The Rise and Fall of the EAST: How Exams, Autocracy, Stability and Technology Brought China Success and Why They Might Lead to its Decline by Yasheng Huang
The long history of China’s relationship between stability, diversity, and prosperity, and how its current leadership threatens this delicate balance
Chinese society has been shaped by the interplay of the EAST—exams, autocracy, stability, and technology—from ancient times through the present. Beginning with the Sui dynasty’s introduction of the civil service exam, known as Keju, in 587 CE—and continuing through the personnel management system used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—Chinese autocracies have developed exceptional tools for homogenizing ideas, norms, and practices. But this uniformity came with a huge downside: stifled creativity.
Yasheng Huang shows how China transitioned from dynamism to extreme stagnation after the Keju was instituted. China’s most prosperous periods, such as during the Tang dynasty (618–907) and under the reformist CCP, occurred when its emphasis on scale (the size of bureaucracy) was balanced with scope (diversity of ideas).
Considering China’s remarkable success over the past half-century, Huang sees signs of danger in the political and economic reversals under Xi Jinping. The CCP has again vaulted conformity above new ideas, reverting to the Keju model that eventually led to technological decline. It is a lesson from China’s own history, Huang argues, that Chinese leaders would be wise to take seriously.
This book invites a Western reader to think about what this return to the ancient Keju system means not only for China, but also for the world. The PRC version of Keju that prioritizes conformity, discipline and stability at the expense of creativity may indeed in the long term bring about the decline of China. But it comes accompanied with Xi Jinping’s declared desire to shake the foundations of the world order. This leader has secured his supremacy over the PRC for the long term, and he seems ready to prioritize the geopolitical ambitions of China over its purely economic objectives. At the service of these ambitions, this return to conformity and discipline enforced by a vast bureaucracy and a loyal party of 96 million members, equipped with powerful means of controlling the Chinese people and vast financial, human and military resources, may not bode well for the world order which Xi Jinping and his autocratic allies are determined to overturn. The question is whether the PRC under Xi’s leadership will be able to achieve its geopolitical objectives before the negative consequences of Keju lead to the decline that Professor Huang envisions.
You are invited to discuss this book at the virtual meeting of the Book Club on Wednesday, November 29, from 12:30 to 2:30PM.
This is a private, alumni-only, off-the-record discussion. The views and opinions expressed in this program are those of the speakers and participants and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of The Harvard Business School Club.
Participants must register by Noon on November 28th to receive details on joining the discussion. The Zoom link will be sent out 24 hours before the event.