, industrial economy of wealth and advanced technologies. During the reform era, old revolutionary cadres were replaced with people who are politically reliable, young, better educated in science and engineering (S&E). This “technocratic turnover” in Chinese politics, in fact, has marked a turning point to make a stepping stone of national modernization and economic development in China. The successful reforms under new technocratic leaderships since the early 1980s resulted in unprecedented rates of economic growth in China.

In recent years, China is still governed more and more by men who trained in higher education in S&E, so it clearly demonstrates that the full-fledged technocratic leadership establishes in Chinese politics. The current China’s fourth generation of technocratic leadership, in particular, is the most well educated group since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and most members have completed their college education in engineering. Consequently, the significant elite transformation and large influx of technocratic experts into Chinese politics pave the way to produce a larger number of scientific elites in Chinese society. Due to the meritocratic and technocratic trends, China has now produced the largest number of S&E degree recipients in the world, who have enough potential to be elite technocrat in future.

However, the technocratic trends embedded in Chinese politics now has important implications for social, educational, gender, environmental and political issues emerging in China today. At the same time, it also raises the questions for future Chinese leadership and its accompanying effects. Firstly, unlike the Western technocracy in response to modern socio-economic problem created by the impact of science and technological change, Chinese technocratic political system was built under economic and political reform. Particularly, Chinese technocrats have been called economic mobilizers, or modernizers for a long time. At this point, however, it might question whether this technocratic trend in politics is an effective tool for economic development, or a mere sustenance of political power for technocratic leadership.

Another implication is whether the technocratic trend in political leadership reflects the progressively increasing number of S&E degree holders in China. In recent year, more and more Chinese student receive S&E degrees than any other countries, including U.S. and Western Europe. The technocratic trend in politics may attract many Chinese people to pursue S&E degrees as means to success in Chinese society. In other words, it may become culturally embedded which makes society more meritocratic as well as technocratic. From the policy’s point of view, however, there might be policy incentives to produce more S&E experts for future China’s global competitiveness.

In addition, we must also consider whether this dominant technocratic leadership actually benefits for China. While China has achieved rapid economic development over the past two decades, the social and economic costs of reforms have recently surfaced in society. The concentration of technocratic political system on economic development results in unbalanced societal development. For example, China recently has experienced serious environmental problem due to rapid development of industrial technology and also faced the problems of inequality, crime, and official corruption. These counterproductive effects now challenge and threaten the current technocratic leadership.

In response to these problems, some change has already occurred in the composition of the 16th central committee. For example, more generalists who study philosophy, economics, law and social science have come to leadership positions in 2002. This might be a response to emerging social problems that China’s leadership realizes the need of general experts. This indicates a possibility that more generalists will come to power in the future similar that of like the West. China’s leadership group, however, is also highly exclusive and conservative. For women and ethnic minority people (most leadership members are ethnically Han and other ethnic minorities such as Huis, Tibetans, Manchus, Uighures, Koreans, Miaos, Mongols, Tujias, Zhuangs, Buyi, Dai, Kazak, Li, Yao, and Yi are underrepresented in the core leadership), there are still barriers to enter core leadership, even if their qualifications have improved during the past decade. Furthermore, only a few Chinese scientific elites (e.g., the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) members) have entered to political leadership positions. This is because Chinese technocrats come to power not only because of their technical credentials but also because of their informal connections. On the one hand, this implies that nepotism and particularism are still prevalent in Chinese society and may be also the possible sources of the current political corruption. On the other hand, this may indicate that upward social mobility is, to some extent, restricted in Chinese society.

Finally, China is now preparing for the new 17th congress of the CCP this year. While the reform policies over the past twenty years under technocratic leadership have been successful especially in the realms of economic development, domestic social, political, and economic environments are still challenging and complex. Therefore, we might take a look at how technocratic leadership would be changed or maintained in future China’s politics and also how the leadership could be involved in policy-making process for solving domestic problems they confronted.

This article is an abstract of a paper presented by Jungwon Yoon at the “Science & Technology in Society: An International Multidisciplinary Graduate Student Conference”, in Washington, DC, March 31-April 1, 2007.
Jungwon Yoon works at the “School of history, technology and society” – Georgia Institute of Technology’s .

The photo shows the Time and Space tunnel into the jin Mao Tower in Shangai.