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Is China meritocratic?

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By Ashutosh Varshney

The role of meritocracy in Chinese history, focused on the so-called examination system, has been a matter of long scholarly scrutiny.
In its self-image, China is a meritocratic society. Many observers of China agree with that assessment. So how does China judge the merit of its citizens? And is merit also the basis for the selection of political leaders?
These were among the questions of a Harvard-sponsored workshop in Shanghai, in which I participated recently. The workshop compared the evaluation of merit in India and China. Indian readers of this column are familiar with India’s system of merit assessment, mostly by experience. Let me, therefore, turn to the Chinese method of merit appraisal, especially for its younger citizens for college entry. In a future column, I will analyse the role of merit in political recruitment.
The role of meritocracy in Chinese history, focused on the so-called examination system, has been a matter of long scholarly scrutiny. For centuries until 1905, Chinese emperors selected their bureaucrats on the basis of performance in examinations. As Francis Fukuyama has argued, bureaucratic merit came to be intimately associated with state-building in China. By and large, India’s rulers — Hindu, Muslim and British (in the first century of East India Company rule) — did not pursue this route and relied on patronage, hurting the state-building process. Moreover, the Chinese examination system became so famous for its rigour and standards that it attracted European attention. Some scholars argue that after the collapse of the East India Company in 1858, even the British Crown used the Chinese model to structure the Indian Civil Service (ICS) examinations.
But of immensely greater relevance in modern times is the Chinese examination system for college entrance, called the gaokao. Instituted in 1952 by Mao Zedong to aid China’s modernisation, it was also singlehandedly terminated by him during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Professors and students from urban China were forced to go to the countryside and learn from the peasants. Mao came to view standard educational merit as nothing more than a facade for elitism. For the entire decade of the Cultural Revolution, the universities barely functioned.
In December 1977, 15 months after Mao’s death, the gaokao was reintroduced. The post-Mao leaders argued that China’s modernisation required reinvigoration of higher education. By now, this examination system has become truly gigantic. In their final year of high school, over 9 million students take the exam. This year, 9.4 million did.
Consider what happens to China for 2-3 days in early June, when students take the gaokao. Near the examination centres, there is no construction work, no traffic noise, and the cops enforce street calm. Ambulance vans are available to deal with nervous breakdowns, and security cameras check for cheating, which can lead to seven years in jail. Primetime TV discusses how difficult the exam questions were.
In a recent issue, The Economist calls gaokao the world’s most important examination, whose scores are also now acceptable to many European, Canadian and Australian and some American universities, such as the New York University. Gaokao has four parts: Chinese, English, Mathematics, and one of two optional streams, sciences (physics, chemistry, biology) or the humanities (political science, history, geography). Roughly 70 per cent of the students pass the exam, earning the right to enter China’s 2,000-odd universities and colleges. That may not sound meritocratic at all until one realises that the competition for the top 100 colleges is intense. And, even more tellingly, one has to score in the highest percentile to be able to enter the most prestigious colleges, such as the Tsinghua and Peking Universities in Beijing and Fudan in Shanghai.
As a comparison, the joint entrance examination (JEE) for the IITs comes to mind. Considerably less than 2 per cent of applicants make it to the IITs. It is rightly called one of the most meritocratic tests in the world. But some differences are noteworthy. The Chinese exam is not for technical education, but for the college system as a whole, including the sciences and humanities. Indian national entrance tests are primarily for engineering (and medical) education, not for college entrance in general.
Of course, India’s colleges, including the IITs, are also governed by affirmative action. By now, all over India, 49.5 per cent of seats in higher education are reserved for the historically disadvantaged SCs, STs and OBCs. Given the entrenched inequalities of caste, India’s democracy found it impossible to function only on the basis of merit. In the 1910s and 1920s, Brahmins were a mere 3 per cent of the population of Madras Presidency, but they comprised 75-80 per cent of Madras graduates. A merit-based system, if continued, would have essentially reproduced caste hierarchies. India’s democracy imposed the principle of inclusive representation on the education system. China’s affirmative action programme is slender, compared to India’s. A few points, roughly 1 per cent-7 per cent, can be added to candidates’ scores if they come from the minority communities, constituting 8.4 per cent of China’s population.
But as we dig deeper, we find that China, in fact, practises affirmative action in reverse. The hukou system and the provincial quotas for colleges, decided mostly by the central government, jointly produce this outcome. All Chinese carry a rural or urban hukou, which also specifies the province they come from. The top colleges are in the leading cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai. These colleges reserve a substantially larger proportion of seats for those who carry local hukous, even if their gaokao scores are lower.
Some years ago, it was reported that the Tsinghua and Peking universities, two of the most prestigious Chinese universities, both based in Beijing, took 84 out of every 10,000 candidates carrying Beijing hukous, but only 3 out of every 10,000 from the poorer Anhui province. Another report took the point further. Generally speaking, a student from the poorer and more rural Western provinces would have to get 690-700 points, out of a maximum 750, to get into Tsinghua, whereas a Beijinger would need only 660-670. Beijing hukou holders get into Tsinghua and Peking Universities more easily.
A true meritocracy would place equally meritorious students from rural or urban settings, richer or poorer provinces, on an equal footing. India amends this principle by reserving seats for those who may score lower but are historically deprived. China modifies the principle in the opposite direction. Its quota system gives preference to the privileged. That is also not meritocracy, but a serious violation of it.

 

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Opinion

Quranic Meaning of Patience (Sabr)

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By Mansoor Alam

The Qur’an says to believers: ((2:3 – They believe in the unseen. This belief in the unseen is for every effort.
Obviously, the result of any effort does not appear right away. It takes time. One has to toil and struggle persistently. The result does appear – but only after some time. The people who have faith in the efficacy of this law – Allah’s Law of Requital – continue to work hard and continue to believe that the results will appear in due course. They do not get tired. They neither get frustrated nor get disappointed nor resign in the middle of their effort. This is what the Qur’an has called (Sabr) or patienc (103:3 – those who attain to faith, and do good works, and enjoin upon one another the keeping to truth, and enjoin upon one another patience in adversity.
The Quranicpatience (Sabr) does not mean that when nothing works; when frustration sets in; when people get disappointed; and when they think that nothing is happening then they are told: So, dear brothers and sisters! Do Sabr. What can be done?! Whatever was written in the kismet will happen anyway! Nothing can be done now!! This is not the right meaning of (Sabr).
But in the Qur’an patience (Sabr) is something what a farmer goes through day in and day out for months at a time with perseverance and steadfastness. This whole process is what is defined as (Sabr) according to the Qur’an and the one who perseveres through this process is called (Saabir). Qur’an said that this faith in the unseen – (Bil-Ghaib) requires ??? (Sabr); that believers must have full faith and conviction in this whole process of (Sabr). When the Qur’an says: ??(6:21But verily the wrong-doers never shall prosper [Yusuf Ali]. This means oppressors and tyrants won’t flourish; that they will eventually fail. This is the Law of Requital that the Qur’an proclaims. And this law is unchangeable (6:34). Tyrants and oppressors must remember that this law is bound to produce its consequence, no matter what. But how it will happen? It will happen according to this Qur’anic law of requital that what you sow is what you reap; that tyrants will fail; and that if others join hands with tyrants then the speed of failure will increase. And it must be borne in mind with 100% surety that oppression is bound to fail ultimately. In any case, this is the belief (in the unseen results of his actions) that keeps a farmer working hard; and he knows that each seed when nourished properly and taken care of will produce hundreds of grains.
Whatever laws the Qur’an has given regarding humans, they also have this characteristic that they do not produce results quickly. The complaints we keep hearing are: that Allah is just; that He does justice to everyone; that He won’t let tyrants succeed. But we observe daily that tyrants flourish; that dishonest keep on piling wealth upon wealth; that no business succeeds if done honestly. Then what is this?! Why the laws of Allah are not working? Actually, they are working but we do not have faith in them. We are not like the farmer who works hard and perseveres months after months, follows the laws of farming; then only he gets the fruits of his lab or after a long time. We, on the other hand, sit at home and say: Since Allah’s law is that from one seed will grow hundreds of grains then the day when hundreds of grains grow we will go and get them. This is not (2:3 – the faith in the unseen. According to the Qur’an the faith in the unseen means: that every worker; every labourer; every technician who has the conviction that whatever I am working on – maybe it may take one month or six months or a year, but one day it will work; that one day the result of the effort will bear fruit for which the worker is persevering day and night even while suffering hardships and hunger. This is the steadfast belief in the mission’s objective followed by continuous action and 100% conviction in the unchangeable law of requital of the Qur’an that the result is bound to come out for sure – at the proper time. We have belied this belief. The truth is that people do not have faith in the law of requital. People may say: Allah’s law of requital does not work; that we see that dishonest succeed; that dishonest businessmen flourish. When this situation becomes common in society; when fear and anxiety abound – then how would people be motivated to work honestly?!
The Quran says: “?67:12those who are afraid of their Lord”. What is this “fear” and what is meant by being “afraid of”?
The Qur’an says that a nation raised on the basis of its laws as well as its followers will have no fear nor suffer from any anxiety (2:112; 2:62; 2:274; 2:277). We, on the hand, right from childhood, sow fear of Allah in the hearts of children. To children then Allah becomes a symbol of fear and trepidation. In fact, humanity gets crushed with fear. Let us take the meaning of: there is nothing in this to fear Allah. Whenever, the Qur’an uses for example: “?23:57 then it means: being careful from the adverse consequences of violating the law of requital, being afraid of the consequences that are bound to occur if one does not follow the message of Allah; that when one violates His laws then one will suffer their destructive consequences. This is what is meant by fear. This is a fear of the unseen destructive results of bad actions which do not appear right away.
The Qur’an mentions that those who opposed the Prophet (PBUH) used to taunt him: Why don’t you bring the destruction that you keep on warning us about all the time?! On this, Allah told that they do not recognize His mercy; i.e., they do not realize that He does not punish people right away after committing wrong; that there is a period of respite between the wrong action and its consequence. This respite has been bestowed by Him so that people might realize their mistake and correct themselves and thus be saved from destruction. The Qur’an says that if you correct yourselves then it is good for you only. The period of respite is also an essential part of the law of requital and, indeed, is a mercy from Allah. Because, if we eat unhealthy food and if we get a disease (e.g. cancer) right away then no one will be saved. In this period of respite, small symptoms appear as warning signs. If we pay attention to these symptoms and are able to see a connection between continuing unhealthy food habit and the symptoms, then due to this period of respite embedded in the process, there is hope; there is possibility for treatment and cure. If, on the other hand, there were immediate punishment for wrong action, then no human being in the world would be saved.

 
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Opinion

Preparing for the Month of Mercy

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By Maryam Amirebrahimi

A lot of us yearn to prepare for Ramadan, but we have no idea how to start. Below are a few tips to insha’Allah (Allah willing) help prepare our minds and hearts for this upcoming Month of Mercy.
Make the Intention
Simple to do, with a powerful impact. Maybe you want to prepare for Ramadan, but between school, work, family, and your other activities, you just have no idea how to fit in ‘prepare for Ramadan’ time. Instead of separating ‘prepare for Ramadan’ from your daily activities, make your daily activities a MEANS of preparation for Ramadan.
For example, perhaps your mom asked you to pick up your brother from school on the day you finally had time to read a few extra pages of Qur’an. Instead of feeling upset as if you have lost a great opportunity to prepare for Ramadan, make the intention that you are picking up your brother to please Allah and prepare for Ramadan by obeying your mother, helping your family members, building ties of kinship…and the list continues.
The point is that preparing for Ramadan does not have to be some magnificent, enormous, extra-special thing that needs to be done at a certain time of the day. Many of your daily actions can be turned into Ramadan preparation actions with a sincere intention insha’Allah.
Do these Easy-to-Reap-Reward Actions
Ask Allah to forgive your brothers and sisters. “Whoever seeks forgiveness for believing men and believing women, Allah will write for him a good deed for each believing man and believing woman.”
It was narrated that Abu Hurayrah said “The Messenger of Allah said: ‘Whoever says subhan Allah wa bi hamdih (praise and glory be to Allah) 100 times, morning and evening, his sins will be erased even if they are like the foam on the sea.”
If a person says, “Subhan Allah (glory be to Allah),” 100 times, a thousand good deeds are recorded for him and a thousand bad deeds are wiped away.
Remember Allah when you go shopping. “Whoever enters a market and says: “Laailahaillallahwahdahu la shareekalah, lahulmulkuwalahulhamduyuhyiwayumeetuwahuwahayyunlaayamoot, bi yadihilkhair, wahuwa ‘alakullishayinqadeer.” [There is nothing worthy of worship except Allah, alone without partner, to Him belongs dominion and praise; He causes life and death and He is the Living and does not die; in His Hand is all the good, and He is over all things competent] Allah will write for them a million good deeds and erase a million bad deeds and raise him a million levels.” Up Your Worship
To help condition your heart for this blessed month, intensify your worship before Ramadan begins. Just a small, consistent amount is enough. The Prophet told us: “The deeds most loved by Allah are those done regularly, even if they are small.”
Make a prayer List Today
This is THE MONTH to ask for EVERYTHING, both related to this life and the Next. Let us not wait until the last 10 nights to make special dua', and then onceEid passes realize that we completely forgot about fifty other things we needed to make dua' for. Let's start making our lists now, and add to it as more things come our way. Insha'Allah this should help us remember to make constant dua’ in this month where duaa' is accepted, and help our hearts pour out to the One Who can make those dua’ happen.
Write out Your Objectives for Ramadan
Praying all of your fard (obligatory) prayers? Praying all of your sunnahs? Reading the entire Qur’an? Giving $1 in charity a day? Making itikaaf (a time for reflection and prayer in seclusion) in the masjid? Leaving one serious sin that you’ve been trying to get away from for some time now? Sincerely turning back to Allah? Write out a list, put it somewhere you will see it, and make dua' for your success in fulfilling your objectives. Make a Plan! Look at your objectives and try to plan out how to realize them in this month. For example, perhaps you are really struggling to pray your sunnah prayers. In this month, realize the enormity of the ajr (reward) of praying the sunnah prayers. Think that perhaps these sunnah will be the deeds that will be heavy on your scale of good deeds when you are intensely in need of them-on Yawm al-Qiyamah, the Day of Judgment. Therefore, fight to keep doing them all throughout Ramadan. If you can't pray your 2 rakat after dhuhr (the afternoon prayer) right away, make sure to do them as soon as you get the chance.
Your plan might look something like this:
Objective: Pray all of my fardh prayers.
Method: Envision myself on the Day of Judgment seeing the weight of praying my sunnah consistently during this month. Make sure to pray sunnah immediately after salah (prayer). If I cannot, do it as soon as the opportunity arises-don’t let myself put it off! Another example is that of finishing the Qur’an:
Objective: Finish the entire Qur’an in this month.
Aim to strive this Ramadan. With a very small amount of effort, such as just making a small intention or adding a few extra acts of worship, we pray that Allah will help our hearts soften and honor us with making it easy to turn to Him and open up to Him.

 
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Qur’an Establishes Criteria for Human Development

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By M Alam

In determining how the Qur’an establishes criteria for human development, we can begin by exploring verse 1 of Surah Al-Mulk (67:1).
“Blessed be He in whose hands is Dominion; And He over all things hath Power” [Yusuf Ali]. The Arabic word ‘Barakah’ in this verse has been translated as ‘Blessed.’ But the word ‘Blessed’ does not reveal the full meaning of ‘Barakah.’ The root of ‘Barakah’ is (ba) – (ra) – (kaf). The meaning of this root is: something which is firm and stable in its place, which acquires proper nourishment and, grows and develops as a result, for example, like a tree does. Starting as a tender sapling, it must continue to receive nourishment so that it grows and becomes strong to stand firm and remain stable in its place. Should it be uprooted from its place it would not be able to survive, let alone develop? The tree must continue to stand firm, not for a certain period of time but, for its entire life. The Holy Qur’an also uses the word ‘Barakah’ for Earth (41:10). The Earth, fittingly, remains stable in its place and is a source of nourishment, growth, and development for everything and everyone.
Allah asserts that all authority and sovereignty belong to Him (Qur’an 67:1). The purpose of His authority is: so that He may continue to provide provisions for nourishment and development to all. In this single assertion, significant Islamic principles are established: An Islamic system should be firmly rooted. It must be sound, strong, and stable; and its purpose should be to provide nourishment and provisions for the development of all living beings. The very first verse of the Qur’an (1:1) establishes an essential principle of the Qur’an, stating that a system is only worthy of praise and appreciation when it upholds and fulfils the responsibility of universal development for all.
That is why the Qur’an states that the Supreme Being, in whose hands lies all sovereignty and authority of the entire universe, is responsible for providing nourishment and provisions for the development of all beings, and it is He who maintains the control and stability so worthy of our praise. Allah has established measures and standards – (Qadr) in the words of the Qur’an – in order to accomplish this aim while He maintains full control over all aspects of Qadr. He has Power over all things (67:1).
This is but one kind of development, i.e., physical development. However, human beings are more than just the physical body. There is, in addition, an essential aspect of our humanity which the Quran refers to as our ‘Nafs’. We can call it ‘human soul,’ ‘human self,’ ‘human personality’ or ‘human individuality’ but, none of these descriptions fully explains the meaning of ‘Nafs’. Human beings become a part of humanity solely due to their ‘nafs’. With respect to the physical body alone, humans belong to the animal kingdom. But there is something else within each human for whose development God’s attributes are necessary. One can call these attributes Permanent Values. The ‘nafs’ acquires its capability for development through these core values.
One self-evident principle which the Quran establishes for humans and which is common with animals, is that is that the human body develops from what it takes, from what it consumes. But the “human self” develops from another principle: self develops by that which humans give for the welfare of others; what humans do in order to improve the life of others.
However, this internal self or ‘nafs’ cannot be seen, cannot be felt; and others are not able to feel or touch it. If one has the ‘eye’ – not just the physical eye but also the mind’s eye – then one can feel one’s own self as to how much it has developed. For this, the Quran mentions the characteristics and the attributes of the Momineen. In reality, these Momineen are manifestations of these attributes. For example, the Qur’an has mentioned that a Momin will try to survive with less and lead a life of hardship himself and give priority to others’ needs above his own. This is not a decision that can be comprehended at the level of the physical body but only at the level of what the Qur’an has called the ‘nafs’ meaning the ‘higher self.’
The Qur’an explains further that a Momin is one who does this act of giving priority to others above himself and does this of his own freewill. By doing this, a Momin feels happy that he has been able to fulfil the needs of someone else who is more deserving than himself, even though his own life itself might be very hard. What is that entity within a human being that makes the decision to do this sacrifice? The human body cannot do this.
The human body’s development is based upon instinct as it is the case with animals. No animal will give preference to some other animal over the needs of its own body. Man behaves similarly when he lives at the material level, i.e., at the animal level. In fact, those living at this level may even indulge in looting and exploiting others. In contrast, an animal, when his stomach is full, never cares what happens to the leftover food, whether another animal eats it or someone takes it away.
An animal sits contented and continues on carefree. It is only this human animal that despite his needs being little beyond bread, continues throughout life seeking to fill an ever unfulfilled greed. The animal does not exhibit greed once its basic requirements have been met. In other words, when man falls, he falls very deep to the lowest level – below even the animals!
Our human level is considerably different in that it is this level that the Qur’an addresses. And this is intended for our own self-development. The Quran’s Qadr is a standard or measure so that we may acquire the attributes established in the Qur’an for the Momineen. For example, take human respect. This respect should be established in society as universal standard irrespective of colour, race, language, age, religion, wealth, or status. This respect should be based solely on the basis of being human. This is the characteristic of the higher human self, not of the human body. As for the human body, the strong and powerful body will easily subdue the weak and poor one.

 
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